Why Rick, Newt (and Ron) Stay In The Race

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At the risk of oversimplification, there are two dominant views regarding what happened on SuperTuesday, and what it means for the rest of the Republican nomination fight.  The prevailing (but not sole) media view is that Romney underperformed; although he won a majority of states and delegates, he failed to deliver a knockout blow.  As a result, despite padding his delegate lead, the nomination contest will continue, with an outside chance that Romney won’t win a majority of the delegates before the convention. Despite his delegate lead, then, Romney’s failure to put his rivals away opens up the possibility that he will increasingly project the aura of a loser.

Political scientists, on the other hand, don’t really care about “style points”, or even how many states candidates won.  To them, all that matters is the delegates.  And, on that basis, Romney was the decisive winner on Tuesday; by gaining a majority of the 400-plus available delegates, he padded his overall lead in that column, moving ahead of his closest rival Rick Santorum by about 220 delegates, 380 to 160, and inching closer to securing the necessary 1,144.   (Note that these delegates totals should be read with caution because they are based in part on projected caucus votes.) For most political scientists, then, the results from SuperTuesday gave Romney a bushel of bricks to add to his already formidable wall of inevitability.

It won’t surprise regular readers to know that I reside mostly in the political science camp.  Indeed, as I posted before SuperTuesday,  the collective outcomes of the 10 races on that day were never going to change the essential dynamics driving this nomination race – dynamics that have put Romney in the undisputable delegate lead and which make it very difficult to see how any of his current rivals can catch him.   Where I have differed with some of my professional colleagues, however, is in their initial assumptions that this nomination fight would follow the pattern of most previous contests in the modern presidential selection process, with Romney building on early victories to close this race out fairly quickly.  I did not think this would happen for at least two reasons.

First, I think some early assessments probably overreacted to some of Josh Putnam’s invaluable analyses of the new delegate rules and assumed that the Republican Party decision to move toward a more mixed delegate allocation process probably wouldn’t change the nomination dynamics too much.  The idea was that if one candidate emerged as a clear frontrunner, even under the new rules that person would effectively win delegates in many states in a winner-take-all fashion.  But this assumption underplayed the fact that candidates are not passive players; they react strategically to incentives.  In this case, rather than drop out after Romney’s early victories as they would have done under the old rules, his opponents calculated that if they stayed in the race they could both pick up delegates and prevent Romney from reaching the winner-take-all  thresholds in most states.   The new delegate system, then, has done more than spread the contests out – it has created incentives for those trailing the front runner to stay in the race longer than in previous years.

The second difference is that I put less stock in the value of endorsements to impact the nomination process this time around.  I do so in large part because of what happened in 2010, when the Tea Party faction was able in key Senate and House races to override the wishes of party leaders and run their own preferred candidates.  That suggested to me that, in the face of Tea Party and conservative opposition, the power of party leaders to swing support to their preferred candidate during the nomination process had probably lessened.  Although periodically I read that a recent set of endorsements suggests that the party is finally falling in line behind Romney, I’ve yet to see evidence that this is actually happening.  Instead, what I have seen is that the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party shows no sign of warming up to Romney, despite repeated efforts by party leaders to declare that this nomination race is over.   If it is, conservative Republican voters haven’t got the message.

There is a third factor at play here that has extended this race, one that I did not anticipate.  That is the rise of the SuperPacs.  While I was very confident that expectations that corporations would pour money into the presidential campaign in response to the Citizens United decision was wrong, I did not anticipate how the Speechnow ruling (which referenced Citizens United) would contribute to the rise of the SuperPacs.  While not completely leveling the playing field by erasing Romney’s financial advantage – indeed, he has benefitted from SuperPac money – they have at least kept Santorum and Gingrich in the game.

Even assuming that I am correct, however, and that these factors explain why the dynamics of this race have differed in some respects from most recent nomination contests, why do Rick and Newt (and Ron Paul) bother to stay in the race if the eventual outcome will be a Romney victory?  Again, pundits have postulated a number of reasons, ranging from Newt’s desire to spite Mitt to Rick’s hope to finagle a position in the Romney administration to both candidates’ unwillingness to yield the media spotlight.   I think the answer is much simpler.  Both Rick and Newt believe a significant portion of Republican voters are unhappy with Romney – they are right about this – and that these voters probably prefer either one of them to Mitt, and both see a not implausible way in which they can prevent Romney from clinching the nomination before the convention.  This is a longshot strategy, of course, but not mathematically impossible and, if it happens, all bets are off.  Until this strategy becomes clearly unfeasible, or more nearly so, I expect both Rick and Newt to stay in this race.  Currently Newt is in the more vulnerable position – he needs to do very well in Alabama and Mississippi next Tuesday – but barring a Romney victory in both these states, this race is destined to continue for at least another month.  The worry for the Republican Party leaders, of course, is that an extended race simply weakens Romney heading into the general election.  I tend to think gas prices and the jobs picture will play a bigger role come November than whether Romney clinches earlier or later.  In either case, however, Republican Party leaders aren’t in a great position to do anything about the dynamics of the nomination process.

Of course, it is possible that at some point Rick and Newt may realize that it is in their mutual interest for them to join forces, with one of them stepping down in exchange for future promises,  in order to stop fracturing conservative support.  It actually would be to both their benefit to strike this deal now, while each is in a relatively strong negotiating position.  In the absence of such a deal, however, the race will go on. While I disagree with my colleagues who say the race is over, I agree that in the absence of a joint Newt-Rick venture, the most probable outcome remains Mitt winning the delegate race.

Of course, there’s always  Operation Brokered Convention.

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