On the heels of my post suggesting that Santorum and Gingrich must strike a deal, and soon, if either hopes to stop Mitt, the Rickster yesterday indicated publicly that he’s amenable to considering Gingrich as his vice presidential running mate. This comes as the usual anonymous (and some not so anonymous) campaign sources and party leaders are openly suggesting that it’s time for Newt to step aside. The Newtster, for his part, is having none of it, continuing to insist that he is in this race for the duration.
One need not buy Doyle McManus’ argument that Newt is staying in the race primarily to cement his Churchillian legacy to understand his reluctance to end his campaign. To begin, he is likely to do quite well – probably slightly better than Santorum – in Tuesday’s primaries in Alabama and Mississippi; polls indicate he is leading or close to the lead in both states. If he does, he can expect a brief boost in media coverage and all that entails. Strictly speaking, Gingrich also leads Santorum in a “hard” count of delegates won so far, 107-95, since the Republican National Committee does not give Santorum credit for the estimated 79 delegates he may have earned in his caucus state victories in Illinois, Colorado, Minnesota or North Dakota. By the time those states actually award their delegates, the dynamics of this race may have changed dramatically. Keep in mind that the pundits wrote Newt off at least two previous times, and yet here he is, in the final four, and with a credible shot at being the sole alternative to Mitt.
The problem for Newt is that if he is going to negotiate an exit strategy with Rick, his leverage is greatest now, and not later, when the delegate math may have rendered him irrelevant. Consider Tuesday’s two primaries in Alabama and Mississippi. Combined, they will award a total of 84 delegates. Of that two-state allotment, 33 are divvied up, three a piece, to the winner of the states’ congressional districts, and 51 are apportioned statewide. Here’s why striking a deal now is critical for Rick and Newt. If any single candidate clears 50% in the statewide vote, he gets all the at-large delegates. Similarly, in both states, a candidate who wins 50% or more in a congressional district takes all three district delegates. Presumably someone who does well statewide will also do well in the congressional districts. Current polling indicates that the combined support for Rick and Newt is above or close to 50% in both Alabama and Mississippi. This suggests, then, that if one of them dropped, the other would be poised to come close to reaching the 50% threshold in both states, picking up in excess of 80 delegates, and shutting Romney out in the process. However, if both Rick and Newt stay in the race, neither clears 50%, and the delegates are allocated in somewhat proportional fashion. That means Mitt will likely get 20-plus delegates, with Rick and Newt divvying up the remaining 60. In terms of cutting into Mitt’s delegate lead, the delegates Rick gains on Tuesday will just about offset the 9 delegates Mitt picked up yesterday in Guam!
Now play this scenario out across multiple contests, and you can see the dilemma Newt, and Rick, face. If both stay in, neither has a strong shot at catching Mitt. If one drops, the other’s chances improve. But which one should drop? Because both think they are still in this race, neither is likely to drop soon. By the time it becomes obvious to one (or both) that the delegate math is clearly against them, it will be too late (if it’s not already!) And while party leaders are now pressing Newt to drop out, it’s not immediately clear to me – nor, more importantly, to him! – that he is actually the weaker of the two candidates. Indeed, for the first time during this nomination contest, Gingrich is running ads targeting Santorum.
Dilemmas, dilemmas. As Rick and Newt try to push each other out, Mitt continues to win delegates and wrack up endorsements as he slogs forward, delegate by delegate, to clinching the nomination – this despite the fact that he’s the guy who, as Romney supporter and former Congressman Tom Davis suggested, “gives the fireside chat and the fire goes out.” Davis went on to praise Romney’s leadership qualities, saying, “H]e’s a results-oriented guy and in tough times, who do you want leading the country? He may not be able to feel your pain and empathize with people, but do you want that or do you want somebody who’s actually accomplished some things and is going to make some tough decisions, which the country needs.” (Davis also noted that Romney might fall short of winning a majority of delegates prior to the convention.)
Ouch! And that’s from a supporter! With endorsements like that, it’s understandable why Gingrich and Santorum won’t drop out.
And so, Gatsby-like, Newt and Rick will likely beat on, boats against the current… .
Addendum 1:57: As Mo Fiorina reminds me via email, my scenario assumes that most of Newt’s supporters go to Rick if Newt drops out, and vice versa if Rick calls it quits. Polling data suggests, however, that at least some of Newt’s vote would go to Romney, although a majority would likely switch to Rick.