Key lesson in modern presidential campaigns: Count delegates or plan to lose
Before we jump into the next phase of the Republican presidential primary — speculating about Mitt Romney's running mate and when and if Rick Santorum will call it quits — let's pause for a moment to honor a new hero of presidential campaigns: the delegate geek.
If there's anything the political world learned from the protracted Hillary Clinton vs. Barack Obama primary of 2008 and the Mitt Romney vs. Not Mitt Romney primary of 2012, it's that delegates matter.
The press and public watching modern presidential primaries have tended to focus on wins, losses and momentum, treating delegate counts as mere technicalities. But the Democratic primary four years ago and the current Republican primary show the risk for any campaign that fails to get a handle on arcane delegate rules in state after state.
Clinton might be president today had her campaign gamed out a strategy for accumulating delegates, rather than simply planning on knocking Obama out early on. Santorum could be a much bigger threat to Romney had he done a better job mastering the absurdly Byzantine rules many states have on ballot access and delegate allocation.
"Even a long-shot candidate should have someone who understands the nominating system," said Jeff Berman, who directed Obama's delegate operation in 2008. "The reason to run as a long shot is to hope your candidacy can catch fire. What good is it to catch fire if you're unable to win because you didn't properly prepare. The Rick Santorum campaign may end up being the textbook example of that."