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."
It takes 1,144 delegates to win the 2012 Republican nomination, and after Tuesday's contests in Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington, D.C., Romney has 658, according to the Associated Press. Santorum has 281, Newt Gingrich 135, and 51 for Ron Paul. Conventional wisdom is setting in that Romney is the inevitable nominee, and Santorum's decision to take four days off the campaign trail for Easter weekend fueled speculation it's soul-searching time in the Santorum family.
Few people appreciate the importance and complexity of amassing delegates more than Berman, who recently published The Magic Number, a gripping book detailing how the Obama campaign's laser focus on winning every last delegate helped defeat the Democratic frontrunner long viewed as invincible.
The Romney and Santorum campaigns each would have been well served by an earlier release.
Santorum, even as an underfunded long shot, would have seen the importance of studying the ballot access requirements for every state. Maybe he would have understood that failing to make it on the ballot in Virginia or Washington, D.C., or failing to submit full slates of delegates in Ohio and Illinois, could prove devastating over the long haul.
Romney could have taken a lesson on communicating the importance of delegates. Berman, who grew up in Broward County, helped orchestrate the response to Florida moving its 2008 primary into January in violation of the national parties' sanctioned schedule: no Democratic delegates awarded, and all the candidates boycotting Florida's primary.
More than 1.7 million Democrats in America's biggest battleground state voted in that primary, and Clinton crushed Obama by 17 percentage points. It was a testament to the Obama campaign's communications shop that the national media dismissed the result as meaningless because no delegates were at stake and the candidates did not overtly campaign here.
Contrast that to this year. When Romney lost Missouri, Colorado and Minnesota in early February, much of the media depicted Romney as almost mortally wounded even though no delegates were at stake in Missouri, and none of the delegates awarded in Colorado or Minnesota were bound to a candidate.
Is there a path to victory left for Santorum?
Essentially no. He has already said he must win his home state of Pennsylvania on April 24, which is no sure thing. He also needs to win 77 percent of the remaining delegates to reach the magic number, while Romney needs to win just 43 percent.
The best scenario could be winning enough delegates to keep Romney from reaching 1,144 and setting the stage for a contested convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in August.
Last week, the New Yorker magazine teamed up with Davidson College political scientist Josh Putnam, an authority on the varying state rules for delegate selection, to plot the most plausible path ahead. Looking at delegate rules and demographics for the upcoming states (evangelicals and lower-income Republicans have consistently favored Santorum, while more moderate, upper-income voters consistently support Romney), they reached a realistic outcome: When the primaries conclude June 26, Romney has 1,122 delegates, 22 shy of the magic number.
But then there are roughly 600 more delegates not bound to any candidate. It's hard to imagine Romney not winning the support of enough of them to get over the top.
The Santorum campaign continues to claim a path through the quirky state-by-state delegate rules. They argue that the Florida GOP's decision to award all 50 delegates to Romney will be overturned shortly before the convention because it violates national party rules. They note that many of the actual delegates are not awarded on primary or caucus days but at subsequent county conventions where Santorum could gain ground.
Santorum did have a path to victory, but it has shrunk with almost every passing contest. It would have been far clearer had he started working on the delegate math more than a year ago.
That's what Berman and the Obama campaign did, knowing that in many cases delegates don't matter nearly as much as momentum. But when they do — including the past two election cycles — winning campaigns are prepared to scrap for every last delegate.
"It doesn't necessarily cost a lot of money, but it does take a lot of focus," said Berman, noting how in 1984 insurgent candidate Gary Hart lost 200 delegates to Walter Mondale because he failed to qualify on enough ballots. "After this year, campaigns will probably be a little bit more careful in the future."
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]