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The Santorum Scenario

Could he get the nomination? Science says yes—with a little help from a certain being he’s very close to.

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Illustration by André Carrilho  

At the end of Rick Santorum’s first night in Puerto Rico, where he had come to campaign in the March 18 Isla del Encanto primary, the Republican challenger took to the pulpit in a San Juan church and engaged at once in the utterly familiar and the wholly unexpected—in the space of two sentences invoking the Almighty and expressing firm accordance with Mitt Romney. “One of my opponents recently said that it would take an act of God for me to win [the GOP nomination],” Santorum informed the cheering crowd. “I agree with him.”

Santorum, of course, wasn’t really buying in to the analysis of the Republican race being peddled by Romney and his team, who had cited the deity not to praise Him but to describe the dauntingness of the delegate math facing their main opponent. And, no doubt, the challenge confronting Santorum in this regard is stiff indeed. Though none of the extant delegate counts compiled by the Republican National Committee, the campaigns, or various media outlets is regarded by anyone as definitive, there is broad agreement that Romney has roughly twice as many as Santorum and that the latter would need to win somewhere between 60 and 65 percent of those still in play to accumulate the 1,144 necessary to secure the nomination before the Republican convention in Tampa in August.

Santorum’s people freely admit that this outcome is far from likely. “I’m not saying it’s impossible,” his chief strategist, John Brabender, told me the other night, “but I’ll admit it’s a pretty lofty goal.” Which would be problematic if Team Santorum were actually pursuing that ­objective—but, in truth, it is not. What Santorum and his shoestring campaign aim to do instead is prevent Romney from obtaining the magic 1,114 before the primaries end in June; keep winning states and building the narrative that it’s Santorum who has captured the hearts and minds of the Republican base; and then emerge from a contested convention as the party’s standard-bearer. The chances of all this happening are small, to be sure. But if things fell into place just so, it could—and here’s a five-step scenario as to how.

1. Santorum wins Illinois. After Romney’s third-place finishes in Alabama and Mississippi (especially after his minions foolishly stoked expectations that he’d win both), the pressure is fierce on the former Massachusetts governor to carry the primary this Tuesday, March 20, in the Land of Lincoln. But, in fact, a victory there is more essential to Santorum. Both candidates so far have been triumphal in the states and regions where they should have been: Romney in the Northeast and the West, Santorum in the Plains and the South. The industrial Midwest, however, is something like level turf, with Santorum hailing from Pennsylvania and Romney from Michigan. In the Wolverine State and Ohio, Santorum fell just short; turning that around in Illinois would be a significant psychological blow to Romney and would feed the story line that the front-runner is on his heels.

Illinois hasn’t seen a competitive Republican presidential primary in decades, so the forecasts of what might unfold there are confounded by the absence of recent precedent. Recent polls put Santorum behind by single digits, and the conventional wisdom says that Romney should be buoyed by the large chunks of moderate suburban Republican voters in the suburbs of Chicago. But downstate Illinois is much more like the South than most people realize, and Santorum may be helped as well by the fact that Newt Gingrich has effectively abandoned Illinois to focus his efforts on Louisiana. According to Brabender, the plan is for Santorum to focus intensely on the economy between now and Tuesday (“The other stuff, voters already get,” Brabender says, in the understatement of the year). If Santorum can stick to that message—which he’s shown virtually no ability to do so far—he has a chance.

2. Gingrich drops out. A win by Santorum in Illinois would send him into Louisiana four days later with the wind at his back—and thus poised to deliver a knockout blow to Newton Leroy. The problem, of course, is that Santorum’s wins in Alabama and Mississippi should have been sufficient to leave Gingrich flat and twitching on the canvas. But the former Speaker of the House just keeps on ticking, like some mutant hybrid of a meth-addled Energizer Bunny and a rage-fueled teddy bear. Even under increasing pressure from Republicans across the board to cede the field and let Santorum face Romney one-on-one, Gingrich continues to insist he will carry his determined death march all the way to Tampa.

Gingrich’s remaining in the race is widely seen as uniformly bad for Santorum, in that his presence, in theory, splits the far-right vote and hence helps Romney. In fact, were Newt to drop out, it would likely be marginally helpful to Romney in states where delegates are awarded proportionally, since some Gingrich voters would switch to the front-runner and push up his delegate total. Yet Gingrich’s bowing out would help Santorum more in the important winner-take-all (or winner-take-all by congressional district) states ahead on the calendar, such as California, New Jersey, and Wisconsin. For Santorum to deny Romney the magic 1,144 and keep their delegate counts as close as possible, Gingrich needs to quit the race soon—which may require Sheldon Adelson to close his checkbook once and for all.


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