Rick Santorum's supporters are probably dismayed, and understandably so, at the repetition of a particular pattern: When Mitt Romney wins a race during this Republican presidential primary season, even if narrowly, it is reported as a big deal, a significant achievement. When Rick Santorum wins, even if by a wide margin, as this past Saturday, it is barely discussed, not taken very seriously by the media or by most pundits as a measure of the man's electability or importance.
But there's the problem with that superficial view.
Of Santorum's 11 wins so far, only five have been in binding primary elections. His other victories have all been in caucuses and Missouri's strange non-binding primary.
Like it or not, caucuses are viewed as less representative of how voters actually feel, and how a general election will play out. Five of Santorum's wins are considered important from that standpoint, despite a valid argument being available to suggest that caucus wins suggest stronger intensity for a candidate.
Of Romney's 16 victories, nine have been in primaries (though that includes Virginia, in which only he and Ron Paul were on the ballot). He's also taken four U.S. Territory contests, of which one (Puerto Rico) was a primary.
But it's not just the eight (excluding Virginia) to five (excluding Missouri) lead in binding primaries, nor even the 20 to 11 lead in total contests that explains why Romney is given more credit by the media and by most political analysts for his victories than Santorum receives for his.
It's the geography and the numbers.
Santorum's primary wins are Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Three in the deep south, one nearly in the deep south, and one which is among the "reddest" states in America.
For perspective, here are the last times these states went for a Democrat in a presidential election:
Alabama – 1976, Louisiana – 1996, Mississippi – 1976, Oklahoma – 1964, and Tennessee – 1996.
Here are the numbers of times these states have voted for Democrats in the 15 presidential elections since 1952:
Alabama – 4, Louisiana – 5, Mississippi – 3, Oklahoma – 1, and Tennessee – 4.
In the states in which Rick Santorum has won a victory in a binding primary, the average number of times the Democrats have won the state in the last 15 presidential elections is 3.4, and the average number of presidential elections since the last Democrat victory is 7.6.
Now let's examine the same statistics for the eight states (again excluding Virginia) in which Romney has won a primary, with the most recent year that those states have gone for the Democrat and the number of times it has done so since 1952:
Arizona: 1996 and 1, Florida: 2008 and 4, Illinois: 2008 and 7, Massachusetts: 2008 and 11, Michigan: 2008 and 8, New Hampshire: 2008 and 5, Ohio: 2008 and 5, Vermont: 2008 and 6.
In the states in which Mitt Romney has won a victory in a primary (and in which Santorum was also on the ballot), the average number of times the Democrats have won the state in the last 15 presidential elections is almost 6, and the average number of presidential elections since the last Democrat victory is 1.4 -- and only because Arizona, alone among the Romney primary victory states so far, did not go for Obama in 2008 as each of the other states did.
Mitt Romney's victories are more significant than Rick Santorum's because Santorum is winning states that are all but certain to vote for the Republican candidate, no matter who he is, in November whereas Romney is winning the "swing states" on which election victory hinges.
Hard-core conservatives may not like the idea of appealing to more moderate voters in states like Michigan, Ohio, and Florida. But if the goal of this election is to defeat President Obama -- as polls repeatedly say is the focus of Republican voters -- rather than to nominate the most conservative candidate in the race, then winning the states in which Romney has won primaries is of paramount importance.
Not only is there the direct question of winning states, but there is also the issue of putting states "in play," forcing the Democratic Party and unions (if you will pardon the redundancy) to spend money and other resources campaigning in states that against another Republican they might consider safe. Romney's primary wins show that he is likely to be able to force the Democrats to play defense in a way that Santorum would not.
Finally, there is the numbers game that has gotten so much attention lately. While it is already implied in Mitt Romney's substantial lead in delegates -- more than double Santorum's total, and about halfway toward the 1144 needed to secure the nomination -- Romney is winning larger states than Santorum is. The average number of electoral votes in the primaries which Santorum has won is 8.2, whereas for Romney it is 14.
Rick Santorum might argue that if he had as much money to spend as Mitt Romney does, the results would be different. But it is neither an accident nor irrelevant to the strategic decision by Republican voters whom they should support that Mitt Romney has so much more money behind him than Rick Santorum does.
Even though Barack Obama will likely come up well short of the billion dollars he hopes to raise in his pursuit of reelection, 2012 will be the most expensive election in the history of the world. Romney's ability to raise money is as important a factor in selecting a nominee -- again assuming that victory is the primary goal -- as any other characteristic of his campaign.
Therefore, the spending difference does not mitigate the fact that in the 2012 Republican primary season, Rick Santorum is winning states that Republicans will certainly win in November, where Mitt Romney is winning competitive states -- states that went for Barack Obama in 2008. And that Santorum is winning smaller states where Romney is winning larger states.
Though Rick Santorum's supporters may feel dismayed, the media and pundits have valid reasons to focus more on Mitt Romney's wins, to consider them more significant even if won by narrow margins, and even given the difference in spending by the respective camps.
The Wisconsin primary, coming on Tuesday, April 3, should reinforce this story: Wisconsin has gone for the Democrat in eight of the 15 presidential elections since 1952, including the last six elections in a row. But the Democratic candidate got less than 50 percent of the vote in the three elections from 1996 to 2004 (with third party candidates getting a share of the vote, leaving the Republican with anywhere from 39 percent to 48 percent); this is a state that should be in play in November.
The first Rasmussen poll ahead of the Wisconsin primary, released on Friday, gives Mitt Romney a substantial 46 percent to 33 percent lead over Rick Santorum in that state. Despite another Santorum win in the south (Louisiana) this weekend, the pattern remains: Romney's primary wins will get more media and pundit attention -- because they should.
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