On Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” GOP presidential soon-to-be also-ran Rick Santorum dismissed frontrunner Mitt Romney’s snowballing delegate count, declaring, “This isn’t a mathematical formula.” Later that day he told a Fox News reporter, “It’s pathetic isn’t it? I mean, now you’re gonna make the argument, ‘I should be president’ because of math.”
Actually, what isn’t mathematical about the delegate accrual process?
Presidential primary nomination season is rife with mathematical calculations. Each state boasts its own complicated apportionment formula, ranging from mostly proportional to quasi-proportional to winner-take-all. Savvy campaign managers earn big bucks planning winning strategies for accumulating the requisite number of delegates. Campaign tacticians create sophisticated statistical models to predict state, district, and citywide outcomes and to plot contingency routes for reaching a majority of delegates. Campaign finance staff forecast revenue from donations, estimate advertising costs, and manage a budget equivalent to that of a midsized company.
What does Santorum think is going to happen after his failure to clinch the nomination: that God will intervene and change the laws of mathematics for him?
What’s “pathetic,” to use Santorum’s term, is entering a process that requires careful strategizing, precise calculation, and detailed attention to trends on the ground—and then waving it all away, expecting one’s good intentions to carry the day. How else can one explain the Santorum campaign’s idiotic failure to get on the ballot in multiple Ohio and Illinois districts, and its absence from the Virginia ballot?
Politics demands shrewdness, some crassness, a focus on the bottom line. If that’s not your cup of tea, fine—there are many other noble professions to pursue that don’t involve calculating how the public will react to your every move and utterance. But don’t get into politics and expect to be able to brush off pesky annoyances like arithmetic.
But back to the math: To win the GOP nomination, Romney must earn 47% of the remaining delegates; his average to date is 55%. Santorum must earn 64% of the remaining delegates; his average is 26%. That means that Santorum must more than double the share of delegates he’s taken in, from now until the last primary on June 26 in Utah. And he must start now, at the very point in his campaign when he’s losing momentum like a car that’s run over a bear trap.
Santorum supporters claim the race is about to shift decisively in his favor, after upcoming primaries in conservative Southern states Mississippi and Alabama. Yet Santorum is in third place in both states, trailing badly behind Romney and Gingrich. How’s that Southern strategy working out for you, Rick?
Santorum isn’t even really pretending he can win 1,144 delegates anymore. He’s mostly trying to keep Romney from doing so, hoping for a brokered convention in which he can twist enough arms to hand him the nomination against the wishes of a plurality of GOP primary voters.
Santorum is offended by the slow, plodding, methodical work needed to build widespread support and legitimacy among a broad base of the electorate. He’s resting his hopes on swaying huge masses of emotional, uncommitted delegates at the GOP convention in August. Blindly grasping at possibilities, he’s praying for uncertainty, chaos, a wrench in the system. Even then, he hasn’t logically determined  how he can win a brokered convention.
Santorum’s nomination strategy is about a step up in sophistication from Al Gore’s 2000 post-election day gamble.
Even when Santorum’s campaign flirts with math, it invokes, not a priori calculation and strategy, but post hoc rationalization and selective interpretation. See, for example, this embarrassingly rosy-cheeked recent campaign memo .
When comparing himself to Romney, Santorum attacks the very concept of math, as if it offends him, just as his recent “snob” comment denigrated the idea of college. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin observed , “When you campaign against math and logic and tout your lack of money as a reason for voters to flock to you, you should take a breather and reflect on what you are doing.”
For the record, nobody ever said the nomination was all about math. Despite the dastardly competence of his campaign staff, Romney wouldn’t have secured a solid footing in the GOP nomination process if his views had been repugnant and destructive. (Securing the Democratic nomination with repugnant and destructive views—now that’s another story.) When Romney says it’s all about math, he means the current stage of the nomination process, not the early stage when voters are forming their views of the candidates.
Romney isn’t arguing that he should be nominated because of math—he’s arguing that he will be nominated, because he engaged in the preparatory work to establish a winning candidacy, and has appealed to enough voters in strategically sound locations to establish a path to victory. If Santorum doesn’t like that, then he should have gotten his ground game together a lot earlier, not waited and then complained about sour grapes.
Rejecting math won’t help Santorum, and if it keeps forcing Romney to spend money in an extended primary season, it may hurt Republicans. As one recent Romney campaign memo  put it, “As the other candidates attempt to ignore the basic principles of math, the only person’s odds of winning they are increasing are Barack Obama’s.”