Politics

02.28.12

Michigan’s Delegate Math Could Give a Big Edge To Rick Santorum

Romney could win the popular vote, but lose the delegate fight, writes John Avlon.

All eyes are on the too-close-to-call Michigan primary—but paying too much attention to the popular vote there could miss the point. The real prize in this nomination fight is delegates, and Rick Santorum could win a majority of them in the Wolverine State even if he loses the popular vote.

Here’s how: Michigan is allocating 28 of its 30 delegates by congressional district, with each district receiving two delegates (the other two delegates will be divvied up by the proportion of the statewide popular vote). While Mitt Romney is expected to do well in densely packed Detroit and the wealthy suburbs that surround it, Rick Santorum’s strength is likely to come from the less densely populated, more rural and socially conservative districts around the rest of the state.

In a blow-out—or even a solid 9-point win, like Romney had in 2008—these rules won’t matter: the winner of the popular vote will also win the clear majority of delegates.

But given the recent polls showing the race too close to call, and a bit of a Santorum resurgence, this scenario—with Romney racking up big vote totals around the Detroit metro area but losing delegates in smaller count contests in the rest of the state—could play out tonight. Even the possibility calls into question how the media defines the winner in this case—because the Michigan primary isn’t actually a pure popularity contest—and Santorum could win even if he “loses.”

Now that Rick Santorum’s campaign is robo-calling Democrats as part of their GOTV effort, we can see that Daily Kos’ ‘Operation Hilarity’ is being taken seriously by the Santorum campaign as a potential edge in this ground-game scramble to capture every possible delegate. (While Romney won the state in 2008, John McCain kept the margin in single digits by picking up the bulk of support from the independents and Democrats who voted in the open primary).

Why is Romney fighting so hard against a flawed candidate like Santorum, who wasn’t taken seriously as a contender even three months ago?

Likewise, it will be interesting to see whether exit polls track Muslim-American voters along with the traditional Catholic/Evangelical split.  Michigan—particularly the area around Dearborn—has a significant Arab-American population, and there have been some signs that activists in that community are rallying around Ron Paul, presumably because of his stands on civil liberties and calls for a non-interventionist foreign policy.

Pull the camera back and there’s one other big picture dynamic which will be driving the narrative coming out of Michigan. Why is Romney having to fight so hard to win his home state? Additionally, why is he fighting so hard against a flawed candidate like Rick Santorum, who wasn’t taken seriously as a contender even three months ago?

A Romney loss would cause the Republican establishment to go into full fledged panic mode. But even if he wins, the bare facts of this fight in his home state—which he won easily four years ago—call into question the real strength of the Romney candidacy.