What Will the Race Look Like on Wednesday?

Tomorrow is Super Tuesday, with Republican primaries or caucuses in 20 states, including delegate-rich states like California, New York, New Jersey, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts and Tennessee. Altogether, 1,048 delegates will be selected, representing 44% of the total of 2,380 delegates to the Republican convention in September. Everyone agrees that John McCain has the upper hand in the Republican race, with the Los Angeles Times going so far as to suggest that Mitt Romney may be contemplating the end of his campaign.
But what do the delegate and poll numbers really show? The picture, I think, is not quite as bad for Romney as some have suggested, but it certainly isn’t good. Beginning with the winner-take-all states, it looks to me as though McCain has 201 delegates locked up, with another 159 leaning his way. Romney can count only on Utah, for 36 delegates, with no other winner-take-all states leaning in his direction.
From the major proportional states with reasonably plentiful poll data, I estimate 219 delegates for McCain and 169 for Romney. These are obviously rough numbers; I didn’t try to master all of the intricacies involved in delegate selection in every state. Again, though, it’s hard to see Romney doing much better, at least in terms of a ball-park number.
That leaves the states that have conventions, caucuses, or scant poll data. In some instances (e.g., Minnesota’s non-binding caucuses), prediction is more or less impossible. But using what seemed to be reasonable assumptions given the status of the race in other states, I estimated that McCain would win around 127 delegates in these states to Romney’s 60.
Using those numbers, McCain would earn 706 delegates to Romney’s 265, leaving the delegate race at the end of the day at 803 to 339. (You’ll note that my calculations assume that Mike Huckabee, and perhaps others, will win 77 delegates tomorrow.) Where does Romney find hope in this landscape? Two things probably need to happen. First, he needs to “win” California, even though that is not a winner-take-all state. Second, he needs to pull an upset in at least one state that is now leaning toward McCain, maybe Missouri, and also win Georgia, which is now a toss-up. Some such combination of events needs to happen, I think, for Romney’s campaign to stay credible.
The good news for Romney is that this scenario isn’t implausible. Moreover, while Romney will obviously face an uphill battle after tomorrow on even the rosiest scenario, the contest then changes into a months-long slog in which each candidate’s state-by-state ground game will be critical. Down the road are some larges states, like Texas and Ohio, where Romney can reasonably expect to do well.
One last point in Romney’s favor: after tomorrow, 45% of Republican delegates will remain to be chosen. The press is fond of “momentum,” and on Wednesday will likely decree that the momentum all lies with McCain’s campaign. But Republican primary voters and caucus-goers are much less impressed with momentum. Many Republicans would like to see a more conservative nominee than John McCain, and they aren’t going to give up easily. With Mitt Romney now the only realistic alternative, he will find a substantial core of support as long as he stays in the race.

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