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Why Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum may both win in Michigan

Complex rules for allocating convention delegates mean the winner of Tuesday's Michigan primary, probably Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum, is likely to share the spoils with the runners-up. 

By Staff writer / February 28, 2012

Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum greets patrons at the Rainbow Grill in Grandville, Michigan, Tuesday, Feb. 28.

Jim Young/Reuters

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There will be an overall winner of the Michigan GOP primary – either Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney will take a majority of votes statewide and give a victory speech after that margin is clear. The media will allocate momentum based on this result, saying that Mr. Romney, or Mr. Santorum, has the wind at his back heading into next week’s crucial Super Tuesday votes.

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But here’s Michigan’s secret: That result will almost certainly be overhyped. When it comes to delegates, the state is not winner-take-all. As a result of complicated allocation rules, it is possible for the popular-vote victor in the state’s Republican primary to emerge with fewer delegates than the loser.

Furthermore, it looks now as if both Santorum and Romney will win at least some of the state’s delegates to this summer's national convention in Tampa, Fla. That means that, in a strategic sense, the “winner” of the Michigan race won’t win much of an edge at all.

“The bottom line is that barring an overwhelming victory for one candidate in Michigan, the delegate margin is very likely to be close coming out of the Great Lakes state on February 28,” writes Davidson College political scientist and voting process expert Jose Putnam on his Frontloading HQ blog.

Why is that? There are two underlying reasons. The first is that the Republican National Committee is penalizing Michigan for holding its primary earlier than the RNC wanted. The state will select 59 delegates to the Tampa convention, which will officially nominate the party’s presidential candidate. But of those 59, only 30 will get to actually vote.

The second reason is that the 30 voting Michigan delegates will be chosen proportionately, for the most part. The winner of each of the state’s 14 congressional districts will receive two delegates. (If Romney or Santorum won all 14, they’d get 28 votes, for example.) Only two delegates will be awarded to the state’s overall popular-vote winner.

And Michigan’s political geography is far from uniform. Santorum should be strong in the Upper Peninsula and thinly populated north of the Michigan mitten, and in the state’s southwest, an area that remains socially conservative due to the Dutch Reformed Church heritage of many of its inhabitants. (There’s a reason that one of the larger towns along the Lake Michigan coast is named Holland.)

Romney should be strong in Detroit itself and in the Detroit suburbs, including relatively prosperous Oakland County and Macomb County. He could do well in the college towns of central southern Michigan, Ann Arbor and East Lansing. Ron Paul could be a factor with university students, however, so that picture is less clear.

On Monday, New York Times polling analyst Nate Silver broke down Michigan’s political geography, concluding that whoever wins the popular vote there will probably win the most congressional districts, too. But that result is far from certain.

“It is possible that a candidate who takes a narrow statewide loss could carry 8 out of 14 districts, or 9 out of 14 if everything breaks exactly right,” writes Mr. Silver.

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