Why Rick Santorum might not benefit from a Newt Gingrich exit (+video)

Rick Santorum needs a big boost in the delegate count to catch up to Mitt Romney, and it's not clear that a Newt Gingrich exit would deliver it.

By , Staff writer

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    Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks to an audience at a town hall meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Wednesday.
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Would Rick Santorum be better off if Newt Gingrich dropped out of the GOP presidential race? That’s the conventional insider D.C. wisdom. The reasoning is simple: Mr. Santorum’s vote, plus Mr. Gingrich’s, is bigger than Mitt Romney’s total. Add the two conservatives together, and you trump the guy Newt needles as a “Massachusetts moderate.”

The problem here may be that this math doesn’t tell the full story. It’s possible that Santorum would benefit little, if at all, from a Gingrich campaign exit.

Why? Well, first look at it this way: Gingrich in essence has already dropped out, and just doesn’t know it. His support is shrinking to the point where it just wouldn’t help Santorum all that much.

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The latest RealClearPolitics rolling average of major polls has Gingrich at 14 percent of the vote, only three points ahead of Ron Paul. Yes, if you add that to Santorum’s 29 percent, you get 43 percent – a figure nine points bigger than Romney’s 34 percent share. But remember, not all of Gingrich’s vote would migrate to the Pennsylvanian social conservative.

For Gingrich backers, Santorum is not an automatic second choice. A recent Fox News poll found that about 53 percent of the ex-Speaker’s vote would indeed move to Santorum, while 47 percent would go to Romney. This indicates that on a national basis Santorum would do only a bit better if Gingrich decides it’s time to stay home and work on children’s books about the Founding Fathers with his wife, Callista.

And our second point is this: A little dab doesn’t do it for Santorum. He’s already far enough behind Mr. Romney in the delegate count that he needs a huge boost if he’s ever going to catch up.

We won’t list a hard delegate count here, because at this point they’re still notional – in some caucus states (we’re looking at you, Maine) delegates won’t be bound to a candidate until after state conventions. But Fox News has crunched the numbers and says that, in general, Santorum has to win about 66 percent of the remaining delegates to win the nomination. That’s a big jump in game for a candidate who has won only about 27 percent of the delegates allocated so far.

And, third, the upcoming electoral landscape doesn’t lend itself to such a performance, whether Gingrich is in or Gingrich is out. There are few winner-take-all states left in which Santorum could make big gains. Instead, delegates are doled out proportionately.

In some states, candidates have to hit a threshold vote to qualify for this proportional split. Gingrich is fading to the point where he’s unlikely to hit such thresholds, meaning his presence in wouldn’t affect Santorum’s take. In other states, the allocation is proportional by congressional district. Gingrich’s vote now isn’t concentrated enough in any locale to flip a district Santorum’s way.

Got that? The bottom line is that Gingrich doesn’t have enough votes to give Santorum, and the way ahead is so rocky that Rick needs more than ex-Newt backers to boost him to the summit.

As Gingrich himself has noted, Santorum in fact might be better off if the former stays in the race. With two opponents draining away votes, Romney might not hit the figure of 1,144 delegates he needs to wrap up the nomination prior to the party's national convention in Tampa, Fla. And if Republicans assemble in Florida without an anointed champion, all bets are off.

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