With only 10 states voting on Super Tuesday, it would be easy to dismiss it as a little wimpy compared to past years.
Republicans began voting in 10 states on Tuesday, with Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum locked in a competitive fight in Ohio.
But nearly 20 percent of the delegates to the Republican convention will be chosen on Tuesday night — and the outcome could reasonably range from one in which Mitt Romney seems to have the nomination all but wrapped up to a situation that casts his nomination in doubt.
Mr. Romney is likely to remain the favorite to win the nomination almost no matter what happens. He is also very likely to finish with the largest number of delegates from the evening. He comes into the night with perhaps the most favorable momentum he has had at any point in the nomination process; some of his disastrous outcomes were pushed aside by his wins in the past week in Michigan, Arizona and Washington.
Still, the line between a resplendent night for Mr. Romney and a suspect one is relatively slim, both in terms of the delegate count and the narrative it will generate. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have a lot on the line as well, possibly including their continued survival in the race.
We will consider reasonable upside and downside cases for each of the four candidates, as framed in terms of the delegate math. The definition of a “reasonable upside case” is not exact, but I intend it to mean something along the lines of a candidate’s 90th percentile situation — that is, he has perhaps a 10 percent chance of having a night that good or better. The reasonable downside case might refer to his 10th percentile situation instead.
Our reference point will be the delegate projections that I issued on Monday; here they are again:
This possibility assumes that Mr. Romney will win Massachusetts and Virginia very easily, and Vermont and Idaho fairly easily (winning all 32 delegates in Idaho because of the way the state’s rules are structured). It assumes a narrow Romney win in Ohio and a narrow loss in Tennessee, and that Mr. Romney wins either the Alaska or North Dakota caucuses, but probably not both. Mr. Gingrich wins Georgia only, although by a big margin; Mr. Santorum wins Tennessee and Oklahoma, although by smaller margins than were expected a few days ago.
If the evening goes exactly according to this plan — of course, it probably won’t — that would leave us in something of a predicament. Mr. Romney, by any objective measuring stick, would have had a good night, winning more than half the delegates and at least half the states — including Ohio, a state that inherently isn’t all that favorable to him.
But, as Mr. Romney’s position has improved in the polls, expectations have risen as well. The news media have been focused on three contests — Georgia, Ohio, Tennessee. Of these, Mr. Romney would win just one, and then by a margin that might not be called until fairly late in the night.
Of course, that these relatively challenging states for Mr. Romney are the focus of attention is a sign of his strength — the comparable case would be if, this November, the focus was on whether Barack Obama could win Georgia, Arizona and Montana. There are universes in which those could be the closest states — they are those in which Mr. Obama has won a clear victory everywhere else.
Still, it’s only four days until the next contest: the Kansas caucuses are held on Saturday, then Alabama and Mississippi vote on March 13. The history is that the news media look for excuses to string the race along. Can Mr. Romney win in the South? What would happen if Mr. Santorum or Mr. Gingrich dropped out? Questions like these will probably be asked until the math for the other candidates becomes literally impossible or they simply drop out — whether or not they are relevant to the issue of who will win the Republican nomination.
FiveThirtyEight projection (most likely case): 224 delegates
Upside case: 267 delegates
Downside case: 146 delegates
However, Mr. Romney could plausibly have such a good night that even these questions will seem moot. That would look something like this:
In this situation, Mr. Romney wins eight of the 10 states, losing only Oklahoma to Mr. Santorum and Georgia to Mr. Gingrich, and achieves a fairly clear victory in Ohio. He would have demonstrated his strength throughout all the major regions of the country. His delegate count would actually not be all that much higher than under his baseline case — 267 delegates won rather than 224 — in part because the baseline case is already pretty favorable to him and he is almost maxed out on delegates in several states.
But the implication would be that the other candidates are uncertain of victory even in what should be some of their stronger states; it would be very challenging to conceive of a path to a majority coalition for them. Remember, most nominations are wrapped up well before the last primaries and caucuses are held, and Super Tuesday has sometimes been the decisive point — most clearly in the Republican race of 2008 and perhaps also in the Democratic race of 1988.
On the other hand, Mr. Romney could still easily lose six states and win as few as about 146 delegates.
Under this situation, Mr. Romney loses Ohio to Mr. Santorum by perhaps five percentage points, finishes third in Tennessee and Oklahoma, loses North Dakota to Mr. Santorum and Alaska to Ron Paul, and just misses various thresholds that represent critical break points in the delegate rules in states like Idaho and Georgia. None of these outcomes are all that far-fetched — we are not imaging Mr. Romney losing Vermont, for instance — but they would be more characteristic of a worst case than a downside case.
It might seem unlikely that all of these things will occur simultaneously. But it is not impossible — Mr. Romney underperformed polls and expectations in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri on Feb. 7, for instance. If the polls are missing somethin
g about the way the electorate is likely to behave, chances are that some of those errors will be duplicated from state to state.
This possibility, which would entail wins for each of Mr. Romney’s three opponents, might rekindle talk of a brokered convention. Mr. Romney would certainly have some positive things to take from the evening — four victories, and the largest delegate count. But his nomination would seem less assured.
FiveThirtyEight projection (most likely case): 76 delegates
Upside case: 135 delegates
Downside case: 52 delegates
The upside case for Mr. Santorum is fairly similar to Mr. Romney’s downside case and would entail Mr. Santorum winning about 135 delegates. But it also involves Mr. Gingrich having a worse-than-expected night: winning only Georgia, but yielding a fair among of delegates to his opponents there, while finishing third or worse everywhere else. Meanwhile, Mr. Santorum would notch four victories: in Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and North Dakota.
Particularly relative to expectations, this would qualify as a very good night for Mr. Santorum, especially if it resulted in Mr. Gingrich’s exit from the race. It would not qualify as a great night — Mr. Santorum’s upside case is now fairly similar to what his baseline case might have looked like a week ago.
Still, there have been times when the voting results went in the opposite direction of where the momentum had seemed to suggest — like Hillary Rodham Clinton’s win in New Hampshire in 2008. While these nights occur rarely, they can produce pronounced momentum shifts.
Or, Mr. Santorum could win as few as about 50 delegates:
This situation gives him credit for winning Oklahoma (but only Oklahoma). But that does not matter so much since the delegate allocation there is quite proportional if the popular vote is close. He would have little to hang his hat on, and might be compelled to drop out of the race, with Colorado and Minnesota having represented his high-water mark. If this were the case, it would seem that Mr. Santorum had been an late-blooming prospect who posted promising numbers at Triple-A but failed in his call-up to the big leagues.
FiveThirtyEight projection (most likely case): 87 delegates
Upside case: 117 delegates
Downside case: 56 delegates
Mr. Gingrich’s upside case is lower than Mr. Santorum’s in the delegate count because he has shown little ability to compete outside the South. It is possible that he could hit the 20 percent threshold required to win proportional delegates in Ohio and perhaps take a rural Congressional district there. But he is unlikely to be competitive in the caucuses, or to receive any delegates at all in Massachusetts and Vermont, and he is not on the ballot in Virginia.
There is already something of a narrative brewing, however, about a Gingrich comeback, and it’s possible that he could do enough to help fuel it:
Under this situation, Mr. Gingrich gets 50 percent or more of the vote in Georgia — enough to win the overwhelming majority of delegates there under the state’s rules. He also wins Tennessee and finishes a very close second in Oklahoma.
What would Mr. Gingrich do for his next trick? Actually, the calendar is reasonably favorable for him. The easy hurdles to clear would be Alabama and Mississippi on Mar. 13 and Louisiana on Mar. 24. The more challenging ones would be Missouri on Mar. 17 — a borderline Southern state, but a caucus — and Illinois on Mar. 20, where Mr. Gingrich would hope to supplant Mr. Santorum as the Midwestern alternative to Mr. Romney.
Mr. Gingrich would start out significantly behind Mr. Romney in the delegate count even in this upside possibility — by roughly 210 delegates, in fact. He would need to clear almost every hurdle to sustain his momentum and close that gap. The odds against this are quite strong, especially since Mr. Gingrich has demonstrated little staying power after his periodic surges. But he would probably have earned the right to run the course until he stumbled.
Or suppose that Mr. Gingrich won only Georgia — and by a lesser margin than polls project — while accumulating only about 55 delegates on the evening:
A normal candidate would drop out under these circumstances — having won only his home state and South Carolina out of about 20 attempts, and having finished third or worse in most others. Mr. Gingrich, who has burned his share of bridges with the Republican establishment, might not. Instead, he could play more the gadfly role that Jerry Brown did in the 1992 Democratic race.
Still, although Mr. Gingrich is clever at drawing the news media’s attention, he might be denied oxygen if he had no rationale at all for his campaign, and this possibility would leave him with little.
FiveThirtyEight projection (most likely case): 25 delegates
Upside case: 59 delegates
Downside case: 12 delegates
Mr. Paul has the least on the line in terms of the delegate math. One important constraint is that even states that divide their delegates in a relatively proportional way usually establish some qualifying threshold — typically 15 or 20 percent of the vote. With Mr. Paul instead tending to finish at about 10 percent in primariy states, his opportunity to accumulate delegates has been limited.
Perhaps if Mr. Paul runs again in 2016 — or if his son Rand Paul does — his libertarian philosophy will continue to make gains, especially among younger voters, and he will be hitting those 15 or 20 percent marks more often. On Super Tuesday 2012, however, that seems plausible only in Vermont and perhaps Massachusetts — although he might steal a Congressional district delegate or two in a few places that we don’t expect.
Super Tuesday should, however, offer Mr. Paul opportunities to color in his map for the first time. His performance has been pretty decent in the last two caucus states, and both North Dakota and Alaska are reasonably favorable to him.
If he were to win those states, while also securing a few delegates in primary states, his upside case would be about 60 delegates from the evening.
Are 60 delegates useful? It might depend more on Mr. Romne
y than Mr. Paul; a poor performance for Mr. Romney would increase the likelihood of a contested convention.
But however useful 60 delegates are, 12 are worth less — and Mr. Paul could win that few if he gets shut out in the primary states while performing disappointingly in the caucuses:
Keep in mind that each of the three caucus states to vote on Tuesday do allocate their delegates on the basis of the presidential vote — something which Iowa and Minnesota and Maine did not do. So there will be less fuzziness than usual — a poor performance in a state like North Dakota can’t really be redeemed at obscure regional conventions.
The situations listed here don’t account for every plausible permutation: what happens, for instance, if Mr. Romney loses Ohio but wins Tennessee?
Chances are that these forecasts will miss in a few places, and the upside and downside cases are by definition unlikely to be achieved. Instead, Mr. Romney’s performance will probably not be so bad as to be unspinnable (as after Colorado or Minnesota). Nor, given rising expectations, might he deny his opponents any kind of wiggle room. It will be important to look at how influential Republicans behave after the outcome, as well as the signals that we get from national polls.
As we reach a more advanced stage of the race, however, the momentum and the narrative and the spin will matter less and less — and the delegate count more and more. And Mr. Romney, even under his downside situations, should expand his lead on that account.