Bill Whalen

Romney’s March to Tampa?

Here are two things you probably didn’t know about Stephen Colbert, the Comedy Central personality.

  1. He was raised in Charleston, South Carolina.
  2. He’s determined to make a point about vacuous politics — beginning in his home state, which holds a Republican presidential primary on Saturday.

Colbert says he’s considering his own presidential run (he’s too late for South Carolina, which doesn’t take write-in votes). He has a super PAC that’s running a facetious anti-Romney that accuses the Republican frontrunner of being a serial killer (here’s the “Mitt the Ripper spot). He calls himself “a one-man Lewis & Clark . . . just looking for my Sacagawea.”

Colbert has a point – political attack ads can be so over the to as to be comical. But Colbert himself has a history of being over the top – i.e., his appearance before a congressional panel back in September 2010 that wasn’t exactly a hit with Washington media types.

Speaking of “over the top”, let’s take a minute to examine the difference between expectations and a candidate actually cinching the Republican nomination.

Romney heads into the weeklong run-up to the South Carolina vote clinging to a 21-point lead, per this poll, with an eye on the bigger prize of Florida, where early voting also commences on Jan. 21.

If the race holds to form, Romney would leave January with an unblemished 4-0 record in primaries and caucuses. Pundits will declare the race over.

But delegate math isn’t as quick to judge.

In breaking with past election practice, Republicans decided this time around to allot delegates proportionally, rather than winner-take-all, in states voting before April Fools’ Day (with two exceptions: Florida and Arizona). That means a longer climb to the top, for the frontrunner.

Moreover, the primary schedule has been elongated. Four years ago, 29 states accounting for 55% of the delegate pool had gone to the polls as of Feb. 5. In 2012, only five states will have voted by Feb. 5 – a measly 7% of all delegates.

One can see the process dragging out during the spring months, considering that: (a) Ron Paul isn’t going away until he gets his say at the convention (there’s 10%-20% in most states); (b) there’s a core anti-Romney faction (let’s say, 30%-40%) that just doesn’t like the man.

Now, let’s dig deeper into the math.

To receive the nomination, Romney or any of his rivals first has to secure 1,144 of the 2,286 delegates attending the August national convention in Tampa (here’s a calendar of dates and delegates).

And Romney’s haul by the end of January?

Around 72 delegates, I’m guessing, or about one-sixteenth of the way to that magical 1,144.

Not quite as exciting on paper as pundits make sound, is it?

Keep an eye on this slow-moving delegate train in the weeks ahead.

After South Carolina and Florida comes Nevada (28 delegates). On Feb. 7, Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri (128 delegates combined) weigh in. Four days later, Maine allots its 24 delegates. There’s a lull in the action until Feb. 28, when Arizona and Michigan offer up 59 delegates.

Tossing in the 9 delegates from that political juggernaut Northern Marianas, which goes to the polls on Feb. 25, and that’s 248 delegates up for grabs in all of February.

Now, let’s flip the calendar to March.

Washington State goes first – 43 delegates divided come March 3. Three days later, on March 6, it’s the 10-state, 438-delegate “Super Tuesday”. Over the next week, another five states and three territories – 198 delegates in all – are scheduled to vote.

Now we’re getting somewhere: 26 states and 1,242 delegates are off the board as of March 13.

What does this tell us? If not for the rules change – and making that Romney continued to run the table in February and March as he did in January – the GOP race would be over four days before St. Patrick’s Day – traditionally a day on which the Irish celebrate their heritage . . . and presidential also-rans drown their sorrows.

And, historically, St. Patrick’s Day has indeed stood just beyond the finish line.

In 2008, John McCain went over the top after the night of March 4 and wins in Texas and Ohio. In 2004, John Kerry clinched after sweeping the March 2 “Super Tuesday”. In 2000, George W. Bush went over the top after capturing six southern states on March 14, 2000.

The exception to the rule: Barack Obama, who didn’t clinch until June 4, ending a five-month slugfest with Hillary Clinton.

Obviously, that’s a parallel Obama like to avoid – the part about the lengthy primary fight, that is – what with California and New Jersey bringing the primaries to a close on June 5.

Meanwhile, here’s what to expect in the weeks leading up to the “wearing of the green”:

  1. “Green” as in wealthy: Romney raised $24 million in the last three months; no other hopeful has the same deep pockets to invest in ads and ground game.
  2. Green as in inexperienced – or inept: Romney’s opponents will begin to be absent from some states’ ballot because their campaigns didn’t have their act together. Their loss is Romney’s delegate gain.

History notes that William Tecumseh Sherman needed about five weeks to pull off his “March to the Sea” in November and December of 1864. His march through South Carolina lasted well over three months, from January to March.

Romney would love to begin and end this race in the same January-March timeframe. But thanks to the new rules, it may take another three months to get the requisite delegates to be the GOP fight to an end.

Hopefully, not the same destructive path as Sherman’s.

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