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Comparing the 2012 and 2008 Republican Races

This morning I saw a post referring back to 2008 race. The part that caught my attention was this:

Primary Season Amnesia
(Chris Weigant, 2012 Feb 13)

Even accounting for such differences, the 2008 race was still a very close three-way contest in early February. Romney and McCain were almost even in states won, with Huckabee not all that far behind. This year, Mitt Romney has won four states, Rick Santorum four, and Newt Gingrich one.

You’d think the media would remember these facts, but (once again) we are being subjected to endless stories about how downright unique the 2008 Republican primary season is, along with the exact same storylines that ran in 2008 about the frontrunner not being able to close the deal, especially with conservative voters. McCain, back then, raised just as many suspicions among the conservative Republican base that he “wasn’t one of us” that Romney now hears.

I had to respond, as while I have no doubts that the media narrative was all about McCain still having trouble closing, the delegate numbers just didn’t support that story.  (The media would do the same thing months later while they continued to talk breathlessly about the Obama vs Clinton race long after it was mathematically clear that it would take an absolute unprecedented miracle for Clinton to actually catch up and win.)  Anyway, I posted the following as a comment at Chris Weigant’s site.  (Awaiting moderation as I post this on my site.)

Sorry for the really long comment… probably should just post on my blog. :-)

The media narrative in 2008 at this point in time may well have been that McCain was having problems closing the deal, but looking at delegate counts, there was a very different story. There was NOT a close three way race in mid-February. Take a look at my page showing how the delegate race played out in both parties last time around:

http://wiki.abulsme.com/2008_Presidential_Delegate_Graphs#Republicans

By this time in February (indeed, essentially immediately following Super Tuesday, but he continued to consolidate after) McCain had essentially already put this away.

The key thing I use to measure this is the percent of the remaining delegates available that the candidate would need to cinch the nomination. This takes into account both what the candidates already have gotten, and the dwindling number of remaining delegates available to catch up. At this point in February 2008, McCain had amassed a big enough lead that he had over 60% of the delegates allocated thus far, and only needed about 35% of the remaining delegates to clinch the nomination. In other words, he could do much worse than his record up to that point and still win. By comparison, at this point his closest competition was Romney, who had collected about 22% of the delegates so far, and would have needed to get about 87% of the remaining delegates to catch up and win. 87%!!!! Compared to the 22% he had managed so far! This was not a realistic outcome absent a major McCain collapse or scandal… and probably the other candidates dropping out too.

Starting with Super Tuesday last cycle, you can see the clear pattern of McCain completely dominating the race and all other opponents just falling further and further behind while McCain races toward clinching the nomination. Any narrative about him not closing the deal was just not borne out by the numbers.

As you pointed out, the HUGE difference is that we have had less states and a smaller percentage of the delegates allocated so far. Even super Tuesday will be smaller than last time, everything is just more spread out that last time, which means in terms of TIME (as opposed to states) one would of course expect it to take longer for things to settle.

(And indeed perhaps, really, the better time to compare to would have been mid to late January in 2008, when things really were still more unsettled and less states had voted… McCain only even took the delegate lead from Romney on January 30th or so…)

But sticking with February and comparing this year:

http://wiki.abulsme.com/2012_Republican_Delegate_Count_Graphs

Looking at the “% of remaining needed to win” you see all the non-Romney’s rapidly heading upward. With each contest (with the exception of Newt’s win in South Carolina) even if they win, they aren’t winning by big enough margins to be on a pace to actually win the nomination outright. Meanwhile though, there is a big difference from 2008. Rather than Romney’s numbers indicating that he is getting an easier and easier path to the nomination after each state as he gains more and more delegates, we see him hovering around 50%. Right now he is slightly under. (I should say at this point that I use the delegate estimates from the primaries and caucuses by The Green Papers, and the Super Delegate estimates from Democratic Convention Watch.) Romney is staying flat, but to “close the deal” in terms of winning outright before the convention, he has to actually start collecting delegates at a slightly faster pace than he has been so far.

Right now Romney’s closest competition is still Gingrich (although Santorum is closing fast). Right now Gingrich has 17.9% of the delegates so far, and would need to get 54.0% of the remaining delegates remaining to catch up and win. (Santorum and Paul would have to do even better than that.) Now, 54.0% is not an outrageous number, but it is more than three times better than he has been doing so far!!! If that were to start to happen (or the equivalent with the other candidates) it would be a HUGE change compared to what has happened so far in the race. And it would have to happen soon, because if not, that 54% is just going to rise and it will get harder and harder to catch up. One of the other candidates catching up and winning is not impossible, but it would take a major seismic shift changing the dynamics of the race. Perhaps Gingrich continuing to drop rapidly with Santorum picking up most of his support, winning Michigan and getting momentum out of that going into Super Tuesday would do that… but it still needs to be a big change for one of these guys to catch up.

Meanwhile, so far Romney has 49.8% of the delegates so far, but would need 50.1% of the remaining delegates to close the deal. So he has to improve his performance, but just by a LITTLE bit in order to be on pace to actually win the nomination… a few nice big winner take all states would most likely be enough to do the trick. But he is NOT putting it away or closing the deal yet. If all the not-Romney’s combined keep operating at about the level they have been, Romney would get to the convention just short of the 1144 delegates he needs.

Now, there is a long time between now and then, and if he wins the winner take all states and doesn’t completely collapse in the proportional states, he should be able to do that “little bit better” that he needs and wrap this up. At the moment though, none of his competition are in a position to actually WIN unless there are dramatic changes in the dynamics of the race (for instance one of them drops out), but they ARE in a position to block Romney from getting 1144 if they continue to do as well or better (collectively) as they have so far…

(In 2008 at this point, all of McCain’s competition combined were not in a realistic position to even keep him from getting the magic number, let alone catching up to win.)

None of this means I’m predicting a brokered convention… yet. But if Romney is still above 50% of remaining delegates needed after we pass Super Tuesday… then I’ll start to look at that as a realistic possibility. Until then, he is still actually the front runner, although he has clearly lost some momentum.

But Arizona is winner take all, and he is still way ahead there. Michigan is proportional, so chances are even if Santorum wins, it won’t be by enough to actually be on a pace to catch up. A win there would clearly put Romney in danger on Super Tuesday though. But more immediately Arizona is the one to watch because it is winner take all. If Romney wins that, then he consolidates his lead, regardless of what happens in Michigan. If Romney LOSES there… then he is in real trouble.

I’ll note that we also talked a bit about this topic on the episode of the podcast that Ivan and I recorded on Sunday and that I haven’t posted yet (sorry!) but will probably (hopefully!) post tomorrow.

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