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March 20, 2012 10:40 AM Puerto Rico

By Jonathan Bernstein

Well, that was decisive, no? Mitt Romney gets about 83% of the vote to sweep all 20 delegates from Puerto Rico. Overkill: he only needed to break 50% to get it. Either way, it’s a large delegate win, and part of an impressive haul for Romney in the various miscellaneous places.

Nate Silver questioned whether it was wise for Rick Santorum to have campaigned there last week. It’s a smart post, but I think I marginally and conditionally disagree. Silver’s point is that Santorum won’t win the nomination by picking off a delegate here and a delegate there; he needs to find some way to fundamentally change the way people are thinking about the contest, or else he’s going to lose. So if he had managed to shave some delegates away from Romney, or even win Puerto Rico, it wasn’t really going to change anything going forward — while Illinois is going to get far more press attention, and thus gives him at least a theoretical possibility of breaking through.

That’s true, and a good point.. But where I disagree is that I think Santorum’s predicament is even worse than Silver sees it. The problem is that even if Santorum manages to shift momentum his way and start winning far more votes going forward….he could still lose anyway unless he avoids big delegate hits like this one. Well…I suppose it depends. If Santorum shifts everything 30 points his way, then perhaps a few delegates wouldn’t matter. But if it’s only a ten point shift? It’s important to remember that the delegate count really does determine this thing, and it’s very much possible for a candidate to lose a whole bunch of primaries at the end and be down in the national polls and the overall vote count but to still get the nomination if he has the delegates.

In other words, I think the problem for Santorum is that he has to thread the needle: he has to fight for individual delegates and find a way to change the clear voting patterns. Which is, of course, next-to-impossible.

The other piece of this is that it seems at least plausible to me that a campaign trip to underserved Puerto Rico could have a larger-than-normal effect; an extra day in Illinois isn’t likely to do all that much. So if Santorum was looking at, say, polling that was showing a 60/30 Romney lead in Puerto Rico, but with weak enough preferences that a visit might have turned that around to 50/40 for him (a net 40 delegate swing!)…yeah, I’d send him there. Alas, since Santorum’s campaign trip featured a seemingly massive gaffe and since we have no polling to judge anything by, there’s no real way of even guessing what happens if Santorum’s trip goes well or if he hadn’t gone at all. At least until we get some behind-the-scenes reporting; for all we know he never took a poll there, and had no idea what he was doing (could his English-language comment have cost him 20 points? I have no idea!).

Oh, the other really cool thing about the Puerto Rico primary is that, as I write this (with 83% of the vote counted) Buddy Roemer is edging out Newt Gingrich for third place, and Fred Karger is beating Ron Paul for 5th. No, Plain Blog has nothing against Ron Paul and…well, I have nothing against Ron Paul, but it’s a natural political junkie inclination to enjoy the obscure candidates.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.