Monday, March 19, 2012

Santorum plays the expectations game in Illinois

By Michael J.W. Stickings

UPDATE (7:21 pm): Well, I underestimated Romney's lead, and likely margin of victory, in Illinois. I said that a 10-point Romney win wasn't likely, but a new PPP poll has him up by 15.

Which is to say, the point I make in this post is magnified. A Santorum win in Illinois wouldn't just be a huge blow to Romney, it would be catastrophic (in political terms) -- or, in other words, a genuine game changer for Santorum. In that sense, Santorum may very well be right that a win in Illinois would "guarantee" him the nomination.

But what are the expectations now? I any defeat by less than 10 points a sort of moral victory for Santorum? Or, put another way, does Romney now need to win by 10-15 points, or even 15+ points, to make it seem as if he's really won? Because, of course, a win is never just a win when you're playing the expectations game.

Certainly a defeat by less than five would be a great showing for Santorum. But that appears unlikely. And in any event, the problem for Romney now isn't that Santorum can catch him but that he may not end up with a majority of delegates going into the convention. His other problem is that the calendar is against him from now until the end of April, a period during which there are too few contests for him to pull away for good. He'll win the nomination, yes, but this race isn't about to end anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Santorum just needs to hope that he gets enough of a turnout boost tomorrow to make it seem as if Romney has somehow underperformed. And that's certainly a possibility.

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I realize it's all about Illinois at the moment, what with that state's primary taking place tomorrow, but this is a bit much:

Rick Santorum on Saturday guaranteed that a win in the Illinois primary will result in his nomination as the Republican presidential nominee.

"This is a primary, and turnout is everything. You do your job, you do your job, then this is the pledge," Santorum said. "If we're able to come out of Illinois with a huge or surprise win, I guarantee you, I guarantee you that we will win this nomination."

Santorum isn't going to win Illinois, not with Romney set to do very well in and around Chicago. But that's just why he's saying this, trying to get his supporters, mostly in the more conservative south-of-Chicago part of the state, all fired up in hopes that high turnout could put him over the top.

And, yes, just imagine what a Santorum win in such a big state would do. I'm not sure it would guarantee him the nomination, but it would be a huge blow to Romney. (And, of course, what Santorum didn't say is that a loss in Illinois would hand Romney the nomination.)

All Santorum can do now is play this silly expectations game, knowing that the media will play right along with him. Everyone's expecting a Romney win. In a way, a Romney win by, say 5 or 6 points would be a ho-hum result. A Romney win by 10 would be pretty devastating for Santorum, but that isn't likely. But what if it's just 2 or 3? Then it would be one of those "moral" victories for Santorum, not much changing in delegate terms, or in the overall dynamic of the race, but Santorum (with the media's help) getting a boost even by losing, simply by exceeding the expectations he himself is setting.

Like I said, it's all very silly. But, then, so is this whole process of selecting presidential nominees.

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