As he struggles to keep up with frontrunner Mitt Romney and parries calls for him to drop out of the Republican presidential race, Rick Santorum has said in recent weeks that he has actually won more delegates than some media counts show. Those counts, Santorum says, are not taking into account Republican party rules, as well as the state-level meetings that actually determine how many delegates go to each candidate.
"Here's one of the things that I can tell you I didn't know," Santorum told a small group of reporters at a breakfast in Washington Monday. "Every single state is different. Every state. Every single state is different. It's different on how you get on the ballot. It's different on their structure, how they allocate delegates, whether they are bound, whether they are unbound, when they're committed, how long they committed, how they're selected. Our math is actually based on the reality of what's going on in the states."
Now, the Santorum campaign is providing some numbers to flesh out the candidate's claims. In a long conversation Wednesday evening, John Yob, the campaign's national and state convention director, pointed out that many high-profile primaries have been little more than beauty contests, and that delegates in many key states are actually being awarded in county, district, and state conventions, which are often dominated by conservative activists. "In that process, we are doing very well," said Yob. "The moderate candidate almost never performs better than a conservative candidate in a county, district, or state convention process."
Many states are just now starting their conventions, and it is impossible to say precisely how many delegates each candidate will win. The Associated Press delegate count, widely cited in media stories, shows Romney with 568 delegates to Santorum's 273, with Newt Gingrich at 135 and Ron Paul at 50. Yob's count is significantly different: according to his estimate, Romney has 482 delegates to Santorum's 331, with Gingrich at 158 and Paul at 91.
What accounts for the differences? First, the Santorum campaign believes that delegates from Florida and Arizona will ultimately be awarded proportionately, and not as winner-take-all contests. The AP account currently gives Romney all 50 Florida delegates and all 29 Arizona delegates. Santorum and Yob point to a recent article by Morton Blackwell, the longtime conservative activist and member of the Republican National Committee rules committee, suggesting that if the race is close, it is likely the party convention in Tampa this summer will award Florida and Arizona delegates proportionately. Doing so would not be a delegate gusher for Santorum, but it would lower Romney's count, since Romney won both states and now has all the delegates in his column. In the end, Yob believes Romney will end up with 23 delegates in Florida and 14 in Arizona, for a combined loss of 42 delegates.
The second reason the Santorum campaign cites for its more favorable delegate total is party conventions now taking place in Washington State, Missouri, Iowa, and other states. For example, in Washington State, the AP account shows Romney with 30 delegates to five each for Santorum and Ron Paul. After local conventions, Yob says, Santorum believes the delegate division will be roughly equal between the three candidates, about 13-13-14. Again, not a huge increase for Santorum, but a bigger decrease for Romney.
In Missouri, Santorum won the beauty contest primary vote, but state Republicans are now going through the local convention process that will determine actual delegate allocation. The AP delegate count does not include numbers for Missouri, but Yob believes Santorum will eventually come away with more than 28 delegates to Romney's eight, for a net Santorum gain of more than 20 delegates.
In Iowa, Santorum barely won a belated victory in the caucuses after early counts suggested a Romney win. The AP delegate total has Santorum with 14 Iowa delegates to Romney's 12 and Paul's one. "I believe that will change," Yob says. "Santorum will get more, Romney will get less, and Paul will get more."
Adding those changes to changes in other states, Yob argues, means that Romney now has at least 80 fewer delegates than are attributed to him in the AP count. Beyond the Florida and Arizona numbers, Yob says it's all due to the changes between beauty-contest primary results and county, district, and state delegate-selecting conventions. "In every case where the grassroots have a role in electing the delegates," Yob explains, "Paul and Santorum will overperform and Romney will underperform by varying amounts, depending on the state."
Yob cautions that his numbers are projections for the end results of what can be unpredictable state-level processes. "Predicting what will happen on a state convention floor is difficult," he says. But the final result, Yob claims, is that Romney "is on a path to be short of 1,144" -- the number of delegates required to clinch the Republican nomination.
The Romney campaign strongly disputes Santorum's numbers. In a March 22 memo -- sent out after Romney's win in Illinois but before Santorum's victory in Louisiana -- Romney political director Rich Beeson wrote that Romney led Santorum by more than 300 delegates and that Romney already had more than half of the needed 1,144 delegates. "Each day Senator Santorum continues to march up this steep hill of improbability is a day we lose to unite in our effort as Republicans to defeat President Obama," Beeson wrote.
Beeson pointed out that it is impossible for Santorum to reach the 1,144 delegate number himself. Team Santorum doesn't really claim otherwise. But their math is now about keeping Romney short of 1,144 -- and hoping things go their way in state conventions and, ultimately, in Tampa in August.