Rick Santorum, Kansas, and the Apogee of the Caucus Strategy

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
March 10 2012 4:45 PM

Rick Santorum, Kansas, and the Apogee of the Caucus Strategy

Rick Santorum's win in the Kansas caucuses wasn't a surprise. Mitt Romney didn't campaign there this week. Newt Gingrich was about to campaign there, but bailed at the last minute to focus on the deep South.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

The size of the win, though -- it's a fantastic victory that will shut the media up for a couple minutes about delegate math. With 89 percent of the vote in, Santorum has 51 percent of the vote to 21 percent for Romney. If that holds, Santorum came heroically close to a landslide that would have given him all 40 delegates. If Romney stays above 20 percent, Santorum "only" wins 33 delegates, offsetting Romney's wins from the territories today.

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We've got a callotimized election on our hands. Santorum is the king of the non-Mormon, non-territorial caucuses. Romney's the king of the primaries. The extraordinarily helpful site USElectionAtlas has been adding together raw votes. Across all the primaries -- eight of which have gone to Romney -- the frontrunner has won close to 40 percent of the vote. USElectionAtlas counts Missouri, which didn't assign delegates in its primary. Take that out and Romney cracks 40, with Santorum below 25 percent.

Look at that, then look at the caucus vote. Romney has won only 34 percent of the caucus-goers, and Santorum has won 28 percent. After the Kansas votes are totaled, it'll be even closer.

That's trivia, but what does it mean? Santorum is succeeding at a weaker version of Barack Obama's 2008 stategy -- make the rubble bounce in organization-driven, low-turnout caucuses. It's weaker because Obama was able to win caucuses everywhere; even when he lost Nevada, he maxed out his votes to win a majority of delegates.

And the strategy is coming to its natural end. From here, the race expands to primaries in the deep South (Mississippi, Alabama, Louisana), Puerto Rico, Illinois, Wisconsin, Maryland, and D.C. -- and one more caucus, in Missouri. The electorate broadens again, and that's bad for Santorum. Just compare Kansas to Oklahoma, a similar state in a lot of ways, where Romney only lost statewide by six points, and delegates split 14-13-13 between three candidates.

So, Kansas is a big Santorum win. I'd be shocked if Missouri isn't a big win for him, too. And after that he needs to find a way to beat Romney in primaries.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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