op-ed

Rick Santorum: the inevitable nominee?

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Rick Santorum is riding a huge surge coming out of his victories in Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri — but I don’t think the punditry recognizes the enormity of that surge. Conventional wisdom says we could now be on the road to a brokered convention, or a long Romney-Santorum fight, but that is not what the data suggests. As of now, all of the data suggests that this race will end on March 6th. On that night, there is a good chance that Santorum will be spiking the football in the end zone as he cruises to a blowout win on Super Tuesday.

I’m going to stop short of predicting that result — for good reason — but right now that is exactly where the data is pointing. Here’s why:

The last two states to vote before Super Tuesday are Michigan and Arizona on February 28th. Based on recent polling, most of the chattering class is predicting that Santorum will win Michigan, but that Romney will stay alive by winning Arizona. This is not a data-based analysis, it is a pure guess based on “conventional wisdom,” and it’s dead wrong.

A PPP poll released Monday found Santorum leading Romney in Michigan by a whopping 15 points. This upset the logic employed by most pundits, who thought that Romney’s Michigan roots and organization would make the state less susceptible to a Santorum surge. However, many believe that Romney will still fall back on a win in “Mitt-friendly” Arizona.

This is a massive miscalculation.

There is no polling as of yet in Arizona, but there is ample evidence that Santorum is surging in the Western, libertarian-leaning electorates that were supposed to deliver for Romney. Obviously, Santorum has already won Colorado, which is similar to Arizona, and a new poll of California GOP voters shows Santorum surging into a statistical tie with Romney in the Golden State. If Santorum is within two points of the lead in California, a Western state with a large moderate vote, then we should assume that he is leading in Arizona, a Western state where the GOP vote tilts far more to the right. Yes, it’s the land of John McCain, but it’s also the land of Barry Goldwater, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Governor Jan Brewer, and arguably the most right-wing congressional delegation in the entire country (Trent Franks, Jeff Flake, Paul Gosar, Ben Quayle, David Schweikert).

To borrow a phrase from Governor Romney, the Arizona GOP is “severely conservative.” So, based on the national data and the evidence from neighboring states, I’m guessing that this week’s Arizona polls will show a 3-5% Santorum lead. That would be game-changing.

The idea that we are headed for a brokered convention or a Romney comeback is predicated on Romney winning at least one of the February 28th primaries — which for some reason the press is taking as a given. However, the scenario looks very different if Santorum wins both of them. In that case, Santorum will have won five out of the last six states, and will have become the prohibitive front-runner. One week before Super Tuesday, Mitt Romney would suddenly find himself on the wrong end of the inevitability argument, and no amount of advertising would dig him out of that hole.

Now, to play devil’s advocate, there’s a reason I’m not actually going to predict this result, at least not yet. First, there’s no polling to confirm my Arizona hypothesis, and it’s just as much of a guess as anyone else’s guess. Second, Mitt Romney is likely preparing the mother of all negative ad campaigns against Santorum. Those ads will not be as effective against Santorum as they were against Gingrich, because there’s simply less material for anti-Santorum ads and because Santorum’s approval numbers are higher than Newt’s ever were. Still, they’re likely to do some damage, and two weeks is an eternity in politics — so Romney has a good shot at scraping back into the game.

The point, however, is that the numbers right now indicate a Santorum sweep, and we should stop kidding ourselves about that.

Adam Brickley was the founder of the website “Draft Sarah Palin for Vice President.” He has contributed to Race42012.com, The Weekly Standard’s blog and Conservatives4Palin.com. His personal blog is AdamBrickley.net.