Presidential Race
5:25 pm
Sun March 18, 2012

GOP's Delegate Race A Game Of 'Political Moneyball'

There's a number hovering around the GOP presidential race: 1,144. That's the magic number of delegates needed to secure the party's nomination.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has a little less than half that number right now, but he's still ahead of his closest rival, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum.

Santorum is a threat, however, so the two candidates seem to be sharpening their math skills.

In many Republican primaries and caucuses — from Missouri, which began Saturday, to Puerto Rico on Sunday, and on to Illinois on Tuesday — the winner doesn't clean up. The delegates are awarded proportionally.

It's a new system for Republicans and it's led to what could be called "Moneyball politics." In the film and book Moneyball, the manager of the Oakland A's baseball team used mathematical calculations to recruit players instead of the tried and true methods recruiters used for years.

In the end, it's math that will likely win the GOP race.

A Master Strategy

All of this is very familiar to former Democratic strategist Jeff Berman. During the 2008 presidential primary, Berman was the mastermind behind President Obama's delegate strategy. He wrote about it in his new book, The Magic Number.

Berman, as one of the foremost experts on the arcane, byzantine rules of the Democratic Party, was Obama's secret weapon. When it comes to the way political parties nominate candidates, he changed the game.

Berman joined the campaign in the spring of 2007, about a year earlier than where we are now in this cycle. He tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that he spent several months looking at detailed data on all the states, their congressional districts, the order of the primaries, the possibility that one outcome would affect another and what the allocations of delegates would be whether they won or lost.

Berman also called and spoke with experts throughout the country, looked at demographics, voting histories and cultural attributes to try and figure out how that district would vote.

"Then I could target those districts in those states where I thought we were close to either winning more delegates or losing a delegate," Berman says, "and then built that together into a master strategy."

It's hard to emphasize how new this model was in presidential politics. Before 2008, conventional wisdom was that you campaigned long and hard in the big delegate states: Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. Lock those up, and you win the nomination. You didn't waste your time running grassroots operations in places like Louisiana, Nebraska, Washington state and the Virgin Islands.

Those were the places that, in early February 2008, using Berman's strategy, Obama swept. That streak continued with Obama winning contests in Maine, Virginia, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Hawaii.

"Running that table for that two-week period, that's when we built a lead of about 150 delegates ... from that point on my mission was to hold that lead," Berman says.

Hold the lead he did, and Obama secured the Democratic Party's nomination on June 3.

The GOP's Math Race

Berman's legacy is that primaries are now a lot about math. Because of that, he believes when it comes to the Republican race, it is still very much up for grabs even with Romney's delegate lead.

"The challenge for [Rick Santorum] is to maintain his political momentum, which he now has having won Alabama and Mississippi," he says. "He has the potential for a very strong run of wins, and success can bring some delegate rewards down the line."

Berman says the tight delegate battle, however, will likely continue until the end of the primary season in June, and a presumptive nominee won't be crowned until then.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich trails both Romney and Santorum in the delegate race, and he's under a lot of pressure to bow out. New York Magazine political writer Jonathan Chait tells NPR's Raz that from Gingrich's perspective, it might make more sense to go the distance and become the kingmaker at the convention.

"Gingrich is dividing the conservative alternative to [the] Romney vote, and he's prevented Romney from having to face a united conservative front," Chait says. "So Gingrich's continued campaigning is helping Romney ... maintain his status as front-runner without making it over 50 percent in many states at all."

If he were Gingrich, Chait says he'd continue to take votes from Santorum and then go to Tampa, Fla., where the Republicans will hold their party's convention this summer, and deliver his delegates to Romney in the hopes of a reward. Chait says Gingrich should have a back-channel discussion with Romney and ask how they can help each other.

"But, you never know with Newt Gingrich," he says.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

One, one, four, four - that's the magic number needed to secure the GOP presidential nomination - 1,144 delegates. Mitt Romney has a little less than half that number right now, but he's still way ahead of his closest rival, Rick Santorum. Santorum's a threat, though, so the two candidates seem to be sharpening their math skills, because in the end, it's math that will likely win the race.

And in many Republican primaries and caucuses, from Missouri, which began yesterday, to Puerto Rico today to Illinois on Tuesday, in most of them, the winner doesn't clean up. The delegates are awarded proportionally. It's a new system for Republicans this time around, and it's led to what could be called Moneyball politics. And that's our cover story today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Now, all of this is very familiar to former Democratic strategist Jeff Berman. During the 2008 presidential primary, Berman was the mastermind behind Barack Obama's delegate strategy. He wrote about it in his new book, "The Magic Number."

You were like one of the foremost experts on the arcane, byzantine rules of the Democratic Party.

JEFF BERMAN: Well, there is a certain truth to that, indeed. Yes. I am...

RAZ: Jeff Berman was Obama's secret weapon. And when it comes to the way political parties nominate candidates, well, he changed the game.

BERMAN: I joined the campaign in the spring of 2007, which would be about a year earlier than where we are today in this cycle, and spent several months looking at all of the states, all of the congressional districts, the order of the primaries, the possibility that one outcome would affect another and what the allocation of delegates would be, whether we won or we lost.

I called and spoke with experts throughout the country. We would look at demographics, voting histories, cultural attributes to try and figure out how that district would vote. And then I could target those districts and those states where I thought we were close to either winning more delegates or losing a delegate and built that together into a master strategy.

RAZ: Now, it is hard to emphasize how new this model was in presidential politics. Before 2008, conventional wisdom was you campaigned long and hard in the big delegate states - places like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. You lock those up, you win the nomination. You didn't waste your time running grassroots operations in places like...

BERMAN: Louisiana, Nebraska, Washington state and the Virgin Islands.

RAZ: But those were the places that in early February of 2008, using Jeff Berman's strategy...

BERMAN: Obama swept them all.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS PROGRAM, "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS")

LESTER HOLT: ...meaning it's a clean sweep for the Illinois senator who has beaten Hillary Clinton in all four of this weekend's Democratic contests.

BERMAN: Then the next day on Sunday was Maine.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS PROGRAM)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The race in Maine was considered a toss-up as recently as this morning. But, Bret Baier, Barack Obama has prevailed.

BERMAN: On the following Tuesday, we had Virginia...

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS PROGRAM)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Barack Obama is the winner of the Virginia Democratic primary.

BERMAN: ...Maryland...

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS PROGRAM)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Projecting a victory for Barack Obama in Maryland by a significant margin.

BERMAN: ...Washington, D.C....

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS PROGRAM)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Eighty-nine percent of the vote in Washington, D.C....

BERMAN: And on the following Tuesday...

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS PROGRAM)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The Hawaii caucuses...

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS PROGRAM)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: So you got 10 in a row for Senator Barack Obama.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS PROGRAM)

WOLF BLITZER: CNN can now project that Senator Barack Obama has enough delegates to secure the Democratic presidential nomination.

RAZ: You were basically playing a version of Moneyball.

BERMAN: Well, I mean, you can put it that way. You can call it chess. You can call it whatever you wish. But in running that table for that two-week period, that's when we built a delegate lead of about 150 delegates and it never got any bigger. From that point on, my mission was hold that lead.

RAZ: That's Jeff Berman's legacy. Primaries are now a lot about math. And that's why Jeff Berman believes when it comes to the Republican race, well, it's still very much up for grabs, even with Romney's delegate lead.

BERMAN: Yeah. He is still ahead in the delegate count. And for Rick Santorum, who's his leading challenger, the challenge for him is to maintain his political momentum, which he now has, having won Alabama and Mississippi and that...

RAZ: And Illinois, of course.

BERMAN: Yeah, and then Illinois, followed by Louisiana. He has the potential for a very strong run of wins. And success can bring some delegate rewards down the line. And this time, the race is not strictly proportional in terms of the delegate allocations. That's the way it was for us...

RAZ: For Democrats.

BERMAN: For Democrats, it was in '08. This time, there are multiple opportunities for Rick Santorum to do far better than a proportional outcome, but it requires strength going forward.

RAZ: How soon do you think the GOP nominee, the eventual nominee, could reach the point of getting more than half of the delegates they need, if all goes according to plan?

BERMAN: Yeah. I think it will be unlikely for any of the candidates, including Mitt Romney, to reach that number prior to the end of the primaries, which is in June.

RAZ: This is going to go for a while.

BERMAN: I think so, yes.

RAZ: Do you think that - or do you have any intel on whether any of the Republican campaigns are reading your book?

BERMAN: I don't know what Republican campaigns are doing. I didn't know what Hillary was doing so I don't know what the Republicans are doing.

RAZ: Could it be - could it serve as a template for them, I mean, if they were trying to figure out, you know, how to pull this off?

BERMAN: I think they might find it helpful, yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: Jeff Berman. His new book about the 2008 presidential primary is called "The Magic Number." Now, one person we haven't mentioned yet is Newt Gingrich. The former House speaker trails both Romney and Santorum in the delegate race. He's under a lot of pressure to bow out. But Jonathan Chait, political writer for New York Magazine, says from Gingrich's perspective, it may make more sense to go the distance and become the kingmaker at the convention.

JONATHAN CHAIT: Gingrich is dividing the conservative alternative to Romney vote. He's prevented Romney from having to face a united conservative front. So Gingrich's continued campaigning is helping Romney win these plurality victories and continue to maintain this status as front-runner without making it over 50 percent in many states at all.

RAZ: What do you think Gingrich gets out of staying in right now?

CHAIT: If I was Newt Gingrich and trying to be rational - and that's a huge assumption when you're talking about Newt Gingrich - I'd be thinking that what I have of value to offer is to Mitt Romney. Romney wants me to race, so I would have some kind of back-channel discussion with Mitt Romney and say, what can I do for you, what can you do for me? Newt Gingrich, when this is over, is going to go back to his influence pedaling business on K Street. A lot of Mitt Romney's friends could help him.

RAZ: So your theory is, is that Gingrich continues to take votes away from Santorum. He goes all the way to Tampa and then he delivers his delegates to Mitt Romney, hoping maybe to be rewarded if Romney becomes president.

CHAIT: That's what I would do if I was Newt Gingrich, but, you know, you never know with Newt Gingrich.

RAZ: Many Republicans are saying that 2012 is a tipping point. You know, this election could change America's course. It's nothing new. We hear that every four years. But this time around, you've been arguing that they have a point. How so?

CHAIT: What I argued in my New York Magazine piece is that these constant invocations of now or never and tipping point actually means something more than the typical election rhetoric. And Republicans have perceived that the election of Obama heralded this rising demographic coalition that's going to slowly make electoral conditions worse for them. And if they have a short-term opportunity to expand on the games they made largely due to the recession and to get a sort of big bang, win in 2012, and that compromises are going to be required in the future, but they don't want to have to make them.

So this fear that they've expressed, I think, really is based on something real that the country is getting more non-white, that their non-college educated white base is shrinking steadily its percentage of the electorate and things are going to get worse for Republican conservatism as we know it today. And their days are, in some sense, numbered.

RAZ: That's political writer Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.