While the focus of today’s primary action has been on Michigan for weeks, it would be a huge mistake to discount the contest taking place in Arizona.
There, Mitt Romney holds a commanding double-digit lead over rival candidate Rick Santorum. And unlike Michigan, Arizona is a winner-take-all state, meaning that Romney is likely to pick up all 29 delegates after the votes are tallied late Tuesday night.
Because so much attention is being paid to Michigan, the developing narrative has become this; Romney will lose regardless of how he finishes there. Win by a little — as most polls suggest he will — and critics will blast him for failing to convincingly carry his home state. They’ll attribute his narrow victory to his stance on the auto bailout or to his inability to personally connect with voters. Lose the contest to Santorum — an unlikely outcome to be sure — and critics will declare the race officially titled in Santorum’s favor.
But folks, it’s really more about math than “momentum.”
As the New York Times’ Nate Silver deftly points out, Michigan awards 28 of its delegates on a district-by-district basis, with the final two given to the overall winner. This means that if Romney edges out Santorum, as is the expectation today, he’ll pick up around 18 delegates, to Santorum’s 12. That net gain of six delegates is nothing to write home about, but keep in mind that Romney enters today’s matchups with a 50 delegate lead over Santorum. Santorum needs to be erasing his deficit against Romney, not watching it grow.
That’s why Arizona is so important. Forget the argument that Mormons will propel Romney to victory — they only make up about five percent of the state’s total population. The bottom line is that Romney is going to roll out west, buoyed by a strong performance in last week’s debate and a key endorsement from Arizona Governor Jan Brewer. Remember, this is the Republican primary, not the general election, thus Brewer’s support will appeal more to GOP voters today than Democrats and Independents this Fall.
Romney should also benefit from the fact that the economy, and not immigration, is weighing on the minds of most Arizona voters.
So when the dust settles on today’s battles, Romney will have emerged with a roughly 35 delegate pick-up, creating a bit of breathing room between himself and Santorum as they head into Super Tuesday.
This story was updated at 6:11 p.m.