John McCain was one lucky guy. That has been my conclusion as we watched him beat Mike Huckabee in South Carolina January 19 by 33 percent to 30 percent, beat Mitt Romney in Florida January 29 by 36 percent to 31 percent, and then make a huge delegate sweep by winning all the winner-take-all states on Super Tuesday, February 5, including Missouri by a 33 percent-to-32 percent-to-29 percent margin over Huckabee and Romney. In California, which awarded 11 delegates to the statewide winner and three each to the winner in each congressional district, McCain beat Romney statewide 42 percent to 35 percent and carried 48 of 53 congressional districts (it appeared to be 50 of 53 before California finally counted all the votes).
Using Dave Leip's Election Atlas and the Green Papers, I calculated the delegate count if McCain's share of the vote had been exactly 3 percent less in each primary on January 19 and 26 and February 5 and if Romney's share of the vote had been exactly 3 percent more. After all, those results would have been just about as plausible, given the way the campaign and polling were going, as the actual results.
This 3 percent switch wouldn't have affected the delegate count in South Carolina, where McCain would still have beaten Huckabee 30.15 percent to 29.84 percent. And it wouldn't have affected it in most of the Super Tuesday primaries. It might have moved a couple of delegates in Massachusetts and Tennessee. (In Massachusetts, Leip has McCain carrying and winning 2-to-1 delegate advantages in the First, Fourth, Eighth, and Ninth Congressional Districts; the official state report to which he links has McCain carrying only the Eighth District, and by a margin that vanishes if you switch 3 percent of the vote from McCain to Romney. I can't find the Tennessee results by congressional district.)
But the 3 percent switch has a huge effect on the delegate count in four states. A 3 percent switch would have left Romney leading Huckabee by 33.92 percent to 33.17 percent and ahead of McCain in Georgia. This would have given him 33 additional delegates for winning statewide, yet (astonishingly) no additional delegates from any congressional district, at least as I read the two websites cited. In Florida, a 3 percent switch transforms McCain's 36 percent-to-31 percent victory to a 34 percent-to-33 percent victory for Romney. Florida was allotted 57 delegates on a winner-take-all basis, and that would have switched all 57 from McCain to Romney. Missouri on Super Tuesday was the closest three-way race, with Romney by a narrow margin in third place. But the 3 percent switch puts Romney in the lead, with 32.27 percent of the votes to 31.53 percent for Huckabee and 29.95 percent for McCain. In this scenario, Missouri's 58 winner-take-all delegation would have gone to Romney rather than to McCain.
Then there's California. A 3 percent switch wouldn't have given Romney the statewide lead and the 11 delegates awarded to the statewide winner. But it would have increased the number of congressional districts he carried from five to 18. Instead of 15 delegates, he would have had 54.
Let's put the results down in a table.
|Actual delegates||3% switch delegates|
|McCain||Romney||McCain lead||McCain||Romney||McCain lead|
From a 255-delegate lead for McCain in these states to a 77-delegate lead for Romney. A 3 percent switch can make a big difference in winner-take-all systems.
After Super Tuesday, McCain had 516 delegates by one delegate count, with 207 to Romney and 142 for Huckabee. (I don't regard these numbers as definitive, but they're probably not very far off.) The 3 percent switch would have changed this to 362 for McCain, 385 for Romney, and 109 for Huckabee. Instead of McCain taking a huge delegate lead out of Super Tuesday, he'd have been a little behind. When you're behind as Romney was after Super Tuesday, you could see that even in a winner-take-all system, you'd have to win practically everything to overcome McCain's lead. Since Romney was in a position where he'd have to mostly self-finance any further campaigning, he was being asked to bet something like $30 million on very unfavorable odds.
Romney made his fortune reading numbers, and he probably realized, if only intuitively, that something like a 3 percent switch would have left him in a very different position. In that case, there was no way he would have gotten out of the race. The Potomac primary was coming up February 12. Romney could hope that with Huckabee still in the race (He had no reason to get out: His campaign cost him virtually nothing, and he was enjoying it), Romney might have carried Virginia (63 delegates winner-take-all) and maybe Maryland (34 delegates winner-take-all), even if one concedes D.C. (16 delegates winner-take-all) to McCain. Wins in the two states and a loss in D.C. would have given Romney 482 delegates to McCain's 378—a triple-digit margin. (I'm ignoring the caucus states here, but Romney generally did better in caucuses than in primaries.) Momentum might have carried Romney to a win February 19 in Wisconsin. One or two weeks of TV time would eat up considerably less than $30 million, and if Romney had been ahead after Wisconsin, he might have found conservative money coming in for him in time to contest Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Vermont on March 4. And if he had still been ahead after these contests, would McCain have stayed in until the Pennsylvania primary on April 22?
(Some readers may remember that the Republican National Committee deprived Florida of half its 114 delegates because it scheduled its primary too early, and that if Florida had had 114 delegates, it would have elected them mostly by winner-take-all in each of its 25 congressional districts. If a 3 percent switch had occurred, would Romney then have called for the full Florida delegation to be seated, as Hillary Clinton has done? Absolutely not. McCain carried 20 of the 25 districts, and even a 3 percent switch would have given Romney only 12 districts to McCain's 13. That means that in a 114-delegate delegation, Romney would have had 75 delegates and McCain 39. That's a smaller delegate lead than Romney would have gotten out of a 57-0 split.)
It didn't take Romney long to read the numbers. A 516-to-207 delegate count meant he had to get out, as he did, quite gracefully, at the CPAC convention February 7, two days after Super Tuesday. A 3 percent switch would have given us an entirely different Republican race and might have made Mitt Romney the Republican nominee. A nominee who was, before Super Tuesday, notably weaker in polls against Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama than John McCain was then and is now. John McCain is one lucky guy.