Santorum: Clawing His Way To May?

The ability of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign to get itself on the losing side of the expectations game continues to amaze. Today’s primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland and DC ought to be an easy-breezy moment for the Romney campaign: he is certain to win a majority of delegates on the day, and his very likely win in Wisconsin ought to be a big deal, since Santorum led there in all the early polls and it’s a state within Rick’s geographical wheelhouse.

Instead, notes Nate Silver:

Throughout the nomination process, Mitt Romney’s campaign has applied a sledgehammer approach to the delicate art of managing expectations. If campaign officials think Mr. Romney is going to win a state, they will find a way to broadcast that to the news media — even when it might not seem to their advantage to do so. If they think Mr. Romney will lose, then they won’t.

Wisconsin, which votes on Tuesday, is the latest data point in the pattern, with Mr. Romney predicting a win in a visit with campaign workers on Saturday.

Mr. Romney is right that the odds are in his favor. He has been ahead in all recent polls in Wisconsin. The FiveThirtyEight forecast model, which is based on the polls, projects about a 9-point win for him and gives him an 88 percent chance of victory.

Still, a 9-point polling lead is not completely safe. Instead, it is in a little bit of a danger zone — just large enough that some of Mr. Romney’s potential voters might take a win for granted and stay home, which could open the door for Rick Santorum.

So instead of representing the beginning of the month when Mitt Romney ends the 2012 nomination contest once and for all, April 3 is now a day when Romney could lose Wisconsin in an upset. Moreover, speculation about Santorum’s fate is now skipping over today’s events and focusing on April 24 and Pennsylvania. That’s Rick’s home state, where a new Quinnipiac poll released today showed Santorum holding onto a lead. Should he win there, he may be able to convince pundits and donors alike to ignore the pounding he will receive the very same day in New York, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island. Thus would he arrive alive at the oasis of May, when every contest is in a state where he should have at least a fighting chance if the money hasn’t dried up and if every conservative opinion-leader isn’t screaming at him to get out.

Don’t get me wrong: even if that happens and Santorum romps happily through May reenthusing hard-core conservatives with the vision of a GOP and a country led by a proud Satan-fighting theocrat, the June events will croak his candidacy for sure. But one cannot help but wonder why Team Romney has been unable to bring the hammer more quickly. Mitt’s clumsy prediction of a Wisconsin win, when the outcome matters only to Santorum and only if it’s perceived as a upset, may be a good example of an unacknowledged financial problem with Mitt’s campaign: his wizards are clearly overpaid.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.