Frontrunners and Underdogs

Feb 26 '12

This is a guest post by political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus.


The Romney campaign recently came under scrutiny for first suggesting that, because of his history in the state and as a frontrunner for the nomination, Michigan was a “must win” — but then backtracking.  The campaign claimed they were not altering their strategy based on a challenge from Rick Santorum but that they were simply trying to get to 1,145 delegates.

They might be right.  The Romney campaign seems to be following the logical strategy for frontrunners.

In a 2009 article, Travis Ridout, Nathan Hosey, and I investigated how candidates allocated advertising dollars and visits to different states during the 2004 and 2008 presidential nominating campaigns.  We looked at such factors as delegate selection method, cash on hand, the competitiveness of the primary, and frontrunner status.

We found that frontrunners were more likely to visit states with winner-take-all delegate allocations or caucuses than were underdogs.  Frontrunners were less likely than underdogs to advertise in states with caucuses or proportional delegate allocation methods.  The implication may be that, even without the challenge from Santorum, as a frontrunner Romney would be spending considerable time and money in Michigan anyway.

And what about Santorum, now one of the (seemingly endless) rotating list of Republican nomination “frontrunners”?  Is his strategy consistent with his newfound frontrunner status?

The figure below tracks the total number of recent candidate visits to Michigan, Arizona and Washington, excluding visits for participation in debates.  Visits to these states conform to what our findings.  The frontrunners, Romney and Santorum, visited the primary states of Michigan and Arizona more frequently than did underdogs Gingrich and Paul.  Likewise, Gingrich and Paul visited Washington State, which holds proportionally allocated (non-binding) caucuses on March 3, more frequently than did Romney and Santorum.

Santorum’s recent travel thus suggests that he’s acting more like a frontrunner.  He appears to be abandoning the “long shot” strategy of focusing on proportional caucus states (even non-binding ones) that he used to win the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses just weeks ago.