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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Illinois Primary Preview: Can Santorum "Break"?

Sports metaphors have sprayed the 2012 Republican Primary landscape like Dustin Pedroia sprays line drives across the Fenway outfield. So far, this primary contest has talked about geographical "homefield," where certain states are "slam dunks" for candidates while for others they're "away games." We've talked about Mitt Romney's superior "ground game" and Santorum's attempt at "small ball." We've talked about "momentum changing teams." Candidates hit "home runs" with rousing speeches, but "swing and miss" with embarrassing slip-ups, perhaps even "striking out." Lately, we hear about Romney trying to "run out the clock" since he hasn't been able to land a "knockout punch." (If NASCAR was a sport, I'm sure we could make a Romney joke.) Yet, with all these metaphors across the sports, there's one sport and accompanying metaphor that I haven't yet heard. If we take a holistic look at Romney vs. Santorum, though, they are as fitting as any.

For those that play or follow tennis, you'll understand the term "holding serve." A tennis player is at always at an advantage in games where he or she serves. After hopefully winning that game, the serve goes to their opponent, who then tries to "hold serve" themselves. They go back and forth in this process, but eventually, one player loses a game on their own serve, at which point it is said that the opponent has "broken serve." It's by consistently holding your own serve and winning just enough games on the opponent's serve where a player wins sets and the match. (For those who want to catch me on not using "tiebreakers" in that analogy, I refer you to the possible brokered convention, which would be like the fifth set at a US Open--the mother of all tiebreakers.)

With that far-too-verbose explanation, hopefully one can see how this 2012 Republican Primary has turned into a tennis match. Romney has yet to win a state in the Midwest or the South, where Rick Santorum consistently holds serve. Santorum, meanwhile, has yet to win a game in the West or Northeast, where it's Romney that holds serve. Both candidates, it can be said, exchange service games without breaking the other. The reason Romney is clearly in the lead is because--in a metaphor that can't extend to tennis--his games seem to be worth more than Santorum's. (He also seems to out-bribe the line judges at about a 10 to 1 ratio over Santorum.)

In essence, for Santorum to win, he's going to need to break Romney's serve, and he needs to do it soon enough for it to make a difference. In tennis terms, he does not have the stamina to come back from a two sets to love deficit. Can tonight's Illinois Primary be the break he needs?

It doesn't look like it. Romney will win Illinois and its 69 proportionally allocated delegates. If we look at the latest Illinois polls, we see not only that Romney is up to a 15-point lead, but we also see that of the last four polls taken over the last two weeks, Romney's lead has ballooned from 4 to 6 to 9 to 15. He's steadily pulling away in yet another service game, his booming serve of negative ad blitzes too much for Santorum to return.

Of course, if Santorum pulls off the break, we have yet another shift in narrative as we head to Louisiana on Saturday. The governor will yet again face serious questions. If, however, he continues to hold serve, we're not far from game, set, and match for Mr. Romney.

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