For Rick Santorum, Staying Alive Means Keeping Things Interesting

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Lauren Lancaster for TIME

Greenwell Baptist Pastor Tony Perkins, right, and Pastor Dennis Terry, left, pray for Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum's campaign at Greenwell Springs Baptist Church in Greenwell Springs, Louisiana, March 18, 2012.

As Illinois Republicans go to the polls today, it has been some ten weeks since the first votes of this GOP primary were cast in Iowa. Since then, the campaign has offered a rich buffet of plot twists and controversies: the rise and fall and rise and fall of Newt; Rickmentum; “creative destruction,” moon colonies, Satan and “sluts.”

But now, let’s be honest: This race has gotten boring. It has become a long slog, defined by uninspiring arguments about delegate math. The grand ideas have all been unfurled, and the juiciest attacks have all been made. That the Santorum campaign is resorting to cracks about Seamus the dog’s rooftop ride only proves the point.

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All of which is great news for Mitt Romney. Boredom is his friend. Boredom will lead him to victory.

The polls suggest that Romney will win today’s primary, perhaps by a double-digit margin. The result could be closer: Rick Santorum has a knack for outperforming his polling. But what matters is that the outcome not be dramatic or memorable. That’s because Romney is winning the GOP primary race by default. Republicans may be unenthusiastic about him, but he’s still their clear first choice—and has been, apart from two short blips, for most of his year. He leads handily in the delegate count. And he has far more money than Santorum, or the now-virtually-irrelevant Newt Gingrich.

To catch up, Santorum needs people to keep paying attention. The more they tune out, the more his chances fade. His only chance of compensating for Romney’s financial edge is through loads free media coverage of the sort that energized his campaign after he caught Romney sleeping and won three primary contests right after Florida last month. That free media will keep his followers committed and energized, delivering him not only votes but, in a virtuous cycle, new campaign contributions to give him still more momentum.

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Sure, Santorum can keep losing marquee states like Illinois and still hang around for weeks to come, nipping at Romey’s heels, picking off a few delegates here and there. But that’s an extremely low-percentage strategy for winning a delegate majority, as Nate Silver has explained.

Isn’t it enough for Santorum to deny Romney a majority of delegates, and then snatch the nomination away at the party’s convention in Tampa? In theory. But if Romney holds a commanding lead all the way until August—and enjoys an attendant advantage in media coverage—it will be exceedingly hard for Santorum to storm into the convention and knock Romney on his butt. Especially if the former Pennsylvania Senator continues to lag in head-to-head polling against Obama.

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The good news for Romney is that the next few weeks are looking rather dull. Santorum might win Saturday’s Louisiana primary. But that’s not so interesting: by now no one expects Romney to do well in the deep South. After that, the voting moves through several states where Romney should be much stronger, like New York, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia (where Santorum isn’t even on the ballot).

On April 24, Pennsylvania, which has a hefty 72 delegates, will have its say. A Santorum win in his home state would qualify as boring. But he did lose his last re-election race there by 17 points, and the state has plenty of the kind of upscale suburban voters who are keen to Romney. A defeat in his home state is not the kind of interesting outcome Santorum should be hoping for.

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