Politics by the Numbers: Countdown to Chaos

BY Gwen Ifill  March 16, 2012 at 6:11 PM EDT

Almost every Tuesday night this year, political junkies everywhere have gathered by the flickering light of their computer screens. We have pored over exit polls, tallied the minutes until results from Vermont to Hawaii and crunched delegate allocations.

Invariably, we wake Wednesday morning at least as confused as we were the day before.

Dirty little secret? Many journalists hate numbers. We chose creative writing or literature courses so we could get lost in words instead of sums. But thanks to the surprisingly competitive 2012 GOP primary contest, we have been consigned to exactly the world we sought to escape.

So here we sit, pondering third parties, delegate totals, brokered-convention scenarios and win-loss percentages. How are we expected to get our NCAA basketball brackets done in time?

Mitt Romney is all about the math. His advisers will happily share how they plan to collect the 1,144 delegates they need to win the nomination. They are even happier to outline how no one else can.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum, who has survived long enough to turn this into the two-man race for the nomination that he wanted, appeals to the heart rather than the head.

Math is one thing, he said. Vision is another. If you hate numbers, that argument can be appealing.

But math may be THE thing. Santorum’s folks are now letting it be known that denying Romney the numbers he needs may be their path to victory, even if the route includes a politically bloody convention floor fight in Tampa.

Since we have to pay attention to the numbers, here are a few to plug into your calculator:

495 | The number of delegates Romney has so far, according to The Associated Press. That’s almost twice Santorum’s number (252), nearly four times as many as Gingrich (131) and more than 10 times as many as Ron Paul (48).

1,358 | The number of delegates still left to harvest | including potentially big-haul states like Texas, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and New York.

20 | The number of delegates at stake in Puerto Rico, where Santorum caused a mild uproar this week by suggesting Puerto Ricans speak English as a precondition for eventual statehood. In another year, this might not hurt so much, but delegate-hunting is an exacting business.

1 million | The number of votes Romney told Fox News he has in excess of his nearest competitor so far this primary season.

3 | The number of comments Romney has made in only the past week that reminded voters of his wealth and humor challenges. Declaring Santorum to be damaged goods just before the former Pennsylvania senator clocked him in two big primaries was one of them.

41 | The percentage of Americans who said in a CBS/New York Times poll published Monday they approve of the job President Obama is doing.

50 | The percentage of Americans who said in Reuters and Pew polls taken around the same time that they approve of the job President Obama is doing. Lesson: Pick your poison.

2 | The number of states Newt Gingrich has won.

20 | The number of states where he has come in third place or worse…why this is a two-man race.

26,000 | The rough total of votes Santorum, Romney and Gingrich got in Kansas caucuses | combined.

178,000 | The rough total of votes Romney, Paul and Gingrich got in the New Hampshire primary.

Expect more twists, turns and corkscrew outcomes that could result in fewer and fewer voters having a bigger and bigger impact as time goes on.

At least until everyone throws up their hands and goes on summer vacation.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.