After Michigan Primary, What Should Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and the Other GOP Candidates Do Next?

So far, Mitt Romney looks like he's going to keep his frontrunner status. After cruising to victory in Arizona, he currently has a roughly 3% lead over Rick Santorum with about 25% of precincts reporting.

Where do the major candidates go from here? It's very hard to tell because the most important thing is momentum, and there's no easy way to say how that translates from week to week and from contest to contest. For instance, Romney won in Florida, which seemed to confirm that he had all the momentum. No one else received any delegates from that contest and it was the biggest state up to that point. Romney then extended his delegate advantage in Nevada, but saw his popularity tumble as Santorum gained media attention and recognition.

At this point, the major candidates need to rethink their position in the race. They need to look at what could change, what they stand to gain or lose by staying in, and the scenario in which they could win.

Mitt Romney

Romney added Arizona's 29 delegates to his total, and he will end up improving his delegate position further with his Michigan showing. Nonetheless, his real problem is momentum going into the Washington state caucus, which will be held on March 3. Currently. Santorum has an 11% lead, 38% to 27%. Forty-three delegates are at stake, but they are awarded proportionally and Santorum's run of popularity seems to over, especially after his desperate tactics in Michigan was not enough.

Frontrunners in the past have focused on winner take all states, and so the right strategy for Romney would be to focus on high delegate winner take all states where he can use his superior money and establishment credentials to their most efficient effect.

An underwhelming performance in Michigan though would hurt Romney's campaign two ways. Rhetorically, it would be devastating for the other candidates to be able to crow about how Romney's home state didn't support his presidency (Gingrich especially could use this in Georgia to fire up his home state). Second, since a significant proportion of Michigan residents said they cared about the economy, a poor showing in Michigan would

Unfortunately, Super Tuesday is mostly filled with proportional representation states, and the few winner take all states that are on March 6 are only winner take all if one of the candidates gets more than 50% of the vote, which at this point seems very unlikely.

The bottom line: Mitt Romney would be a fool not to stay in, but he needs to seriously consider changing his strategy. He was able to vastly improve his debate performance by retooling his focus and finding a new coach. The worry for Santorum will be that Romney will use a defeat in Michigan to change his strategy again to remain the frontrunner.

Rick Santorum

Rick Santorum advantage is his momentum. He's got a lot of excitement behind him, and he's got to be very thankful that most Michigan residents apparently didn't watch the Arizona debate, in which I thought he got roundly defeated. He has very little money at this point, and so he needs to be very careful at getting the most votes for his money, but also by keeping the momentum going in the media and in the minds of voters.

Because of his unique situation, Santorum may have to consider unorthodox tactics. It may be smartest for him to concede Georgia to Gingrich on Super Tuesday and focus on keeping people enthused by picking up easy wins elsewhere. A huge problem for this strategy though will be Virginia, a state in which he does not appear on the ballot. If he can't have a lot of delegates from those two (GA and VA) states, he'll have to tap his funds deeply to perform well in states like Vermont and Massachusetts – two places where Romney has an advantage.

Newt Gingrich

Gingrich has no momentum. None. Intrade predicts that he has a 2.7% chance of being the nominee and he was largely left out of the last debate.

Still, he has several advantages that should not be discounted. He has more money than Santorum (and so does his Super PAC) and more total GOP primary-goers have voted for him. He's lacking in delegates of course, but he's going to have a really good shot to change that in Georgia. He would be neck and neck with Santorum very quickly and just like before, would get a chance to challenge Santorum and Romney again, and all of their latest antics in Michigan would be fodder for him.

His strategy should be to look ahead to Georgia and to pound Rick Santorum for courting democrats and Mitt Romney for his numerous gaffs in his home state. Momentum could shift back his way.

Ron Paul

Ron Paul's structural position is very weak. He has almost no delegates and seems very unlikely to get any. This should be especially worrisome since he's been able to raise a lot of money, but still finds himself on the bottom of most primaries. His hope, I think, at this point is just to coast along and hope for a brokered convention. Unfortunately, his money won't be worth much there (you can't bombard delegates there with advertisements) and he's not well liked among the party elites anyway.

If he's going to win, he has to win out with the people, and since he's not going to do that, he should his money to influence other federal races and the consciousness of the issues that he has the most intelligent positions on. He should get credit though for waging an Oakland A's style moneyball campaign. He's currently spending his time in Virginia where Gingrich and Santorum don't appear on the ballot. He's got a chance to get a lot of delegates for relatively little money. The man is smart...

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore