The fight for the Republican presidential nomination has entered a phase Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton would find familiar. From now until a candidate actually clinches the nomination, the race will become a contest for delegates, fought more in the trenches of individual congressional districts than on the national stage.
That fact gives former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney a fundamental advantage: He has a lead in delegates won that will be difficult, if not impossible, for his rivals to surmount.
Santorum and Gingrich deserve credit for extending the race as long as they have, and they each have no reason to drop out now. Gingrich's big win in his home state of Georgia seems to validate his Southern strategy. And with Alabama and Mississippi voting next week, he may repeat his performance. Santorum's victories in Oklahoma and Tennessee and his close second-place finish in Ohio give him the media coverage and the delegates to continue his torrid fundraising pace (he raised $9 million last month).
But the very rules changes that have forced the contest into extended trench warfare and have kept Santorum alive are now conspiring against him.
Those rules, which the Republican National Committee finalized only last year, mean the rest of the GOP primary fight will play out in one of four ways. Absent an improbable surge by either Santorum or Gingrich, Romney, through sheer attrition, will secure the nomination by June at the latest (the likeliest scenario). Romney could score surprising wins in several states that hold contests over the next few weeks, making clear to Santorum and Gingrich they have no path forward (unlikely, given the way each candidate has performed well in certain regions). Santorum and Gingrich could continue to collect delegates, making sure Romney is never able to reach the 1,144 delegates necessary to clinch the nomination and forcing the issue at a brokered convention (unlikely, given the rate at which Romney is winning delegates). Or one of Romney's rivals could surge, take the lead, and secure the nomination (the unlikeliest scenario of all).
First, some basic facts: Romney's campaign claims it has captured 430 delegates, a combination of the delegates he has won through early contests, those he expects to win at state Republican conventions based on early caucus results, and the RNC members who have committed to backing his campaign. Romney's camp credits Santorum with 185 delegates and Gingrich with 106. Internal RNC delegate-counters say Romney has secured 336 delegates (they're not counting caucus states that have yet to allocate actual delegates or RNC members), compared with 113 for Gingrich and 96 for Santorum.
So Romney has between 29 percent (based on the RNC's count) and 38 percent (based on his own count) of the delegates he needs to win the nomination outright. The states that have held nominating contests so far have awarded 35.8 percent of the total delegates to be had — 820 of 2,286. Romney must win at least 714 and possibly as many as 808 of the 1,466 remaining delegates.
By contrast, after Super Tuesday on Feb. 5, 2008, 60 percent of the delegates available on the Democratic side had been awarded, and Clinton held a slim 20-delegate lead over Obama (Obama would surpass Clinton later in February, when he won 11 straight contests and netted 120 delegates. Obama's 100-delegate lead, just 4 percent of the total number of delegates awarded by the end of February, held up throughout the rest of the contest).
Let's take the four scenarios for the GOP race one at a time.
Romney Wins By Attrition
The most likely scenario will not become obvious for a few weeks. Romney's campaign will struggle in March, but by April it will become clear that he has the institutional advantage.
The RNC rules changes, meant to allow the presidential nominating process to continue past the early states, allowed any state that held its contest in March to award delegates only on a proportional basis (though several states ignored the rule). States that hold their nominating contests in April may award delegates on a winner-take-all basis, boosting their stature and increasing the possibility that the race would wrap up that month. Importantly, many states didn't take the RNC up on that offer — and that helps Romney tremendously.
The states that will vote over the next few weeks, which will award delegates proportionally, would seem to benefit Santorum and Gingrich: Alabama and Mississippi vote next week, with Louisiana holding a primary on March 24; Romney has had trouble in the South against Gingrich, who has emerged as a regional candidate. Kansas has caucuses this weekend and Missouri will hold them over the course of the following week. Santorum has already won caucuses throughout the Plains states.
But all of those states award delegates on a proportional basis, which means that even as Romney is losing states, he will accumulate delegates. Georgia proved the perfect example of how the rest of the campaign is likely to go. Though Gingrich won with nearly 50 percent of the vote, Romney was able to win 21 delegates, mostly in the Atlanta metro area.
Romney must crack only 20 percent of the vote in Kansas and Alabama and only 15 percent of the vote in Mississippi to win delegates — thresholds he will certainly meet. That means he would take delegates away from Santorum and Gingrich even if they beat him by wide margins.
Meanwhile, states that award all of their delegates to winners of the statewide and congressional district vote clearly favor Romney. California, which votes in June, will award 10 delegates to the statewide winner and another three per congressional district in each of it's 53 districts. Maryland, the District of Columbia, Wisconsin, Delaware, New Jersey, and Utah all operate on the same principle.
If Romney wins 40 percent of the delegates available in the seven Midwestern states that have yet to vote — Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and South Dakota — he would net 116 delegates out of the region. Romney is likely to do better in Illinois and Wisconsin, two primary states with traditions of electing moderate Republicans, than in Kansas, Missouri, or Nebraska, more conservative states with caucus processes. But he will come away with at least a few delegates in each state.
Romney's biggest test comes in the South, where eight states will award 434 delegates. Although he has lost four Southern states so far — South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Oklahoma — he has come away with 50 delegates out of the 196 awarded. If he can repeat that performance throughout the region, Romney would win another 108. Texas looms as the largest delegate prize, awarding 152 delegates total.
Romney has performed well in the Northeast, the region in which the rules are stacked most in his favor. Maryland, the District of Columbia, Delaware, and New Jersey will all award delegates to the outright winner of each state and congressional district; of the total 126 delegates, Romney is likely to win the vast majority of 100 or more. And Romney's brand of Republicanism will play well in Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island, the three states that award delegates on a proportional basis. Assuming he wins half of the 125 delegates in those states (and that's a low-end assumption), he would add another 62 delegates.
Romney's best region has been the West, where he's won primaries and caucuses alike. He should win the bulk of California's 53 congressional districts — perhaps as many as 45 — giving him at least another 145 delegates in the Golden State alone. The Montana and Oregon contests will have a heavy Mormon influence; together, they represent 48 delegates, almost all of which Romney should win. He won Arizona, where immigration issues took center stage, and he's likely to do as well in New Mexico. Add Utah, which awards its 37 delegates on a winner-take-all system, to Romney's total as well.
And though they are often overlooked and their delegations dumped in out-of-the-way spots on the convention floor, U.S. territories still get a say at the Republican convention. Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands and American Samoa all get nine votes each, and Puerto Rico gets 20 convention votes. All five territory political parties are tightly controlled by a Republican establishment that has largely thrown in with Romney; add another 56 delegates to his column.
All told, the long slog will continue into the summer, and at times things won't look good for Romney. But of the seven states that vote in June — California, New Jersey, New Mexico, South Dakota, Nebraska, Montana and Utah — five are likely to give Romney the final boost he needs to get over the 1,144 threshold.
Romney Wins By Knockout
Then again, maybe all of this math isn't necessary. At some point, Santorum or Gingrich may succumb to gravity, or Romney's team may find the silver bullet for one or both. If Romney were to manage surprise victories in states the others are supposed to win, Santorum and Gingrich could see the writing on the wall and drop out.
Romney allies have put him in a position to do just that. This week, the pro-Romney Restore Our Future super PAC is spending $615,000 in Mississippi; $739,000 on television ads in Alabama; $937,000 in Illinois; and $450,000 in Louisiana. A pro-Gingrich super PAC is the only competition, running $123,000 in ads in Mississippi and $184,000 of them in Alabama.
That kind of money is enough to move votes. If Romney wins states he's not supposed to, this race could wrap up faster than expected.
But Santorum and Gingrich are showing no signs they are willing to drop out.
The Brokered Convention
What if Romney's math doesn't add up all the way?
If Romney wins just a quarter of the delegates from the South — his current pace, excluding Florida — plus a third of the delegates in the Midwest, even overwhelming wins in the Northeast, the West, and the territories won't get him across the 1,144 threshold. (In that scenario, Romney would win 645 additional delegates, giving him a total of 1,075, about 69 delegates short.)
Romney could still win on the convention's first ballot, thanks to the Republican version of the Democratic Party’s “super delegates.” The 168 members of the RNC each have a vote at the convention, meaning Romney would need to pick up most of those voters to secure a win.
And he would have a plausible argument: After all, assuming both Santorum and Gingrich stay in the race, they will have split the remainder of the delegate vote, along with Ron Paul; none of the three Romney rivals would be able to make the case that they should be the unifying candidate on the first ballot.
But that scenario would devastate the GOP. A brokered convention would reek of insider shenanigans. The Republican Party is already riven by a deep mistrust between activist base and D.C. establishment — a rift that hasn't healed in the two years since the Republican sweep of 2010. The prospects of healing a greater schism in the two months between a convention and Election Day would be practically nil.
The math ultimately works in Romney's favor, but winning a nomination by brokered convention would be winning a nomination not worth having.
The Alternative Surge
The least likely scenario is that Santorum or Gingrich wins enough delegates outright to secure the nomination. For either to have a path — no matter how narrow — the other would have to drop out. And with both campaigning this week in states with contests beyond Super Tuesday, that seems unlikely to happen.
Santorum has, at most, 185 delegates right now. He would need to capture an additional 959 delegates — or 65 percent of those remaining up for grabs. If Santorum wins all 434 delegates in the South and all 291 left in the Midwest, he would still be 234 short, meaning he would have to win nearly 40 percent of the delegates in the Northeast and West, too.
So far, Santorum doesn't have a great track record in either region; he's won only three delegates from Nevada and four from Vermont. And denying delegates to Romney would require keeping him under the threshold, which in most states is just 15 or 20 percent. Romney hasn't scored below 23.7 percent (his nadir, in North Dakota) in any primary this year.
Gingrich's path is even narrower. He would have to win 1,038 delegates to add to his present total of 106, a whopping 71 percent of those delegates who remain. He would need Santorum to drop out of the race almost immediately, then to hold Romney under the same threshold to begin racking up big wins.