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.