Yesterday’s Super Tuesday primaries and caucuses, stretching across ten states from Vermont to Alaska, did not resolve the GOP presidential nomination contest, but did place Mitt Romney in a position where probably the most he has to lose going forward is time and money.
Romney won four primaries (Vermont, Massachusetts, Virginia and Ohio) and two caucuses (Idaho and Arkansas), and looks sure to win a majority of delegates at stake last night. According to 538’s Nate Silver, the cumulative delegate totals at this point are 332 for Romney, 139 for Santorum, 75 for Gingrich and 35 for Paul. 1144 are needed to win the nomination. So Romney is clearly on a pace that will, if continued, carry him to the nomination.
Had he done slightly better in Ohio (where he was out-spent by Romney 5-1 and had little apparent organization), Rick Santorum might have been deemed the big Super Tuesday winner even without much of a delegate haul. As it is, he won primaries in Tennessee and Oklahoma by better-than-expected margins and pulled a bit of a surprise by winning the caucuses in North Dakota. His performance (except in Georgia, where Gingrich enjoyed a big home-field advantage) closely tracked white evangelical strongholds (white evangelical/born-again voters were 72% of TN’s primary electorate, and 73% of Oklahoma’s). Gingrich met his goal of winning Georgia, and won it convincingly, but talk of a more general Gingrich surge (especially in Tennessee) proved illusory; he finished no better than third anywhere else. And Ron Paul had perhaps the most disappointing night, handily losing his one-on-one match with Mitt Romney in a low-turnout Virginia primary, and failing to win any of the caucus states where he had placed most of his emphasis.
Since elite opinion is one of Romney’s key assets, it’s noteworthy that he didn’t get much credit for his Super Tuesday performance, in part because of expectations that a late surge might win him states like Tennessee and North Dakota, and in part because a lot of the coverage was probably written early in the evening when Santorum was leading in Ohio and Mitt’s western wins weren’t yet apparent. One common meme of the post-mortem has been that Romney needs to do better in the South to win the nomination—a proposition that (as I tried to show in a TNR column appearing late last night) makes little mathematical or strategic sense. It is true, however, that by failing to win something approaching a sweep, Romney lost his third opportunity (one after New Hampshire, another after Florida and Nevada) to put an early end to the nomination contest, and must now deal with a much slower pace towards victory as the contests stretch out into the spring.
Though Santorum is trying semi-publicly to get Gingrich to drop out, that’s extremely unlikely, at least before next Tuesday’s primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, where his Super-PAC has already been running ads. It’s probable that Santorum himself could make a serious effort in those states, at the risk of giving Romney an opening; Santorum will definitely make a big play in the March 17 caucuses in Missouri (where he won a non-binding primary last month) and the March 20 primary in Illinois.
More generally, after April 1 states are allowed to hold winner-take-all primaries, and it’s quite significant that most will be held in territory hospitable to Romney: notably California, Maryland, Puerto Rico, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Utah. California alone offers 172 delegates. Santorum (and, if he stays in, Gingrich) will have to cooperate implicitly and play error-free baseball if they are to have a prayer of stopping Romney. And money could be a deal-breaker: neither Santorum nor Gingrich has the kind of personal wealth Mitt can rely on if needed, and both are extremely dependent on Super-PAC sugar daddies.
Much as media observers (and for that matter, Democrats) would like to see the contest stretch right up to the convention (where, helpfully, Sarah Palin has offered herself as party savior if needed), Romney will likely clinch the nomination in April—perhaps on April 24, when New York and Connecticut hold primaries almost certain to be won by Romney, and Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania votes, too. It’s extremely unlikely Santorum could survive a loss there, yet he may not be favored. Until then, you can expect constant dialogues-of-the-deaf between analysts stressing the virtual certainty of Romney’s eventual nomination and others pointing out he doesn’t have the delegates to declare victory just yet.
In non-presidential news, two incumbent members of Congress lost primaries in OH yesterday: Republican Jean Schmidt, a fiery conservative who lost to a rival calling her not conservative enough; and of course, Democrat Dennis Kucinich, who was thrown into a new district with fellow Rep. Marcy Kaptur and just had too much new territory to win. And in Maine, former nonpartisan Gov. Angus King announced he would run for the seat being vacated by Olympia Snowe as an independent. Democratic front-runner Rep. Chellie Pingree promptly announced she would not run, amidst speculation that Democrats in Maine and nationally might back King (a social progressive who endorsed Kerry in 2004 and Obama in 2008).
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