For All Practical Purposes, GOP Race Is Over
This item is cross-posted from The New Republic.
There are three ways to look at the GOP nominating contest now that Mitt Romney has won Illinois. The first is summarized by Alex Massie in a headline earlier today: "Illinois Votes; Mitt Romney Wins; Race Still Over." A second is to insist that, while Romney is on track to win the nomination, it's unwise to assume anything until he has mathematically won a majority of delegates. I'd adopt the third approach, which is to look at the road ahead and assess whether there is a plausible--not just possible, but plausible--way for Romney to lose the nomination.
And looking at the calendar and the resources available to Romney and Santorum, it's just irrational to deny Romney's got this wrapped up. It comes down to the delegate math: Despite his various missteps, Romney has been steadily winning a majority of the delegates awarded. According to CNN's reasonable count, Romney went into Illinois with 521 delegates, out of the 966 awarded. Romney needs 1,144 delegates--an absolute majority of those who will vote at the Convention in late August--to decisively clinch the nomination.
And the upcoming contests don't give Santorum a chance to catch up, or to prevent Romney from reaching the magic number. Last week, the wizards at Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball looked at the contests pending through the end of April: Their "guesstimate" of the most likely delegate split in this series was Romney 268, Santorum 117--and this was conceding Louisiana and Pennsylvania wins to Santorum. Looking at the other states--D.C., Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut, Wisconsin, New York, and Rhode Island)--it's hard to think of a scenario where Santorum could win significantly more than the lopsided minority Sabato suggests. Taking that into account, April could put Romney so close to the magic number of 1,144 delegates that the rest of the race would be a formality.
Sure, if Santorum somehow survives the April primaries, May looks like an oasis, with primaries in the theoretically Santo-friendly states of North Carolina, West Virginia, Nebraska, Arkansas, and Kentucky (along with less-friendly Oregon), leading up to May 29 in Texas. But all these states award delegates proportionately, which means that even a near-sweep by Santorum would do little more than reduce Romney's lead. They wouldn't come close to allowing Santorum to catch up.
June is dramatically less friendly to Santorum, with New Jersey and Utah--two states that Romney has in the bag, and which will award a total of 90 delegates on a statewide winner-take-all basis--along with California, where 172 delegates are up for grabs in a winner-take-all-by-congressional-district system that will likely give Mitt another plurality of close to 100 delegates.
When you add it up, as Nate Silver did earlier this month, even the best-case scenario for Rick Santorum would leave him trailing Romney by 300 delegates; Mitt would be on the brink of an absolute majority, and unpledged delegates would then be able to push him over the top.
And all these calculations assume Santorum keeps winning the kind of voters he's won up until now at the same levels--an extremely generous assumption, given the usual tendency of voters tired of the contest to consolidate behind the front-runner. They also assume that Santorum won't stumble in the March and April states of Louisiana and Pennsylvania; a loss in the latter, his home state, could formally end the contest very fast.
Facing this inevitable outcome, Santorum could swing for the fences with an abrasive negative campaign that galvanizes conservative misgivings about Romney. Heading into Illinois, there were already signs he was willing to do that, accusing Romney of "destroying manufacturing" as governor of Massachusetts, and of "having no core" personally. Most ominously, Santorum's campaign may have decided to revive Newt Gingrich's earlier attacks on Romney's record at Bain Capital. But just as conservative opinion-leaders combined to help Romney crush Gingrich in Florida after Newt dared to use Democratic talking-points, they'd almost certainly abandon Santorum if he went there. And more important, the math still wouldn't be on Santorum's side.
Of course, conservative Romney-haters won't give up fantasies of some convention revolt against Romney, or of a misstep terrible enough to make voters and party insiders stampede away from him. But now, after Illinois, it's extremely difficult to doubt that--to quote the old country song--it's all over but the crying.