It's Almost Over for Santorum
Once a candidate starts winning, he tends to keep winning.
Most political contests have an inflection point where the outcome becomes clear. Tuesday was such a moment for the GOP presidential sweepstakes.
Mitt Romney's sweep of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Wisconsin netted him 86 more delegates while Rick Santorum gained six. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul were shut out. Just over half the GOP delegates have been picked: Mr. Romney has 658 (58% of the 1,144 needed for the nomination) and a 377-delegate lead over Mr. Santorum, according to the Associated Press. Mr. Romney needs to win only 43% of the delegates yet to be selected. Mr. Santorum needs 77% of them.
Based on recent statements by him, his campaign and its supporters, Mr. Santorum has what amounts to a five-part strategy to achieve victory: (1) disqualify the Romney delegations from Florida and Arizona's winner-take-all primaries; (2) run up his total in states that select delegates by conventions, not primaries; (3) carry his home state of Pennsylvania; (4) take advantage of "the map in May" which, as Mr. Santorum told "Fox News Sunday" moderator Chris Wallace this week, "looks very, very good"; and (5) swing over uncommitted delegates.
Any attempt to disqualify Mr. Romney's Florida and Arizona delegations is based on a misreading of the Republican Party's Rule 16. That says if a state moves its primary before the first Tuesday in March, "the number of delegates to the national convention from that state shall be reduced by fifty percent." But contrary to a recent memo by the pro-Santorum super PAC, the Red, White & Blue Fund, the rule imposes no additional decrease in the number of its delegates if it also changes its primary to award delegates on a winner-take-all basis, as Florida and Arizona did.
Mr. Santorum may be correct that in convention states like Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota, he can get more delegates than indicated by his share of the vote in the first round of precinct caucuses. But winning conventions requires organization. Mr. Santorum has little. Mr. Santorum carried North Dakota by 40% to Mr. Romney's 24% in the March 6 nonbinding caucuses. But at last Saturday's state convention, Mr. Romney appears to have won 20 delegates to Mr. Santorum's six and Ron Paul's two.
Pennsylvania is a "make or break state" for Mr. Santorum alone, not for Mr. Romney, despite what the Santorum campaign has said. Mr. Santorum is likely to win his home state on April 24, but not by much. A Quinnipiac poll this week had him up by six points.
Mr. Santorum has another problem: Pennsylvania primary voters will directly choose 59 individual delegates but the delegates do not have the candidate's name next to them. The remaining 13 will be chosen by state party leaders. And Mr. Romney has an impressive slate of party leaders who believe Mr. Santorum's crushing 17-point Senate re-election loss in 2006 also dragged down other Republican candidates in the state and cost the GOP its state House majority.
Meanwhile, the rest of April is bad news for Mr. Santorum. By my reckoning, Connecticut, Delaware, New York and Rhode Island primaries and the Wyoming convention will probably bring Mr. Romney to roughly 810 total delegates with a nearly 440-delegate lead over Mr. Santorum.
Can Mr. Santorum significantly close the gap in May? There are heavier concentrations of evangelicals and very conservative voters in these eight primaries (Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas and West Virginia), many of whom favor Mr. Santorum. But Mr. Romney is increasingly competitive with these groups, as Wisconsin showed. (Exit polls indicate he ran ahead of Mr. Santorum with evangelicals, very conservative voters and tea-party supporters there.)
The most recent North Carolina poll shows Mr. Romney leading by six points (the primary is on May 8). Mr. Santorum has only a three-point lead in the RealClearPolitics average of Texas polls (May 29), while Mr. Romney leads by seven points in Oregon (May 15). Dominating this month's contests will improve Mr. Romney's numbers in May. Once a candidate starts winning, he tends to keep winning.
In addition, the May contests are proportional, often with twists that benefit Mr. Romney. For example, Texas awards 108 delegates by congressional district but any candidate with 20% gets one of that district's three delegates. If Mr. Romney does that, Mr. Santorum could win two-thirds of the districts and still only pick up just 12 more delegates than the front-runner, not nearly enough when he's so far behind.
Finally, what possible incentive is there for unpledged delegates to support a fading candidate like Mr. Santorum? He says it would be "energizing" for the GOP to have a floor-fight at its August 27-30 convention. That's the argument of a desperate candidate. More and more Republicans think such a bloodletting would severely set back the cause of defeating Barack Obama.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is correct: The GOP nomination must be earned. Mr. Romney's sweep Tuesday shows he is doing just that.
This article originally appeared on WSJ.com on Wednesday, April 4, 2012.