For all of last night's fireworks, the window of opportunity for any of Mitt Romney's rivals to knock him out of the top spot is basically closing fast. Let's consider a few data points.
Think someone will mount a stand against Romney in South Carolina? Think again. The latest Monmouth University poll puts it bluntly: "Romney poised to go 3 for 3." The top-line results tell part of the story: There, Romney has an 11-point lead over Newt Gingrich, his closest rival. But let's dig deeper:
Gingrich (30%) does best among those who call themselves very conservative, leading both Romney (25%) and Santorum (21%) among this voting bloc. But Romney does particularly well among voters who see themselves as somewhat conservative (39%) and moderate or liberal (38%). Gingrich also does well among those who say they strongly support the Tea Party movement -- a group that represents more than one-third of the likely electorate -- with 31%, to 29% for Romney. However, Romney bests Gingrich among those who support the movement only somewhat (39% to 17%) and either oppose or have no strong opinion about the Tea Party (31% to 15%).
It's hardly surprising that Romney fares better than Gingrich among those who are only "somewhat conservative" or who "somewhat" support the Tea Party. What's important is that even among those who strongly support both, he's hardly getting dominated. If the third of likely primary voters who strongly identify themselves as being with the Tea Party give Gingrich only a 31 percent to 29 percent advantage, then this segment of the voting population isn't worth talking about.
And whatever support Rick Santorum might gain from the semi-unified front of national social conservatives is obviously arriving too late, if it arrives at all.
Romney is crushing all comers in Florida. When Florida decided to buck Republican National Committee rules and jump the primary calendar to January, it gambled that its contest was going to end up being the kingmaker. It looks as if that gamble is going to pay off. Today's Sunshine State News poll has Romney staking a 26-point lead, and there's been little evidence of vulnerability.
Up until now, one way of arguing against Romney's inevitability was to point out how few delegates he's already won. But once Florida's primary is in the books, we start playing with some bigger numbers. The Florida primary's move to January came with a cost -- its delegation was slashed from 99 to 50 in punishment for FUBARing the primary calendar. But Florida's prize amounts to the winner taking all, so Romney is poised to bank a big number of delegates on his tally, anyway. The failure to blunt Romney's momentum has essentially given him a better chance of winning bigger shares of larger piles of delegates.
By the time we're through with Florida, it looks like that old criticism that Romney can't win the support of more than 25 percent of the field will have fallen by the wayside as well.
Romney's rivalry with rivals rivaled by rivalry between rivals. Sure, at times during last night's debate, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich went after Mitt, and the conventional view is that Romney was finally knocked back on his heels once or twice. This has led the Washington Examiner's Byron York to wonder if Romney will keep participating in these debates, to spend four more evenings taking shots and attempting to "run out the clock."
But what's the harm? As Jonathan Martin of Politico points out, as long as Gingrich and Santorum jockey between themselves to be America's Next Top Not-Romney, they're fighting a grueling battle with Romney tucked neatly in the background:
In what's shaping up to be the decisive primary of the GOP race, Mitt Romney has two unwitting allies: Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich.
As they vie for the role of conservative alternative to Romney, Santorum and Gingrich can't help themselves from attacking one another, increasing the likelihood that the field remains too fractured to stop the front-runner from effectively claiming the nomination by notching his third consecutive victory.
And as I noted earlier, anytime that the debate conversation turns to Ron Paul battling the GOP establishment candidates over his unorthodox policy positions, Romney can put his hands in his pockets and enjoy the show.
Romney is now beating the Not-Romneys, anyway. The new Gallup Poll has Romney polling at 37 percent nationally among Republicans. Via Dave Weigel of Slate: "For the first time, support for Romney outpaces support for the three candidates running clearly to his right: Santorum, Gingrich, Perry. That conservative vote adds up to 33 percent."
But if the field got winnowed to just one of the Non-Paul, Not-Romneys, he would have a shot at defeating him, right? I'll confess that I've bought into the premise -- which I've borrowed from Rick Santorum -- that there is an "establishment primary" that Romney is winning, a "libertarian primary" that Paul is winning, and a "true conservative primary" in which the vote is getting divided up among Santorum, Gingrich, and Perry. The implication being that if all those votes could get consolidated around one rival, the lucky rival could potentially take Romney in a three-way fight.
Lynn Vavreck and John Sides, citing something I should have considered in the first place, says this premise is incorrect:
Why is the number of alternates important? Because many people are conflating two very different things: support for a candidate and disdain for another. Just because a voter prefers Rick Santorum for the Republican nomination does not mean that this voter would prefer any other candidate on the ballot to Romney. This false premise has led to a lot of faulty conclusions about Romney's support among the electorate.
In fact, Romney is the second choice of a quarter of the electorate who did not rank him as a first choice. Nearly 40% of Gingrich voters list Romney as their second choice. More than half of Huntsman voters do so.
This suggests that as the field narrows, Romney's support will grow, in contrast to the notion that the "anti-Romney" vote could coalesce around another, apparently more conservative candidate if there weren't so many conservatives in the race.
And this is just the evidence you pile up in advance of the contests that lie between Florida and Super Tuesday. Who's got the campaign in place right now to compete with Romney in Colorado, Nevada and Michigan? If you answered Perry, Gingrich or Santorum, you're wrong.
Miracle comebacks in South Carolina or Florida are still possible, I suppose. But it's a difficult haul. For Romney's rivals, a popular Dylan lyric sums it up: "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there."
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