As much as I'd like to help everyone pretend that tonight's Super Tuesday results are going to be partly cloudy with a chance of some interesting twists, I think what I'm going to do instead is lay down a great big spoiler. So, you've been warned!
At the end of the night, Mitt Romney's campaign will be able to plainly state that it has won a plurality of the delegates at stake, that it's nearer than any of its competitors to the magic number of 1,144 delegates and that it has widened its lead over the rest of the competition.
That's the good news. The bad news, for Romney, is that he'll still be many hundreds of delegates short of the mark, with more than 30 contests to go and a looming question as to whether the GOP establishment will have the patience to wait for the process to play itself out. Prior to the Michigan contest, it was suggested that Operation Dark Horse Candidate would be initiated if he had failed to win his home state.
After the Michigan primary, that "Hail Mary" pass has mostly been struck from the playbook. For some, Romney is required to "break loose" from the pack and firmly seize this race. But that's the second spoiler alert about tonight: Romney's competitors will take home some wins and a decent chunk of delegates themselves. So everyone will have some pretext, however thin, to continue running.
We turn, in this times, to the calmer voices, in this case Josh Putnam of Frontloading HQ:
The bottom line here is that Romney has enough of a delegate advantage right now and especially coming out of today's contests that it is very unlikely that anyone will catch him, much less catch him and get to 1144. The latter seems particularly far-fetched given the above scenarios. And that is a problem in this race. Well, a problem for Gingrich and Santorum anyway. If all either of them can take to voters is an argument that all they can do is prevent Romney from getting to 1144, then neither has a winning strategy. That sort of strategy has a half life; one that will grow less effective as, in this case, Romney approaches 1144. Complicating this scenario even further for Gingrich and Santorum is the fact that if neither can get to 1144 or even close to it, neither is all that likely to be the candidate to emerge as the nominee at any -- unlikely though it may be -- contested convention.
These contests today may not be decisive in terms of settling the nomination, but they very much represent a mental hurdle in this race. That Santorum and Gingrich cannot get to 1144 without vastly over-performing in the remaining contests (relative to how well they have done in the contests thus far) ushers in a new phase in the race.
Naturally, Gingrich and Santorum would both raise objections to this logic -- even as each beseeches the other to quit the race in order to consolidate the non-Ron Paul not-Romney votes behind a single candidate with a fighting chance. But Putnam's larger point makes sense; Santorum and Gingrich are basically running to deny Romney the nomination, not to win it for themselves.
They are now, in essence, human proxy candidates for a deadlocked convention scenario. And that has a pretty ironic backhand when you consider the fact that if, by some miraculous disaster, there is a deadlocked convention, it's extremely unlikely that Republican Party leaders would resolve that deadlock by giving either Santorum or Gingrich the nod. So, Santorum and Gingrich, in a way, aren't even running affirmative campaigns anymore.
Of course, Gingrich and Santorum aren't likely to see it that way. Each has upcoming contests in which their prospects look bright (at least for the moment!) and both are perfectly capable of pointing out Romney's flaws and imperfections. Plus, they aren't technically eliminated from anything on mathematical grounds. But after today, both will essentially be making the same argument that Mike Huckabee persisted in making in 2008, before he started joking about the argument he was making on "Saturday Night Live."
If Romney has a problem right now, it's that he can't seem to get anyone to be patient enough to let him play out the primaries and win. But if Romney wins Ohio and performs ahead of expectations in Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma, he might yet finish this week having calmed the panicky establishment voices. Ultimately, this could do more to end the challenges from Santorum and Gingrich than tonight's results; at this point, the constant whispers of a dark horse entrant into the race are doing more to boost their hopes than their campaigns are doing at the moment.
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