Right now it appears that the most likely winner of the GOP delegate race may be no one.
There will be 2286 voting delegates at the convention in Tampa in August, meaning it takes 1144 to win. Of the 810 delegates awarded so far, Romney has won roughly 454. It is too early to pin down a precise number.
Romney needs roughly 690 of the remaining 1461 delegates -- less than half. Romney is the only candidate with a realistic shot at winning that number, but it won't be easy. In some tough states where he currently trails he would have to somehow win by solid margins. And there are ghosts hiding in the numbers.
For starters, not all Romney delegates are Romney delegates. 339 of the delegates which will be officially awarded to a candidate will not actually be bound to that candidate (*see list of states/territories below).
For example, in Pennsylvania voters elect a slate of delegates proposed by the various campaigns. Those delegates are free to vote as they choose at the convention. How committed those delegates are to voting for the candidate they putatively "represent" will depend on the success of that campaign in picking a reliable slate.
In many other states, like Iowa, the campaigns have even less control over delegate selection. Although Santorum "won" the Iowa caucuses, the 28 delegates from Iowa won't be selected until that state's convention in June and will be free to vote for whomever they want in Tampa.
That opens doors for Ron Paul. He is trying to build a force of shadow delegates. His unique goals mean he has no reason to either quit or negotiate. The Paul campaign understands the machinery and they have been working very hard to get their people into delegate slots putatively assigned to other candidates. This is harder than it sounds, but reports suggest the effort may be working. No one will know for certain until the convention.
There are also about 100 delegates that are completely independent -- Republican dignitaries or officials from each state who are under no obligation to any campaign. Presumably many of these will lean toward Romney, but they will be free to do what they want on the convention floor.
Unless someone drops out or there is some remarkable, unanticipated surge of conservative enthusiasm for the Mittster, it is unlikely that Romney will be able to accumulate a decisive delegate lead going into the convention.
If no one secures the nomination on the first ballot at Tampa, then all of the delegates who are otherwise bound to a candidate are released from their commitment. They can vote for whomever they please, including candidates who did not participate in the primary race or who quit.
Pay close attention to Sarah Palin and Donald Trump's travel itineraries for August.
In short, a Romney delegate lead will matter little unless: a) he can secure a very solid majority, at least 10 percent beyond 1144 -- enough to take all suspense out of the first ballot, or; b) the delegates he "controls" are truly, emotionally committed to him and won't bolt after a failed first ballot.
In principle, Romney could reach a deal. He could offer the VP slot to Santorum and promise to name Gingrich as the Territorial Governor of our new Moon Colony. On paper this should work, but even this scenario has hazards.
A delegate who is "bound" to Santorum has no obligation to do what Santorum asks. His bound delegates can't vote for Romney until he releases them, but once he releases them they can do whatever they want. They might follow his recommendation or they might listen to the voices in their heads.
If Romney and Santorum have a large percentage of the delegates between them then they should be able to work out a successful deal even if some delegates don't cooperate. But even if they manage to work a deal, the first ballot at the convention would be uncertain. Uncertainty would complicate any agreement and invite hijinks. The outcome would hinge on discipline and organization, two values that have been scarce in this election season.
Could a Romney-Santorum ticket win in November? Not likely. But Mitt Romney has a 0 percent shot at the White House if he doesn't get nominated. If the first ballot in Tampa fails, his odds of being on the ticket at all plummet. Being chained to a male, sweater-vested version of Sarah Palin beats being sent home to Michigan or Massachusetts or Utah or wherever it is he lives without ever getting a chance to face Obama.
Take all those factors together and you can see that Romney's "I'm mathematically inevitable" pitch is more spin than reality. There's little real math in this math because the fudge factors figure so large. If Romney fails to run away with the remaining primaries you can expect a wild nominating season to end with an ugly showdown in Tampa.
*States and territories that do not "bind" their convention delegates: Iowa: 28, ME: 24, MN: 40, ND: 22, Guam, Marianas, VI, Samoa, PR: 59, LA: (18)*, PA: 72, IN: (19)*, WV: 31, MT: 26
This post has been updated since its original publication.