Is the Republican presidential race effectively over?
The question is on plenty of lips in GOP circles following Mitt Romney’s huge win in Tuesday’s Illinois primary. But the answers coming out of people’s mouths varies according to their allegiances, sense of history and mathematical dexterity.
In most primary years, delegate counting becomes a formality. Winning the party nomination is traditionally a momentum game in which victories in key early primaries bring in donations that enable the frontrunner to spend his rivals into oblivion.
What’s more, the role of the party establishment (yes, there is one) in quashing insurgents and designating the heir apparent is on par with the machinations of the Politburo.
And the Wednesday morning endorsement of Mr. Romney by former Florida governor Jeb Bush provides more of the inevitability imprimatur for Mr. Romney and suggests hold-outs among the party establishment are finally signalling they want to see an end to a nomination race that has been damaging to the party’s brand.
The last time the party had a real nomination race on its hands this late into the season was in 1976, when Ronald Reagan was the insurgent candidate challenging then incumbent president Gerald Ford. The fight went all the way to the convention, with Mr. Ford winning the nomination on the first ballot by a mere 117 votes of the 2,257 cast.
Since then, the countless state and national party by-laws that govern the allocation of delegates have changed so often, and become so complicated, it is a mug’s game trying to predict with any accuracy just how many delegates each of this year’s candidates have actually accumulated.
Following Mr. Romney’s massive win in Illinois, in which he appears to have picked up 43 of the 54 delegates awarded on Tuesday night, the ex-Massachusetts governor has a total of 563 delegates. But that is according to the Associated Press count cited by most media outlets and it is based on plenty of assumptions that may or may not pan out.
The AP puts ex-Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum’s count at 263 delegates, compared to 135 for Newt Gingrich and 50 for Ron Paul.
One problem is that more than 300 of those delegates fall into the “unbound” category and are technically not required to vote for any particular candidate.
What’s more, the AP totals are based on voting results in caucus states, even though most caucus states have only begun formally choosing delegates in a complex process involving local and state party conventions. There is no guarantee that the outcome of the delegate selection process will reflect the results of state-wide caucus votes.
The upshot is that math whizzes in both the Romney and Santorum camps are overwhelming reporters and pundits with numbers to make the case for their candidate.
The Romney people insist their man needs to win fewer than 50 per cent of the delegates in the remaining 23 primaries to capture the 1,144 delegates needed for the nomination, while Mr. Santorum would need to win more than 80 per cent of them.
The Santorum people argue that, while the math makes it hard for their candidate to win the nomination outright before the convention, strong performances by Mr. Santorum in upcoming primaries will enable him to prevent Mr. Romney from reaching the magic number. And once the fight reaches the convention floor, all bets are off.
A more subjective view of the remaining primary calendar makes it hard to see that happening, however.
Except for Saturday’s Louisiana primary and the April 24 contest in Mr. Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania, Mr. Romney is currently considered to have a considerable edge in the seven other primaries scheduled through the end of April.
This batch of primaries includes a host of Romney-friendly northeastern states, including delegate-rich New York. Mr. Santorum’s core evangelical supporters are less of a factor in such states. And he would need tons of cash he does not have to advertise in media markets that are among the most expensive on the continent.
Mr. Romney’s campaign has burned through far more cash that it had anticipated it would take to win the nomination – more than $100-million (U.S.) so far, if spending by the Super PAC backing him is included.
But with the Super PAC picking up most of the tab for pro-Romney, anti-Santorum advertising, outspending Mr. Santorum and his less-flush Super PAC by several multiples will hardly be a problem in the remaining primaries.
Mr. Santorum faces two big tests in coming weeks in the April 3 Wisconsin primary and on April 24 in Pennsylvania. If he underperforms in both, the Republican contest will likely be a race in name only.
Unless of course, you listen to Newt Gingrich.