Mitt Romney’s big victories in Illinois and Puerto Rico this week have expanded his lead over Rick Santorum by roughly 60 delegates, putting him ahead by 300 delegates over all.
Increasingly, the nomination race is entering an endgame stage in which it is less a two-man contest between Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum than one that pits Mr. Romney against himself. How certain is Mr. Romney to get the 1,144 delegates required to clinch the Republican nomination? And if he gets them, how soon will he do it?
Mr. Romney, who has 563 delegates, according to an Associated Press count, is almost halfway to the clinching threshold. But the voting calendar is now entering a slower phase that will persist for the next five weeks, until five Northeastern states vote on April 24, with 209 delegates at stake.
The soonest that Mr. Romney could officially clinch the nomination is May 22, when Arkansas and Kentucky vote. That situation would require Mr. Romney to win at least 95 percent of the delegates in Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Indiana, North Carolina, West Virginia, Oregon and the District of Columbia, and to receive endorsements by virtually all of the Republican Party’s 77 undecided superdelegates by that time.
Some of those states, of course, are not so strong for Mr. Romney. And even if he won 70 percent of the delegates in those states, as well as in Texas, which votes on May 29, he would still need to wait until June 5 — when California and New Jersey vote — to clinch the nomination.
This sort of calculation, however, can sometimes be taken too literally. Barack Obama has yet to clinch the Democratic nomination officially, for instance, but there is no real doubt about the outcome.
The more telling number, therefore, may be this one: Mr. Romney has so far won 56 percent of the delegates, according to the Associated Press count. That is, obviously, more than half — in fact, Mr. Romney’s share of the delegates as calculated on this basis has steadily been inching upward over the course of the last month.
It’s also enough to permit him some slack. Mr. Romney would need to win only 46 percent of the remaining delegates to get to 1,144.
There is no reason to think that the remaining states will be much better or worse for Mr. Romney than the ones that have already voted. He should do well in places like California and New York, but more poorly in states like North Carolina and Texas.
If the remaining states play out according to their demographics, as prior ones have, Mr. Romney should continue to win slightly more than half of the delegates on average. If he wins slightly less than half, he should still have no real problems.
Until recently, of course, the Republican race had been highly volatile — perhaps introducing the possibility that Mr. Romney could go through a pronounced slump and fail to hit his delegate targets for weeks at a time.
However, in what is an underappreciated piece of good news for Mr. Romney, the race seems to have become considerably more stable. Mr. Romney has held the lead over Mr. Santorum in the Gallup national tracking poll for the past 24 days. The results in essentially all recent states have been in line with what might be predicted from their demographics (even if the polls sometimes got them wrong). Not since Mr. Santorum’s win in Colorado on Feb. 7 has there been something that cut dramatically against the preconceived notions about how a state was supposed to vote.
Nor does Mr. Santorum appear to possess the ability to control the media narrative and manufacture news of the sort that could represent hurdles for Mr. Romney. His victories in Alabama and Mississippi produced little apparent momentum. Popular interest in the nomination race has begun to decline.
Mr. Santorum’s campaign, moreover, is resource-strained along a number of dimensions. It spent just $220,000 on advertising in Illinois. It employs relatively few consultants and has no regular pollsters — the kind of people who might have told him that going to Puerto Rico (where Mr. Romney won with 83 percent of the vote) was a waste of time.
To the extent there is a departure from the status quo, in fact, it is now much easier to imagine a case against Mr. Santorum.
Mr. Santorum and his campaign team have begun to talk openly about a brokered convention. To some extent, this is a recognition of the mathematical reality: Mr. Santorum would need to win 69 percent of the remaining delegates to secure the nomination before the convention, in Tampa, Fla., something that is close to impossible.
However, voters will not necessarily react well to the talk of a brokered convention. Polls have found that about two-thirds of Republican voters do not want one.
A different but related question, posed to Republican voters in the Illinois exit poll, asked them whether they would prefer that their favorite candidate win or that the nomination contest end soon.
About 25 percent of Mr. Santorum’s voters said they would prefer that the race end soon. Perhaps some of these voters believe that they can have it all — the race would end soon with Mr. Santorum winning. But that has essentially become impossible — whatever slim chances that Mr. Santorum has would depend on going to the floor in Tampa.
As this becomes increasingly clear to voters, they may come to see their choice as being less one between Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum and more one between Mr. Romney and a brokered convention. Some of Mr. Santorum’s supporters may desert him once they view the race in those terms, making Mr. Romney’s path easier still.
And if the nomination were to go to the convention floor, it is not clear how Mr. Santorum would expect to prevail there. Before Michigan, it was possible to envision a situation in which Mr. Romney would have the plurality of delegates but Mr. Santorum would do better by measures of popular support, like the aggregate popular vote, national polls and the number of states won. Mr. Romney now leads in all those metrics. And he has won in enough key states — including Florida, Michigan, Ohio and now Illinois — that it would be hard for one of his opponents to assert that his nomination had vetoed the will of the Republican electorate.
Before an election in 1983, Gov. Edwin W. Edwards of Louisiana declared, “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.” We’re getting close to the point where it might take a major revelation for Mr. Romney to lose, s
omething that substantially and permanently alters the way voters view him.
If, for instance, Mr. Romney faced a period comparable to the one that Mr. Obama did in 2008 when the Jeremiah Wright tapes drove up Mr. Obama’s unfavorable ratings, he could begin to fall below the delegate thresholds that he needs to reach, and superdelegates could be slower to endorse him. Because of the way this year’s Republican calendar is structured, with so many delegates being awarded so late, Mr. Romney could be more vulnerable to something like this than candidates in past nomination races.
Of course, a situation like this is not particularly likely. Mr. Romney has been running for president essentially for the past five years and has had very few vetting problems. (Although Mr. Romney might have some weaknesses as a November candidate, the lack of those problems seems to be an overlooked strength.) Also, Mr. Romney’s opponents have not shown much skill at opposition research; reporters browsing through the Lexis-Nexis archives have had more success in uncovering damaging details about Mr. Romney than Mr. Santorum’s campaign has.
And if Mr. Romney were to be disqualified in some way, it is not clear that Mr. Santorum would be the beneficiary of this — particularly if Republican elites look at his mediocre fund-raising totals and his somewhat uneven campaign and decide that he would have trouble going up against Mr. Obama. At the betting market Intrade, Mr. Santorum is now given just a 1.5 percent chance of winning the nomination — lower than the combined total for a series of dark-horse figures like Jeb Bush, Sarah Palin and Chris Christie, who together have about a 3 percent chance.
The race will continue on until Mr. Romney clinches or everyone else quits, but the only real question is whether Mr. Romney could somehow beat himself.