WITHOUT a very public fight at the party’s convention in August, Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee. After Super Tuesday, Romney’s delegate lead over closest rival Rick Santorum is now looking increasingly insurmountable. However, Romney may well be edging ever closer to the nomination, but his opponents feel far from defeated. As this week demonstrated, Santorum and Newt Gingrich continue to win their own contests and for the time being have earned the right to stay in the race.
If Super Tuesday wasn’t the knockout blow Romney was hoping for, his campaign still delivered, winning enough contests and seizing enough delegates in states once regarded as entirely inhospitable to his candidacy. Of the ten contests on Tuesday, Romney won six, racking up victories in Alaska, Massachusetts, Vermont, Idaho, Virginia, and, most importantly, Ohio. After the hard fought victory in Michigan, Ohio was seen as yet another litmus test for Romney’s candidacy. Given that no Republican has ever won the White House without also winning in the Buckeye State, defeat in this bellwether would have severely undermined Romney’s narrative as the most electable candidate in the field. It went down to the wire, but it was a win nonetheless.
Historically, candidates drop out because their campaigns start to resemble vanity projects or they simply run out of cash. Santorum and Gingrich are not there yet, especially in the latter category. Having seen his strong leads wiped out in Michigan and Washington in the past week, some pundits were questioning whether Santorum had the appeal to remain in the race. Victories in Tennessee, Oklahoma and North Dakota have given a clear answer. Gingrich is in less certain territory. Of course, the former speaker resoundingly won his native state of Georgia, but he campaigned there heavily and wasn’t even competitive elsewhere – especially in Ohio.
With more southern and conservative states coming up on the calendar, Gingrich needs to beat Santorum to fully justify his claim that he’s again a serious candidate and the true alternative to Romney. In the past month, Santorum and Gingrich have publicly lamented that if they had a straight shot at Romney they would unite the conservative forces behind a single candidate and halt Romney’s march towards Tampa. However, these utterances have become increasingly heated, with Gingrich now regularly blasting Santorum for his opposition to “right to work” legislation when he served in the Senate. Both candidates will have to go ugly to maintain momentum.
The rest of March will be somewhat difficult for Romney. He’ll likely win some smaller races in Hawaii and Puerto Rico, but his main focus will be on Illinois on 20 March. Like Ohio, Romney has a significant advantage over Santorum because the former senator failed to file for delegates in four of the state’s 18 districts. Thus, the former senator is already ineligible for 10 of Illinois’s 54 delegates. A win in Barack Obama’s home state will provide the ideal springboard for April, a month where more Romney-friendly states will be allowed to usher the contest along by awarding their delegates on a “winner-takes-all” basis.
Ewan Watt is a Washington DC-based consultant. You can follow him on @ewancwatt