DAYS before voters in Illinois went to the polls, Rick Santorum described November’s presidential election as “the most important since 1860.” Absurd historical analogies are usually more Newt Gingrich’s thing, but Santorum got one thing right. His candidacy for the presidency, like Abraham Lincoln’s over 150 years ago, is now history.
Even with a victory in Illinois, Santorum’s best endeavours to catch Mitt Romney appeared slim at best. In defeat, he is increasingly looking like a rebel without a cause. Romney not only won by a double-digit margin in the popular vote, but he trounced Santorum in the delegate count. Added to Romney’s win in Puerto Rico on Sunday, the frontrunner has accumulated approximately 65 delegates to Santorum’s 10 since the primaries in Alabama and Mississippi. Earlier this week, Santorum’s campaign unconvincingly tried to downplay Romney’s sizeable lead, claiming that it was the only campaign “not talking about delegate math.” There’s a reason for that.
Santorum will now look to Missouri, Louisiana, Wisconsin, and, of course, his home state of Pennsylvania. As this race has shown, Santorum is more than capable of winning states. His main problem, however, has always been delegates. Despite victory in Mississippi, Santorum now appears to have lost or drawn the state with Romney in the delegate count. For all his fighting rhetoric, Santorum has yet to convey how and when his campaign will eventually start closing the gap with the frontrunner, simply because without 80 per cent of the remaining delegates, he can’t. Santorum is now resigned to pursuing the Gingrich strategy, campaigning solely to stop Romney from winning the nomination. This will be a tough sell to both voters and donors. And he is slowly losing both.
Those familiar with Gingrich weren’t surprised that the former speaker has so far refused to suspend his campaign, even in light of his defeats in Mississippi and Alabama. Calls to drop out for the sake of the movement will continue to fall on deaf ears, simply because Gingrich believes that he is the movement, and if he perseveres to the convention, the Republican faithful will yet again learn to love him. The former speaker has now faded entirely into oblivion, finishing fourth in Illinois behind fellow straggler, Ron Paul. For the past few weeks, Gingrich’s only role in the race has been to frustrate Santorum and block the former senator’s attempts to unify support against Romney. But even with Gingrich floundering in Illinois, Santorum was unable to get close to Romney.
The next few weeks of the campaign will likely see some additional Romney endorsements, but most of the focus will be on both the party leadership and grandees calling on the frontrunner’s challengers to drop out. Santorum will repeatedly face the same question as Gingrich: why are you still in the race? When conservative constituencies such as FreedomWorks and RedState.com are either dropping their opposition to Romney or conceding that the race is over, it’s really over. The challenge now for Romney will be to ensure that he gets to Tampa without having to expend valuable resources on bothersome Republican races or explain primary defeats when he already has the nomination locked up. Will he limp across the finishing line? That’s up to his fellow Republicans.
Ewan Watt is a Washington DC-based consultant. You can follow him on @ewancwatt