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The GOP Race Remains Long, Hard Slog

The results from last night’s GOP primaries and caucuses – wins for Rick Santorum in Mississippi and Alabama and wins for Mitt Romney in Hawaii and American Samoa — simply confirmed some existing trends. It’s a two-man race.

Mitt Romney won the night in terms of delegates (41 v. 35 for Rick Santorum). Governor Romney remains the frontrunner, with a huge lead in total delegates (498 v. 239 for Santorum). He’s won 50 percent of all the delegates awarded to date and 45 percent of the delegates needed to clinch the nomination He’s also won more than a million more votes than Santorum during the course of the campaign so far.

As Jonathan noted earlier, Romney has still failed to win over the conservative base of his party. He continues to have difficulty winning support of evangelicals and blue collar, lower-income, and less-educated people. While admittedly playing “away from home,” the former Massachusetts governor – despite a huge money advantage – once again missed a chance to deliver something close to a knock-out blow to his main rival, Santorum. And so the race remains a long, hard slog, with a decreasing likelihood that things will be settled before June 26 (the date of the last election, in Utah).

Rick Santorum, with two impressive wins in Mississippi and Alabama (where he was trailing in polls just before the votes were cast), lives to fight another day. Santorum did well among very conservative voters, evangelicals, and members of the Tea Party. He emerges from last night energized and renewed in spirit, hoping he gets what he desperately wants and needs: a one-on-one contest with Romney.

As others have pointed out, Newt Gingrich had another very bad night, losing in a region he ought to own. (His spokesman R.C. Hammond had called both Alabama and Mississippi “must wins” for his candidate. Those words have been rendered inoperative.) Yet Gingrich seems committed to stay in the race, at least based on his comments last evening. It’s not entirely clear why he should. As Bill Kristol points out, Gingrich has lost 20 out of 24 races in which both Gingrich and Santorum have both been on the ballot. All told, Gingrich has won only two states during the course of two-and-a-half months. He’s had ample opportunities to convince the GOP electorate that he rather than Santorum ought to be the conservative alternative to Romney. But the voters have sided, in an overwhelming fashion, with Santorum over Gingrich. Santorum has now bested Gingrich in Oklahoma, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi — all states that Gingrich, if he were a viable nominee, should have won. The former speaker’s rage at Mitt Romney is palpable; and yet by staying in the race, Gingrich is helping the former Massachusetts governor by splitting the non-Romney vote. (CNBC’s John Harwood reports that based on a conversation he had with a friend of Sheldon Adelson, the casino owner may have written his last check for Gingrich’s super PAC, which would be a devastating blow to Gingrich.)

If Mississippi and Alabama were must wins for Santorum, then Illinois becomes extremely significant for Romney. If he fails in the contest there next Tuesday, in a state he should prevail in, then the doubts around his candidacy, which have never gone away, will only grow, even as his chances of winning the nomination in the first round of balloting shrink.

The fundamental dynamics of the race didn’t change last night. Mitt Romney continues to roll on, amassing delegates even as he loses contests, doing enough to remain the dominant leader but not enough to seal the deal. Any hopes for an early resolution to the contest is long gone. Like Democrats in 2008, this race will last until (in all likelihood) late June. Mitt Romney will almost surely arrive at the convention in Tampa with the most delegates, though he may not have the 1,144 he needs to wrap up the nomination. If that happens, he would remain the favorite to win. But the convention could end up being much more interesting and dramatic than Romney and his advisers had ever hoped it would be.