March, previously forecast as the month that would decide the Republican presidential nomination (read: the month that Romney would clinch it), has instead reduced the race to an excruciating slog to 1144, the number of delegates that a candidate must secure to receive the nomination. At the time of this writing, Romney leads with 484, followed by Santorum with 239, Gingrich with 136, and Paul with 69; there are 1358 delegates left to be allocated in the remaining contests.
In the past week, there has been much talk about whether Gingrich, after losing two states in the Deep South, will drop out of the race and allow Santorum to go one-on-one against Romney. That’s confusing, because virtually no one in the media is discussing whether Paul should leave the race, considering that he has not won a single state. Paul’s excellent fundraising abilities and dedicated base will allow him to go all the way to the convention in Tampa, but whether or not Gingrich stays in the race will be the determining factor in Romney’s ability to reach 1144. As was seen in Alabama and Mississippi, if Gingrich keeps going, he splits the vote of the conservative wing of the GOP. While this may seem to be helping Romney, it is actually robbing him of his ability to clinch because it means that he can only receive about 1/3 of the delegates in competitive proportional states. If Gingrich drops out, then Santorum will begin winning many more delegates, but so would Romney, and so a two-man race would actually allow Romney to reach the magic number. Gingrich has realized that Romney is so far ahead in delegates that there is only option that realistically exists to prevent a Romney nomination, and that is to make the race go to Tampa. So, Gingrich is going all in; not to actually win the nomination for himself, but to try to prevent Romney, the man who nuked him in Iowa and Florida, from becoming the nominee.
The longer this race goes on, the greater the chance that President Obama wins reelection. The GOP candidates keep pushing themselves to the Right to appeal to religious conservatives and Tea Partiers, but in doing so they are alienating the moderates and independents that will decide the election in November. Romney still remains the assumed nominee, but as he is forced to placate social conservatives, his chance of winning the presidency decreases. Of course, the current insane gasoline prices could upend Obama’s reelection strategy, especially since the President so publicly shot down the Keystone XL oil pipeline. While it is true that green-lighting the project would not have done much to reduce the price at the pump, Republicans should be able to cast the President as a fake regarding his purported “all of the above” energy strategy. Perhaps Romney should take a page from Gingrich’s playbook and focus more on domestic energy, although he should certainly avoid any sort of hard pledge like Gingrich’s “$2.50 a gallon” promise, since such a goal could only be guaranteed by anti-free market price controls.
Looking ahead to next week, the Illinois primary will be an indicator for how the rest of this race will unfold, and it will be a showdown between Santorum and Romney. Santorum has found much success in Midwestern and Rust Belt states, but Romney will get support from the more moderate voters in Chicago and its suburbs. Even ignoring Santorum’s failure to file for a full slate of delegates in the state, if he wins Illinois, then Romney failing to reach the magic number becomes a very real possibility. But if Romney pulls off a victory, then he will have momentum going into the next big contests, including Pennsylvania, the state Santorum once represented in Congress. If Romney does not clinch, then Santorum will stay in until Tampa and hope to unite conservatives around him in a contested (and, for the party, devastating) convention.