While onlookers await next week’s contests in Michigan and Arizona to see who the clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination for President will be, let’s also keep in mind the longer view beyond. When you look at the math, it looks downright depressing for Republicans.
The Republican election calendar and delegate selection rules are set up assuming that somebody will start running away with it relatively early in the process. But nobody has. Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum have all won states. All three, plus Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman, have amassed delegates.
But the devil is in those delegate counts, and when you look at the election calendar, it appears that it may be a very long time until the Republicans are able to stop bickering among themselves, and instead turn their attentions to President Obama.
The winning number of delegates at the Republican National Convention is 1,144. Currently, Romney has an estimated 111, Santorum 44, Gingrich 30, and Paul 15. A growing number of states’ Republican nominating process rules are not winner-take-all (although upcoming Arizona is), so as long as Romney can’t shake Santorum or Gingrich, his delegate count is unlikely to grow as fast as he would like. And if Santorum wins either Michigan or Arizona next week, then Romney is in real trouble, but then Santorum moves into the delegate math hell himself.
The key to the lack of closure in the race is as much about what isn’t happening as what is: big key states not playing ’til late.
Texas, whose primaries are now delayed until at least May 29th because of redistricting uncertainties, allocates 155 delegates. California, which allocates 172, isn’t until June. Those two states alone account for about 25 percent of the delegates needed to win the nomination.
Add to that Pennsylvania, Santorum’s home state. Their primary date was originally scheduled for April 24th, but since they’re in a similar redistricting situation to Texas at the moment, many believe their primary will be rescheduled until a later date as well. They allocate 72 delegates.
These three states alone account for 35 percent of the delegates needed to win at the Republican convention. Yikes.
It’s tempting for Republicans to dismiss the perils of a protracted primary season, since four years ago we Democrats had one ourselves, and it obviously didn’t hinder our ability to win the general election. But there is a key difference: four years ago, Democratic primary voters had trouble making up their minds between Obama and Clinton because each were candidates who Democratic primary voters widely adored, or at least respected. This time, the Republicans see each of their four remaining choices as fundamentally flawed damaged goods, and they’re struggling to decide which is the least of their evils.
The longer the Republicans take to settle on a nominee, the longer they will continue to hammer on each other, and the longer they’ll continue to debate issues considered long-settled by general election voters, but which excite the extreme wing of the Republican base. That’s what the silly birth control debate is about. It may help a candidate get the edge with primary voters, but there’s no doubt it’s hurting them in November.
Ironically, Newt Gingrich, the guy nobody’s talking about at the moment, may hold the key. Gingrich’s continued candidacy is the main reason Santorum isn’t running away with the nomination these days, since he’s helping to split the “Not Romney” vote. In that light, it wouldn’t surprise me if Romney calls Gingrich every night, promising him the VP slot if he stays in, and Santorum calls Gingrich every night, promising the same slot if he withdraws.
If there’s anything Gingrich understands, it’s how to leverage the cards he’s dealt. No matter who wins Michigan and Arizona next week – Romney or Santorum – look for all eyes in the Republican establishment to look toward Gingrich after the results come in.
And the longer the Republican primary season trudges on, the more the Republican establishment groans in despair, and the wider the smiles in the White House will become.