Mitt Romney may be incapable of delivering a knockout punch, but as long as he stays on his feet, he's nearly guaranteed to win on points.
Republican nomination battles used to be punch-out affairs -- win enough early primaries, and your opponent would be forced to quit because he couldn't raise enough money. But in the era of super-PACs, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum can stay in the race as long as their billionaire patrons, Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess, keep writing checks. Ron Paul, meanwhile, has an army of idealistic supporters who pony up $50 each week that he keeps campaigning.
The three challengers all have good reason to stay in:
Santorum believes he could defeat Romney in a head-to-head matchup, if only Paul and Gingrich weren't siphoning off so much of the conservative and anti-Mitt votes. He might have a point. Romney has not won a majority in any of the primaries this year aside from the Super Tuesday contests in Virginia, where only he and Ron Paul were on the ballot, and Massachusetts, his home state.
Gingrich, meanwhile, directly benefits from continuing to run. His campaign has paid him, personally, more than $100,000 in "unspecified expenses in what amounted to petty cash," as the Washington Times' Luke Roziak puts it. The Gingrich campaign has also paid or otherwise subsidized Gingrich's for-profit enterprises, in the process raising his profile and, presumably, his speaking fees. Gingrich's top aides are rewarding themselves with plenty of Sheldon Adelson money, too -- one super-PAC aide paid herself $220,000 for about 10 weeks of work.
And Paul, who hasn't won a single primary or caucus, is going to ride his crusade all the way to the convention floor. As long as he's appearing in debates and still able to campaign, Paul can continue to spread his message on spending, taxes, monetary policy, and war. And if he controls a sizable chunk of delegates, he may be able to move the party platform or at least earn himself a prime-time convention speaking slot.
Another dynamic that keeps the race from ending in a bang: Romney just isn't the type of guy to sweep Republican primary voters off their feet. He's a former liberal, an establishment candidate in a party abuzz with anti-establishment fervor. Romney conveys few core convictions, and lacks personal magnetism.
So there will likely be no knockout. But that doesn't mean this race is still contested. The delegate math shows that Romney is all but certain to win the nomination.
Counting delegates this early is an imprecise art. Some delegates are not bound, and the early caucuses did not actually allocate delegates to the national convention -- that will occur in state conventions this spring or summer. The Associated Press' estimate puts Romney currently at 415 delegates, to Santorum's 176, with Gingrich and Paul controlling 105 and 47, respectively. A candidate needs a majority of all delegates in order to win the nomination, which this year comes to 1,144.
Two of the remaining winner-take-all states will be uncontested, Utah and Pennsylvania. Romney is all but guaranteed to win Utah's 40 delegates on June 26, and so if Santorum win his home state's 72 delegates on April 24, his net gain is 32 -- leaving him about 200 behind Romney, with about 1430 remaining. The remaining states are scattered geographically and demographically, distributed evenly between Romney's base (the Northeast), Santorum's (the heartland), as well as the Romney-leaning West and the Gingrich-Santorum South.
If Romney were to stumble and win only a third of the delegates in the remaining states, Santorum would have to win more than half of all the delegates in order to pull ahead, meaning that Gingrich and Paul together would have to be held below 16 percent. To date, not even counting Romney's blowout in Massachusetts, Romney has won nearly half of the delegates while Santorum has won about one-fourth. That means the only path to Romney losing requires Santorum to double his past haul, while Romney drops by about 70 percent. That's not likely.
Barring some disaster, Romney's worst-case scenario is that he finishes first, but a bit short of the 1,144-delegate absolute majority, thus needing to pick up a handful of Santorum, Paul or Gingrich delegates. That would not be a pretty way to win, but it would be a win.
Timothy P. Carney, the Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.