Rick Santorum's chances to overcome Mitt Romney's delegate dominance disappeared last night. Romney now holds a 415-176 lead according to figures from the AP. Santorum got just enough good news that he won't need to drop out anytime soon, but that outcome seems inescapable now, whether it is tomorrow or at some point later this spring.
Luckily for Santorum, the next rounds of voting skew toward his base, allowing the former Pennsylvania senator to build on his momentum and provide justification for fighting on for a bit longer. The next votes will be held this weekend, when the small stakes Virgin Islands and Guam join Kansas in holding caucuses this Saturday. There are 40 delegates up for grabs in Kansas, a state straddling the Midwest and South, the two regions where Santorum's bid has gained the most traction. There have not yet been any polls for this year's race, but Mike Huckabee—Santorum's stand-in for comparisons to 2008—captured nearly 60 percent of the 19,000 votes cast in Kansas that year.
He'll get another boost next Tuesday, when 110 delegates are apportioned from Mississippi, Alabama, and Hawaii. The first two states—a combined 90 delegates—are weighted toward the evangelical and blue collar Republicans that have been Santorum's bread and butter this year. Again, there are no polls for either state yet, but Santorum will be the clear favorite in each case. Santorum can thank a high turnout of religious right voters for his victory in Tennessee last night. Evangelicals and born-again Christians constituted 73 percent of exit polls, breaking for Santorum over Romney by 19 percent. It's a path he'll try repeat in the Bible Belt.
Missouri's nonbinding caucus comes next on March 17. Considering his 55 percent win in the state's beauty pageant primary in February, Santorum should notch another easy win here. He'll struggle in the March 20 Illinois primary, a state McCain carried in 2008 and one where, like Ohio, Santorum failed to file a full slate of delegates. However the month is capped off in Louisiana on the 24th, another primary where Santorum's edge among the religious right and working poor should give him a boost.
All of these states allocate their delegates on a proportional basis, so Santorum will only creep ahead slightly to close the delegate gulf, but he's likely to gain a month of favorable headlines, especially if he knocks off Newt Gingrich and consolidates the anti-Romney voting bloc.
Things will turn sour once April rolls around. That's when states finally start holding winner-take-all-contests and the first ones tilt heavily in Romney's favor. Wisconsin, Maryland, and the District of Columbia vote on April 3. Wisconsin could be a repeat of the close battle fought in Michigan and Ohio, but the latter two should drift to Romney. April 24 will be a mini-Super Tuesday, with five states and 231 delegates are on the table. Santorum's home state Pennsylvania is included in that docket, though he didn't fare so well the last time he was on the ballot there. And the rest of the states—New York, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Connecticut—are full of the northeastern Republicans that have been Romney's key base so far. If Santorum has ignored the pleas from party elders to end his bid and continued to fight on through April, it's hard to see him lasting far beyond those primaries.
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