The basics of simple math are seeping into the 2012 race as the media challenges Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich to reconcile with the fact that reaching the required 1,144 delegates has become a near statistical impossibility. The candidates themselves might not cop to these facts, but it's clear they've shifted gears, turning the focus from winning a majority themselves to blocking Mitt Romney from gaining enough delegates to win on the first ballot in Tampa.
"Romney needs about 50 percent of the delegates," Santorum said on Meet the Press yesterday. "On the current track that we're on right now the fact is Governor Romney doesn't get to that number." Gingrich pushed the same idea on his Sunday stop by Fox News. "He's not a very strong front-runner. Almost all conservatives are opposed, which is the base of the party," the former speaker said. "And I think we are likely to see after the last primary in June, we're likely to see a 60-day conversation about what's going to happen as we already see Romney dominating."
Their campaigns are filled with dreams of a brokered convention where movement conservatives swoop in to save the day, recapturing the party from the faux-candidate. It's a foolhardy proposition. Romney does not need to reach the absolute majority. As long as he maintains his wide lead through the end of voting in June he'll end up as the Republican nominee, brokered convention or not. As Ross Douthat explained on Friday:
While there are still scenarios in which the frontrunner ends up 50-100 delegates short of the magic number at the end of primary season, it would take a truly extraordinary turn of events (a huge scandal, say) to deny Romney the nomination at this point. The chaos-at-the-convention scenarios were almost plausible pre-Michigan, but they only made sense in a world where the leading candidate ended up well short of the necessary delegates. Now Romney is on track to win at least a clear plurality, and if he goes to the convention with over a thousand delegates, Jeb Bush isn’t going to sweep in and swipe the nomination out from under the man who won the most primary-season votes. It just … isn’t … going … to happen.
The conservative base might be wary of Romney, but they're even more skeptical of the dreaded Republican establishment. Party leaders would ruin their standing if they stepped in at Tampa to overturn the preferences of a clear voter majority. Political scientists like to describe the system of primaries and caucuses as exercises to tease out elite sentiments, but that is not how the general public views the nomination process. For them, the nomination cycle is a chance for the average party voter to help shape the direction before the general election kicks in. A slight tip of the scales toward Romney wouldn't be enough to incite a revolt from the base; that'd only develop under the split-decision scenario Gingrich has been hawking, and it certainly wouldn't end well for Gingrich, Santorum, or whoever knocked Romney off his pedestal.