It's All about the Delegates

Rick Santorum nabbed a nominal victory last night, placing first in both Alabama and Mississippi. But the wins do little to change the basic dynamic of the Republican nomination fight. Major newspapers and pundits may opine that the 2012 campaign is a competition driven by momentum, but at the end of the day, delegates are all that matter, and on that count, Santorum didn't make any progress. He won Mississippi 33 percent to 30 percent over Mitt Romney, yet per the AP's delegate count, Romney will receive 14 of Mississippi's delegates compared with 13 for Santorum. It was the same story in Alabama; Santorum's five-point win over Romney's third-place finish only netted the former Pennsylvania senator 19 delegates compared with 12 for Newt Gingrich and 11 for Romney. Results from America Samoa and Hawaii wipe out the two headlining Santorum victories, with Romney picking up 17 delegates between the two, compared with just three for Santorum.

March was supposed to be Rick Santorum's month. After Romney's success on Super Tuesday, the calendar should have given the former Massachusetts governor a little less breathing room as the race turned to the Deep South and Midwest. Instead, Santorum limped along over the past week, falling further behind. Santorum gained the headline-grabbing win last weekend in Kansas, but only netted one extra delegate over Romney on Saturday thanks to his clean sweep of the U.S. territories voting that day. As it stands, Romney has nearly twice as many delegates as Santorum. Though Romney's trouble in states with large evangelical populations might hold him back from reaching the outright 1,144 majority by June, he's on pace to accrue a sizable enough lead to make sure a brokered convention won’t occur.

Santorum's lone remaining hope is that Newt Gingrich exits the stage, starting yesterday. Mississippi and Alabama could have been opportunities to run up the score for Santorum, but Gingrich's presence split the conservative voting bloc down the middle. With just two wins under his belt—one being his home state of Georgia—Gingrich will face pressure from the usual crowd of movement conservatives to end his bid. A politician committed to a cause might heed such calls, but Gingrich's cause is strictly his ego and visions of himself as a world historical figure. He gave no indication of backing down in his post-results, non-victory speech. "We will continue to run a people's campaign," Gingrich said, congratulating Santorum. But he pledged once more to carry through to the Republican Convention in Tampa this August in the misbegotten hope that a brokered convention will deign to select him as the best general-election candidate.

Unless Gingrich has a change of heart, Santorum will continue to struggle to unite the various conservative wings of the Republican base that just can't convince themselves to vote for Romney. And from here on out he'll be dealing with less favorable terrain. Next up is the Missouri caucus on Saturday. Unless all of Santorum's supporters from the February 7 vanity primary are all diehard St. Patrick's Day revelers, he should have that one pretty much wrapped up by now. But Santorum's possibilities are limited after that. Puerto Rico votes Sunday. Illinois and Louisiana close out the month. Santorum runs surprisingly close in Illinois, only trailing Romney by 4 percent in a Chicago Tribune/WGN released over the weekend, though he failed to register delegates in four of the state’s 18 congressional districts. Louisiana looks a lot like Mississippi and Alabama: Santorum had 25 percent in a poll by a local TV station, but Romney and Gingrich are nipping at his heels.

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