Santorum Prays for Pitchforks in Tampa

Rick Santorum dashed Mitt Romney’s hope that Super Tuesday would be the capstone to gaining the nomination. The former Pennsylvania senator won Oklahoma, Tennessee, North Dakota, and lost by a hair to the former Massachusetts governor in Ohio. His performance last night assures he will remain in the race for the foreseeable future. 

Despite a night that outpaced expectations, any realistic hope for Santorum to gain a majority of the delegates necessary to secure the GOP nomination evaporated last night. Political scientist Josh Putnam of Davidson College ran the numbers earlier this week and found that even in the unlikely event that Santorum wins 50 percent of the vote in every remaining state (a feat he's only accomplished in one so far) he would barely pass the 1,144 delegate threshold. After yesterday, Romney now holds an insurmountable delegate advantage. Even with momentum possibly shifting in his favor, Santorum will be out of options thanks to election rules that require early primary states to allocate their delegates on a proportional basis. If the remaining primaries were winner-take-all, Santorum could begin to close the gap with Romney, but only one of the remaining 12 primaries and caucuses in March hands all its delegates over to the winner. 

Why continue to delay the inevitable then? It's rare to find a high-ranking politician who isn't a bit delusional—reaching the upper echelon of government requires an unrealistic belief in one's personal charisma and ability to overcome long odds. So perhaps Santorum has fooled himself into believing that he can force a brokered convention in which the conservative base will grab its pitchforks and kick the Romney the Phony out of the party. His rhetoric certainly seemed to bear out that this was the case: "We are in this thing not because I so badly want to be the most powerful man in the country," but because the threats posed by Obama are so grave that "this is the beginning of the end of freedom in America," he said.

Setting aside the lofty rhetoric, there are practical reasons for Santorum to drag things out for a little longer. His presence in the race will continue to force Romney further to the right—and more into Santorum territory—before the can shift gears for the general election. Last week Romney let slip that, in an absolute vacuum, he would have likely opposed the Blunt amendment's efforts to block birth control. Then, of course, he immediately backtracked, fearing a Santorum-led attack from movement conservatives. As long as Santorum sticks around, Romney will be forced to answer to the fringe elements of Republican politics, ensuring that Santorum's theocratic views won't be quickly discarded. 

Santorum also has an interest in being the undisputed second-place finisher in the primary contests. At 53, Santorum is still relatively young for presidential politics. Should Romney lose the general election, Santorum would be a strong contender in the 2016 primary. The oversold tale of Republican politics is that the party throws its support behind whomever is "next in line." Santorum would clearly fit that model if he closes out as a strong second.

If Santorum stays in the race for the next month, he'll probably make a bit of headway in the delegate count considering that a large number of Southern states—Kansas, Alabama, Mississippi—and socially conservative Missouri are up for grabs.  But he won't get within a stone's throw of Romney's lead. Santorum seemed resolved to carry on during his speech last night—"We keep coming back," he said exuberantly—but he will soon face immense pressure from party elites to end his bid. They are flocking to Romney, and some, such as Representative Paul Ryan, have called for an end to the battle. Republican leaders recognize the damage this extended primary has done to their brand, and are eager to move past it for a one-on-one showdown with Obama.

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