The results of Tuesday’s Deep South primary contests in Mississippi and Alabama confirm what many political analysts had probably already assumed: It’s going to be a long, nasty election season, folks.
Rick Santorum emerged a surprise victor in mainland competitions on Tuesday, winning both Southern states despite organizational and monetary disadvantages compared with front-runner Mitt Romney. But the victories, while nice, ultimately proved hollow: Proportional delegate allocation (in which the three top contenders, having ended the close night mere percentage points apart, will each receive a similar share of the spoils), combined with Romney wins in two low-profile races in Hawaii and American Samoa, conspired to crown the more moderate contender the true winner of the day. Romney scooped up the most (estimated) delegates of the night, muddling the Santorum surge and reinforcing the mathematical reality that his substantial (estimated) delegate lead will line the path to his nomination.
Then there’s Newt Gingrich, whose second-place finishes on Tuesday invalidate his so-called Southern strategy, predicated on the historian’s ability to sweep the more conservative U.S. states. The feisty former Georgia congressman failed to deliver wins in the region presumed to be most receptive to his patented big ideas — like moon colonization and helping poor children by giving them jobs cleaning schools. Regardless, Gingrich reiterated his intentions to stay in the race all the way, posing a serious threat to Santorum’s prospects, which fare much better given a one-on-one battle with Romney.
OK, but where does that leave us? Well, the same place we were before, mostly. Despite his losses Tuesday, Romney’s math argument, while not exactly inspirational, does hold a certain unassailable logic: Unless something big happens to change the race’s dynamics — like, for instance, Gingrich deciding to suck it up and drop out — it remains unlikely for Santorum to top Romney in delegates. And, again, the name of the game is 1,144; any candidate that reaches this number of delegates will automatically be declared the Republican presidential nominee. Estimates put Romney way out in front.
There’s another possibility, though less remote. If none of the candidates hits the magic 1,144 number, the nomination will go to a brokered convention, where party leaders will be forced to decide the nominee themselves. This is the outcome Gingrich favors. “I believe that after the primaries are over it will be obvious the so-called front-runner in fact didn’t get there, and from that point we will be in a whole different conversation,” Gingrich said in defeat. A conversation, presumably, involving child janitors and space fantasies.
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