Proportionality: Delegates are awarded proportionally in 31 of 35 future contests, which means winning a state doesn’t mean you get all its delegates and losing a state doesn’t mean you don’t get any delegates. Mitt Romney lost Tennessee but still picked up 14 delegates. Rick Santorum won 29, giving him only a net 15 in his race to close the more than 200 delegate gap.
Not all states are created equal: To catch the front-runner, Santorum or Gingrich will have to do well in winner-take-all states. There are just four of them and they’re all favorable to Romney: Utah (where there is a large Mormon population and Romney helped turn around the Olympics), New Jersey (Gov. Chris Christie has endorsed Romney and the electorate is made up of his kind of voter), Delaware (the electorate is also favorable), and Washington, D.C. (Santorum isn’t even on the ballot). Santorum also didn’t make the ballot in parts of Illinois, which deprives him a chance at 10 delegates. Other states like California, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York have electorates that are dominated by moderate voters with whom Romney does well.
Romney’s rivals are too weak: If they hope to overtake Romney, Santorum or Gingrich would not just have to win future contests, they’d have to dominate them in a way no candidate has dominated any contest so far in this election. They’d have to steal huge chunks out of the Romney coalition—converting people who like Romney a lot and think he’s most electable. There is no evidence in any of the races so far that Gingrich or Santorum could do that. Mitt Romney may be weak, but his opponents are weaker.
Drama 2: Mayhem in Tampa
Mitt Romney’s challengers know that they’re not going to catch him on the delegate count in advance of the convention—though they aren’t broadcasting that idea. Their battle plan rests on keeping him from winning the 1,144 he needs to get the nomination and then zooming ahead of him in Tampa.
To do this, Santorum or Gingrich have two tasks: win enough remaining races to get within striking distance of Romney and then sweet talk however many delegates they need to make up the difference between the ones they’ve won and the ones they need to get to 1,144.
Romney is still in a good position to capture the magic 1,144. For Gingrich or Santorum to draw close enough to him, one of them must emerge as the sole conservative alternative. That way, the last conservative standing can suck up all the possible anti-Romney votes (and delegates). It will also help them win states outright, which will matter when momentum and public perception become a part of the big sales pitch in Tampa.
When the feuding Republican Party arrives in Tampa, if Romney has not locked up 1,114 delegates, the candidate in second place will embark upon a charm offensive to convince unpledged delegates and party officials that he should be the nominee.
There are two main audiences that need convincing: The first are the unbound delegates, and the second is the Committee on Contests. Let’s start with the committee. This is the body that meets in Tampa a week before the convention to adjudicate disputes over the delegates that were awarded during the election season. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are likely to focus on the states of Florida and Arizona. Romney believes all the delegates in those states go to him because they are winner-take-all states. His challengers argue that the delegates in those states should be awarded proportionally because those states lost their winner-take-all status when they jumped ahead in the Republican Party primary calendar and held their contests in January and February. “This idea that Mitt Romney is going to get 50 delegates out of Florida, that’s just simply false,” Santorum said on Friday. “All these delegate counts, they are shadows.”
If the Romney challenger convinces the committee, Romney will still get the majority of delegates in those states, but he’ll lose some depending on how his opponent performed.