The committee is not the biggest hunting ground for delegates. In Florida, a successful bid would give Gingrich 16 more delegates and shrink Romney’s total by 27 to 23. The other 11 delegates would be split among Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. But the committee is a place where lawyers can debate rules and the terms of debate are at least fixed by common language, culture, and custom. None of that is true in the other venue where Gingrich or Santorum will have to make his case: the 513 members of the unbound delegate pool.
When advisers to Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum talk about the unbound delegate pool, they make it sound like it’s a huge group of swing voters ready to be persuaded by the best argument. That’s not quite right: Most are technically free to do as they please, but they are a Romney-leaning group. If you were to think of this group as an electorate, they are more like the voters of Florida or Michigan—predisposed to liking Romney and more susceptible to his arguments—than they are the voters of South Carolina.
Who are these people? Among the more than 500 unbound delegates, there are various subgroups. First are the Republican “superdelegates,” 117 party officials most of whom are free to vote their conscience. Then there are 130 unbound delegates from states like Colorado, where they can choose to be bound at their state conventions, which have yet to be held.
The remaining 266 or so are unbound, but that doesn’t mean they are ripe for the picking. Some of these delegates will be pro-Romney people picked at their party conventions. So, for example, when Iowa Republicans meet in the summer to pick the delegates to go to the national convention, the 12 that go to Romney (of the 25 total) will be die-hard Romney fans. When they get to Tampa, they’re going to be a hard bunch to convince to abandon their man.
The pool of persuadable delegates is not only smaller than Romney’s rivals would like to admit, but there’s also the matter of what arguments are going to persuade them. Despite Romney’s perceived weakness at the moment, he is beating Santorum by 11 points in the Gallup poll. He is consistently seen as the most electable in national and state polls by as much as 40 points over Santorum. He is also considered the candidate who can handle the issue of the economy better than anyone else. He will arrive at the convention having won more states, more delegates, and hundreds of thousands of more votes. He did none of this through trickery.
Santorum and Gingrich will have to make a case built on ideology and momentum. They will argue that Romney doesn’t represent the base of the party—the Tea Party stalwarts and those who identify themselves as “very conservative” in exit polls. But the base of the party is not the whole party. Unless Santorum or Gingrich can prove in the coming contests that they have appeal outside the one-third of the party that loves them, they are going to be making a case that the loudest part of the party is more important than the largest part.
If Mitt Romney doesn’t get to 1,144 delegates before the convention, his opponents have an opening with a contested convention. But pulling off a win would still be a long shot. In 1976, at the GOP convention, Gerald Ford went to Kansas City without the required number of delegates to secure the nomination. Ronald Reagan fought right up until the end and got pretty close—delegates even broke their pledges to back Reagan—but ultimately the Gipper lost. Neither of Romney’s opponents is likely to be that close by convention time. Also, neither of Romney’s opponents are as popular as Ronald Reagan (which is part of the problem with the entire field).
These underdog victory scenarios are implausible, but Romney’s challengers have good reason to keep to this unlikely course, because the rules for delegate allocation are confusing. Want another example? What if Gingrich wants to throw his delegates to Santorum or vice versa? Well, it depends on whether he ends or suspends his campaign and the particular rules of the state from which he was awarded the delegates.
All of this complexity means it’s hard for Romney to make an airtight case that the math is on his side unless every voter wants to sit for a 25-minute PowerPoint presentation. And, to be fair, this has been an unpredictable campaign in which things we thought we knew are no longer the case. (Unless, Nostradamus, you predicted the Missouri nonbinding straw poll would help Santorum skyrocket.)
The “rules” would seem to favor Romney, but what if 20,000 people surrounded the arena in Tampa shouting, “We want Rick!” That might encourage delegates to break ranks, make up new rules, or find some other way. “We are breaking all the rules and folks who like to play by the establishment rules, they just feel really nervous about us,” said Santorum on Friday. “That’s why everybody is trying to angle us and saying he can’t do this. … You know what? If I listened to what people said … it would be an act of God for Rick Santorum to be here in March back in December. Well here I am.”