Why Santorum and Gingrich’s Chances at Winning the Nomination Don’t Add Up

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
March 9 2012 7:58 PM

The Calculus Behind the Race to Tampa

How the GOP’s complex delegate math proves that Romney is further ahead than he looks.

Santorum and Gingrich
Santorum and Gingrich

Photographs by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images; David Becker/Getty Images.

When they hand out the bunting, funny hats, and elephant pins at Republican Party headquarters, no one talks about the math test. For the next several weeks and perhaps months, GOP politics are going to center around a complex debate about delegates that will remind us all of those math problems you hated in grade school:

John Dickerson John Dickerson

John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. Read his series on the presidency and on risk. Follow him on Twitter.

If Rick leaves Philadelphia headed for Tampa on a train powered by coal his grandfather mined and Mitt drives his Mustang to the same destination, how many attacks on the elite media will it take Newt to stop them?

All campaigns are spinning the delegate math to their advantage. Mitt Romney’s team is arguing that his opponents cannot win enough delegates to overtake Romney’s delegate lead. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are arguing that they have a shot at accumulating enough delegates to surpass the weak front-runner and steal the nomination.

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Both sides are spinning fantasies, but as might be expected, Romney’s fantasy is closer to reality. He is offering something closer to historical fiction whereas Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich’s tales are more like science fiction.

To understand what’s going on, it’s best to think of two dramas, one that takes place in the primaries and caucuses to come and one that takes place at the Republican convention in Tampa, Fla.

First Drama: It’s almost impossible for Mitt Romney’s rivals to catch him

This is a hard truth for Santorum and Gingrich supporters, but independent Republican experts and delegate guru Josh Putnam of Davidson College say it’s so. That was the view before Santorum’s exciting showing on Super Tuesday and it’s even more true after.

Super Tuesday is a good example of the split dynamic that now rules in the Republican contests. One story on Super Tuesday centered on the dramatic moment in Ohio: Romney narrowly defeated Rick Santorum. He couldn’t win over the most conservative members of his party. Conclusion: The race is close! The other dynamic that night took place in Virginia: Romney won 63 delegates and his opponents won nothing. On Super Tuesday, Romney won six of 10 states. He won 65 percent of the delegates and hundreds of thousands of votes. Conclusion: The race is not close!

Unfortunately for Gingrich and Santorum, the delegate math is what matters in winning the nomination and Romney has a huge lead. Romney now has 396 delegates—748 away from the number needed to win. Santorum is in second with an estimated 146. Newt Gingrich has 97 and Ron Paul comes in last with 38. In order to reach the required 1,144, Romney needs to win about half of the remaining delegates, while Santorum would need to win two-thirds of them.

But what if the drama overtakes the math? What if Rick Santorum keeps winning? Romney can’t keep losing, can he? The answer is that Santorum won’t win every contest, no matter how much momentum he picks up after possible wins in Alabama and Mississippi next Tuesday. The states he does win won’t provide him with a big enough margin to overcome Romney’s existing delegate lead. It’s going to be a long slog that batters Romney, but the math is his life preserver. Here’s why: