If you let your mind wander back many news cycles, all the way to the halcyon days of early last week, the Republican race was a muddle. Mitt Romney was scrabbling furiously to fend off Rick Santorum in Michigan. Even if Romney sidestepped disaster, trouble lurked on Super Tuesday. Santorum boasted big leads in arch-conservative Oklahoma, Evangelical Tennessee, and blue-collar Ohio, none of which matched Romney’s strengths. Newt Gingrich would grab his own home state of Georgia, the night’s largest prize. And Ron Paul was positioned to siphon delegates in low-turnout caucus states like Alaska and North Dakota. Romney was the pace-setter, and would be even if Super Tuesday broke badly. But his support base, tepid in the best of times, seemed to be attenuating. Party leaders braced for a long slog while warning of the damage it would inflict on the Republican brand.
A week makes all the difference in the media narrative — and very little in the pecking order. Super Tuesday, a coast-to-coast flurry of democracy with 10 states and 437 delegates at stake, is supposed to be one of the inflection points of the Republican nominating fight. Instead, it is likely to produce a split decision that resurrects the old conventional wisdom by reaffirming Romney, the best-funded and best-organized candidate, as the inevitable nominee once more.
Romney rolls into Super Tuesday on the heels of five conservative victories that have sapped any semblance of momentum Santorum once had. To be sure, Romney will take his lumps Tuesday night. Gingrich remains the solid favorite for the bulk of Georgia’s 76 delegates, Santorum is headed for a win in Oklahoma and possibly Tennessee, while Paul has a shot at grabbing his first statewide win in Alaska or North Dakota. (Neither state has been polled.) But Romney is gaining ground across the board. Santorum’s double-digit lead in Ohio has vanished; surveys suggest the bellwether state is a true toss-up, with Romney clinging to margin-of-error leads in three of five polls released on Monday. The former Massachusetts governor has chipped away at Santorum’s advantage in Tennessee as well, edging to within the margin of error. A win in either the Rust Belt bellwether or the Evangelical redoubt would vault Romney over the expectations bar.
But even if the four Republican rivals divvy up the spoils, Romney is poised to win the night. The arcane delegate-selection process works to his benefit Tuesday, while his rivals will be hamstrung by their past haplessness. With Gingrich and Santorum unable to get on the ballot in Virginia, Romney has a shot at grabbing all of its 46 delegates, 33 of which are winner-take-all by congressional district. Santorum’s feckless organization has also apparently left him ineligible for 18 of Ohio’s 63 bound delegates, including some from his strongholds. Meanwhile, the strictures governing delegate allocation in Massachusetts and Vermont — New England states where Romney is almost certain to win — are favorable to Romney, while proportional allocation in the big Southern states of Tennessee and Georgia will hold down the winner’s margins. As a result, Romney is nearly certain to pad his delegate lead even if he drops the majority of Super Tuesday states. Political handicapper Nate Silver projects him to capture 224 delegates, 51% of the overall tally, with Gingrich nabbing 20% and Santorum just 17%.
Romney’s hope, of course, is to snag a road win in Tennessee or Ohio, and the triumphant Election Night tableau that comes with it. Either way, the math is on his side. No, Romney will not lock up the nomination on Super Tuesday. Yes, his rivals will soldier on, clinging to scraps of hope, as a primary marked by internecine warfare continues to batter their favorability numbers. (“We’re winning,” Santorum optimistically told ABC News. “Whether we end up with the most votes or not, we’re winning.”) Even if Super Tuesday doesn’t deliver Romney the kind of kill shot that would end the race, it will tighten Romney’s grip on the race by taking him that much closer to the 1,144 delegates required to sew up the nomination. Which is the only measure that matters.