As expected, Mitt Romney pulled off a three-state sweep on Tuesday night. As expected, pundits straining to inflate the evening’s drama cast the trifecta as a turning point in the Republican primary race. This is a bit like suggesting a football team ahead by three touchdowns has turned the corner with a fourth score. Romney’s imposing delegate lead meant the race was all but locked up going into Tuesday night.
And his rivals have no intention of dropping out despite the drubbing they suffered. Which means we will slog on until Romney reaches 1,144 delegates or until reality prevails over his rivals’ mix of ego and hope.
Even if his victories Tuesday night in Wisconsin, Washington, D.C., and Maryland preserved the status quo, there were signs that Romney has tightened his grip on the nomination fight. In Wisconsin, the night’s only true battleground — Santorum didn’t even qualify for the ballot in D.C. — Romney’s inevitability argument proved potent: 80% of voters said they expected him to become the nominee, according to exit polls. For some weary voters, that belief may have spurred them to forgive Romney’s old apostasies.
In Wisconsin, he beat Santorum in demographic groups that have eschewed Romney’s brand of politics throughout the primary. He cruised among Tea Partyers, conservatives and voters who dubbed themselves “very conservative.” He closed the gap among Evangelicals, who constituted a a smaller bloc in the Midwestern swing state than in many of the Southern battlegrounds Romney dropped. The results offered a telling indication that Republicans are ready to end the internecine warfare and begin taking the fight to President Obama.
The problem is Santorum isn’t ready to step aside. “It’s halftime,” he told a crowd massed in Pennsylvania, where he exhorted supporters to gear up for a last stand. “The clock starts tonight. We’ve got three weeks to go out there in Pennsylvania and win this state. And after winning this state the field looks a little different in May.” This is true: next month’s slate includes favorable contests in Arkansas, Kentucky, West Virginia, Nebraska and Texas.
But by then, it may not matter. Romney will capture the vast majority of the nearly 100 delegates at stake Tuesday night, padding a mammoth delegate lead and bringing his total haul to some 650, according to an Associated Press projection. There is a three-week lull before the next set of primaries, but even if Santorum can hold serve in Pennsylvania, he is likely to fall further behind that night after dropping delegate-rich Northeastern contests. “Either Romney will self-destruct, or Romney will be the nominee,” Newt Gingrich said this week.
Romney, who has been careful not to offend rival constituencies or peer beyond the challenges they pose, didn’t dispute that contention ahead of Tuesday night’s wins. “I expect to become the nominee,” he said. “I know I’ve got more delegates than the two of them combined.” No need for a turning point when the status quo is so favorable.