Even if you believe that Mitt Romney is almost certain to be the nominee — as I do — there's still plenty at stake in the Washington caucuses tomorrow and the 10 Super Tuesday states on March 6th. Can Romney end the hotly contested phases of the nomination contest now, and pivot to general election themes and unifying his party? Or will he have to spend many more weeks attacking Republicans and worrying about offending conservatives?
I'll take the upcoming contests in three batches.
First Tier: Romney’s strongest states. These are Massachusetts, Vermont, the Idaho caucuses, and Virginia. This is the group that's going to give Romney a good day, no matter what else happens. He's going to win most or all of the delegates in these states, giving him a large lead on the day that the remainder of the contests probably won't erase no matter how poorly he does in them. Something would have to go very wrong for him in these particular states to really put his eventual nomination in doubt.
Second tier: Romney’s toss-up states. Ohio on Super Tuesday and the Washington caucuses tomorrow will disproportionately dominate the headlines. Both are heavily contested, with Romney leading the polls in Washington while Rick Santorum has a small edge so far in Ohio.
If Romney can win both, it's possible it would be enough to push currently neutral party leaders to declare the race over, but it’s not certain they would do that. If Romney loses in Ohio, there is going to be renewed panic among Republicans — who need the state in November — about his electability in a general election.
It’s not clear that there’s a relationship between primary outcomes and general elections, but enough doubts would be raised by an Ohio loss to ensure that contested primaries will continue at least through the end of March, and probably longer.
Third tier: Romney’s toughest states. In these southern states — Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma — Romney benefits from low expectations. If he wins Ohio and does well in these states, then the better the chance that the race will end right here. But the better that Santorum or Gingrich does in these three states, the better their chances to continue fighting on and raising the resources necessary to get the press to take them seriously.
Right now, Gingrich leads in Georgia, with Santorum leading the polls in the other two and Romney in second in all three. But there's very little post-Michigan/Arizona polling, and Romney has been gaining rapidly in national polls, so it's too early to know what's going to happen in these states.
Oh, there is a fourth tier, too: caucuses in North Dakota and Alaska. No one is going to pay much attention to them and there's no polling I know of; my guess is that Romney and Ron Paul do well.
As of now, Romney has a large delegate lead, which will most likely be even larger after Tuesday. What will really matter is whether the party and the press agree that it's essentially over. This will be the first night since South Carolina where, if things go well for Romney, we could reach that point. But if he has yet another setback, the wait will go on.