Over at National Journal, Stephanie Palla, Tim Alberta and Reid Wilson notice today that Mitt Romney has a bit of a cushion if he falls a tad short of the 1144 delegates he’ll need to nail down the nomination. They’re right, but there's more.
Certainly, as the NJ authors explain, Romney expects to continue to do well with Republican superdelegates. Be careful: It’s misleading to talk about a candidate coming up short of the required delegate majority and therefore having to go to supers to get the rest of the way there. After all, if automatic delegates are excluded, then the majority threshold would be lower than, in this case, 1,144. Properly, to make ground up with supers, a candidate must get more than half of them. Now, Romney’s going to do that, but it’s not accurate to say that he’s winning thanks to those automatic delegates if he winds up only needing half of them to win.
What Palla, Alberta, and Wilson don’t take into account, however, is that most of the Republican delegates from the caucus states are not yet chosen, will not be bound at the convention, and will be chosen by a process that usually helps the eventual nominee. In most caucus states (and there are many variations), delegates are chosen in a multi-stage process, involving perhaps precinct, congressional-district, and state meetings. The delegate estimates provided by AP and most news organizations in those states are only projections from the nonbinding straw poll held at the precinct-level caucuses, which may be only dimly related to what happens eventually — delegate selection expert Josh Putnam calls these projected totals “fantasy delegates.”
So who will get the real delegates in those states once they’re eventually chosen? We can’t predict it, but the factors which should help candidates beat those fantasy projections are intensity, organization, and institutional party support. Presumably, the candidates helped by this should be Ron Paul (who has intensity and organization) and Mitt Romney (who has organization and institutional support). Rick Santorum has, at best, enthusiasm on his side…but that’s not very likely to still be true as he falls farther and farther behind in the delegate count.
It’s hard to know how much this will help Romney, especially since the Ron Paul factor is a major wild card, but it should be safe to predict that Santorum will lose delegates compared to the AP count, and the combination of Romney and Paul will gain (it seems unlikely to me that Paul’s operation will be so strong that Romney will be a net loser). Since Santorum has about 50 projected delegates so far that he could “lose” this way (and Newt Gingrich 20, based on Democratic Convention Watch’s figures), that’s yet another nice bump to expect from Romney as the process plays out.
The bottom line is: there are several ways that Romney can reach 1,144 safely. Barring some unexpected shock, he's in no danger of falling short.