I thought the nomination was locked up for Mitt Romney, barring some unexpected scandal or other major new shock to the system. Then I read Rick Santorum's new strategy memo, reported by BuzzFeed's Zeke Miller, and I'm more certain than ever that Romney has this thing locked up.
If I were trying to spin a case for Santorum right now, it would be simple. His campaign only took off during the past few days before Iowa, and since then he has (perhaps) been slowly gaining momentum as he gathers the resources needed to compete in a national campaign. Once Newt Gingrich is out of the race, Santorum will (the argument would go) crush Mitt Romney everywhere except Utah, winning the winner-take-all contests and easily wrapping up the nomination in early June. Is it plausible? I don't think so; so far at least, Romney has shown little difficulty winning all over the map, while Santorum has struggled outside of his best states. But at least it's a story that makes sense.
Instead, however, Santorum strategist John Yob argues that Santorum will win ... by seeding the convention with stealth delegates who will switch to Santorum after the first convention ballot is cast, and they are no longer bound. This is, to be blunt, nonsense. First of all, there isn't going to be a second ballot — and Santorum's own strategy makes it clear why there won't be. Multi-ballot conventions require three or more candidates to accumulate delegates. But Santorum is arguing that Newt Gingrich will basically be done after the Alabama and Mississippi primaries this week. He has to make that assumption; with Gingrich still taking a good-sized chunk of the vote, it's harder for Santorum to gain the delegates he'll need. But if Gingrich doesn't pick up delegates, and Ron Paul doesn't appear to be picking up all that many delegates, then whoever gets more — Romney or Santorum — will simply win on the first ballot. At least, that will be the case unless it's very, very close.
Suppose, however, that Paul and Gingrich wind up getting enough delegates to somehow force a second ballot. Yob argues that strength in state conventions will mean that the delegates chosen will be very conservative and therefore will flock to Santorum even if they were bound to Romney on the first ballot. The problem is that since the Santorum campaign has (as far as anyone knows) virtually no national organization to speak of, it’s unlikely that state conventions will be electing Santorum delegates. It's likely that Romney's campaign operation will do quite well, and there are reports of Ron Paul doing well, but Santorum? Hard to see. So in the (extremely unlikely) event of a deadlocked convention, the best-case scenario for Santorum would be that a large number of unbound, very conservative delegates who voted for Romney (or Gingrich) on the first ballot would be looking for someone to support. The problem is that there's no need for them to turn to Santorum — who, in this telling, would have failed to win enough states to get a first-ballot nomination.
The truth is that the path to winning the nomination is to win states — lots and lots of states. Especially the winner-take-all states that give the biggest delegate bonuses, but generally lots and lots of states. If Santorum were to do that from here on out, he would be the nominee. The fact that his own strategist doesn't believe he’s likely to do that, and even calls Michigan and Ohio states that Romney “should have won handily, says it all.