Between now and the Illinois primary on March 20 with 69 delegates at stake, there is a mix of Bible Belt states (Kansas, Mississippi and Alabama) and islands (Virgin Islands, the Northern Marianas, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Hawaii and Guam). The bad news for Mitt Romney is that he is unlikely to win any of those states. The good news is three-fold.
First, those states, like nearly all the rest on the primary calendar, award delegates proportionally, so he at least will pick up some delegates. As the Romney camp argued in a post-Super-Tuesday memo, “Only four of the remaining 34 contests award their delegates on a statewide winner-take-all basis. The four statewide winner-take-all states (Utah, New Jersey, D.C. and Delaware) are unlikely to offer Senator Santorum or Speaker Gingrich victories. In fact, Santorum isn’t even eligible for any of D.C.’s delegates because he failed to qualify for the ballot there. Even if Senator Santorum or Speaker Gingrich win one of the 30 remaining states, Governor Romney is still likely to finish second, thus taking a considerable portion of the delegates.”
Second, 70 delegates are at stake in the island primaries. Romney is likely the only candidate with resources to win there and is well positioned to get the majority of those delegates.
And finally, neither Rick Santorum nor Newt Gingrich will have an easy time in Alabama and Mississippi. They will be battling one another for the social-conservative electorate. Should Gingrich win one of them, he will certainly stay in the race. That suggests that Santorum will have to put considerable time and resources into these states, while Romney sinks money into Illinois.
Finally, there is Missouri, which had a non-binding poll Feb. 7 but will hold caucuses on March 17. The state has its share of social conservatives, but there are also sizable metropolitan areas where Romney can do well. If Santorum doesn’t win that contest by a large margin it would be an embarrassment for the candidate who won the non-binding primary by 30 points just a month ago.
To sum up, Santorum has limited resources (he had only $1.47 million cash on hand before spending big in Ohio) but four must-win states coming up in the next 10 days. Romney can continue to scoop up delegates, relying on Gingrich to weigh down Santorum in Kansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Missouri. Meanwhile, Romney can bag easy delegates in the islands and lay the groundwork for a big victory in Illinois. It is hard to imagine that Romney won’t have gathered dozen more delegates by the end of the month and go into the easy-win April 3 states (D.C., where Santorum isn’t even on the ballot; Wisconsin; and Maryland) with a giant lead in the delegate count.
The media would like us to imagine that Romney is a wounded, anemic candidate limping to victory. But in fact he is piling up a series of wins with a clear path to a majority of the delegates. There is no other candidate who can say the same. And, after all, politics is an activity graded on the curve. You just have to beat all the others.