Santorum Has No Credible Path to the Nomination. But...

One can pretty much write the headlines for Wednesday in advance.  Super Tuesday's results will be mixed.  Mitt Romney will win the most delegates -- buoyed by races in his home state of Massachusetts and a Virginia contest where his only opponent is Ron Paul.  Santorum may well win more states than Governor Romney but come out of the day trailing by the better part of one hundred and fifty delegates.  Newt Gingrich will win his home state of Georgia and not much else.  Ron Paul will continue to accumulate a trickle of delegates.  When the dust settles, Rick Santorum is going to face a difficult reality: as things will stand after Super Tuesday, he will have no credible path to win the Republican nomination for president.  He will, however -- if he is blessed with both skill and luck in the coming months -- have a path whereby he can force a contested convention.  Whether this is worth the risks to the Republican Party that that will entail is something that Senator Santorum will have to decide.

After Saturday's Washington caucuses, the delegate numbers are -- according to Real Clear Politics -- Romney 166, Santorum 72, Gingrich 33, and Paul 29.  To win the Republican nomination, one will need to secure the votes of 1,144 delegates before the convention.  If we assume that Romney wins Virginia, Idaho, Massachusetts, and Vermont on Super Tuesday; that Gingrich wins Georgia; and that Santorum wins Alaska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Tennessee (accounting for the fact that, as a result of a failure to name delegates, Santorum will not be able to maximize his gains out of an Ohio win), the delegate count on Wednesday morning will be something like Romney 343, Santorum 204, Gingrich 108, and Paul 86.  At that point there will be 1,545 delegates left to be awarded, and of those, Romney will need to secure 801 -- or just under 52% -- to win the nomination.

However, of the remaining delegates, fully 400 belong to states that use some sort of winner-take-all system to allocate their delegates.  This group of participants -- which consists of Puerto Rico, Wisconsin, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Delaware, California, New Jersey, and Utah -- tends to heavily favor Governor Romney.  As things stand, based on recent polling and trends, it seems likely that Romney would be favored to win all of the list except for Wisconsin.

It seems a fair guess to say that, unless Santorum can make a major play for California -- which seems like a stretch to me -- then Romney will win somewhere in the neighborhood of 340 of these 400 delegates.  If we make that assumption and add those delegates to Romney's likely post-Super Tuesday total of 343, then we find that Romney would need to win only 40% of the remaining proportionally allocated delegates in order to win the nomination.  Given that Romney is already approaching that 40% figure in national polling even with Gingrich still in the race, that doesn't seem to be a very high bar to clear. 

In contrast, Santorum has no clear path to winning the nomination.  Let us suppose that he were to pull off something akin to a miracle and win not only Wisconsin, but also California and New Jersey.  If we assume that he comes out of Super Tuesday with just over 200 delegates as well, that would mean that Santorum -- even after winning big prizes in California and New Jersey -- would need to win just over 61% of the remaining delegates.  That doesn't seem likely.

Instead, let us consider a more plausible scenario.  Santorum wins California, Wisconsin, and New Jersey.  Romney wins the rest.  The remaining proportional delegates, end up being split 40% to Romney, 45% to Santorum, and 15% to the field (mostly, at this point, I suspect to Ron Paul).  If that were to happen -- and I think that this is pretty much the best-case scenario for Santorum -- then he and Romney would head into Tampa effectively tied.  Gingrich wouldn't have enough delegates to put either one over the top.  Ron Paul would be the kingmaker.

I, for one, don't want to see what Ron Paul would demand in such a situation.  I don't want the Republican nominee to be the one who grants it.  I am certain that the party establishment wants no part in such a fiasco.  Frankly, in such a scenario, I suspect that the result would be that either Romney or Santorum would give way and endorse the other one at the last minute. 

At this point, my thinking on this is as follows:

Rick Santorum has accomplished the most surprising political resurrection in living memory.  What he's accomplished is amazing, but the cold, hard, mathematical truth is that even with another miracle, he doesn't have a clear path to the nomination.  He can delay and perhaps deny it to Romney, but he has no way of clinching it on his own. 

Mitt Romney has, for all of the mistakes he's made along the way, managed to hang onto the frontrunner's slot versus all comers.  He's not flashy, and he still has serious shortcomings as a politician, but for all else that might be said of him, he can take a punch, he genuinely wants the job, and he has qualifications that suggest he might very well be an effective leader in the White House.

On the campaign trail, these two candidates have shown that they have a complementary appeal.  Governor Romney is running well with suburban voters, many of whom are not traditional Republicans, who are concerned with the economy.  Senator Santorum is certainly outperforming Romney among blue-collar workers of the sort that he won over in the course of winning two statewide elections in Pennsylvania.  Both of these men have the ability to expand beyond the Republican base.

So, I ask: why not Romney-Santorum?  I think that it's a winning ticket.  The Republicans can park their vice presidential nominee in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.  If they can flip two out of those four states into the GOP's column in November, the path by which Obama might secure a majority in the Electoral College becomes convoluted at best.

Perhaps better still, the presence of someone like Senator Santorum on the ticket would inflict severe mental distress upon Democratic partisans.  I'm not going to hide the fact that, deep down, I'm really -- as someone with broadly libertarian views -- aligned with a lot of what he's had to say about some social issues, but at the same time I have the level of distance and balance necessary to recognize that even if Rick Santorum were to become the president of the United States, he's not going to have the ability to unilaterally impose his views upon the nation.  Many Democrats, lacking the poise necessary for quiet contemplation of such things, would instead respond to a Santorum nomination by launching wild and unhinged attacks upon the man and his character of a sort that will repel ordinary Americans.  The sort of vulgar mockery engaged in by the likes of Dan Savage sells in blue cities on the coasts but is likely to swing voters towards the Republicans in the critical heartland states where the election will be decided.

I think that the choice, ultimately, rests with both Senator Santorum and Governor Romney.  At this point, Santorum has the staying power to drag this thing out.  Perhaps, even, he feels justified in doing so.  Giving up a hope, even a faint one, of securing the nomination of a major party for the presidency is no small thing to ask of a man.  However, doing so in the service of ensuring that Barack Obama becomes a one-term president would be a supreme act of patriotism.  Likewise, surrendering the freedom to choose whomever one wishes as a running mate in exchange for securing the nomination early would be a sacrifice on the part of Governor Romney.  It would, however, be in the service of the greater good.  In other words, I think that it's time for both campaigns to do the math and make a deal.

Adam Yoshida is a political commentator and the author of The Blast of War.