Super Tuesday has come and gone...this race is likely not to be settled until late May or June.
Here is where things stand in the delegate race - which is what matters at the end! 1,144 convention delegates are needed to secure the nomination. Delegate count estimates are from the Associated Press as of March 17, 2012.
1,358 delegates remain to be allocated.
The following patterns are becoming very evident from the exit polling over the past month.
Romney - winning in urban areas, moderates, women, older voters, and wealthier voters. He is also doing well with voters he see him as the most electable Republican against the president. However, he lags among Tea Party supporters, in rural areas (especially in the South), staunch conservatives, and Evangelical Christians.
Regionally he has been winning in the Northeast, Mountain West and won very close contests in MI and OH. He has lagged badly in the South despite spending a considerable sum of money to take at least one state in the Deep South.
Santorum - winning among Evangelical Christians, hardcore conservatives, younger voters, and in rural areas. His strength has been in the Midwest and South, but has shown limited appeal outside of these areas.
Gingrich - his only area of strength has been in the South, however Newt has only won GA and SC outright. He came in a close, but disappointing second pace in the AL and MS primaries last week.
Romney's ace in the hole is his lead in the delegate count and that even in states where he is losing Mitt continues to add to his delegate total due to proportional delegate allocation. Additionally, he has a vastly superior field organization and financial base than do either Santorum or Gingrich.
So what is motivating Newt and Santorum to stay in the race?
In a phrase, a contested or brokered convention. Both are utilizing a strategy to deny Romney the minimum 1,144 delegates needed to lock up the nomination.
Mathematically is is almost impossible for either to win a majority of delegates outright. Santorum would have to win over 65% of the remaining delegates and Newt would have to win nearly 75% of outstanding delegates to achieve this. Romney only needs to win 48% of these delegates to reach the nomination.
Strategically, even if Romney ends up limping across the finish line sometime in June (he can count on UT which votes June 26) his opponents can construct a narrative that will go something like this:
Given all of his advantages organizationally and financially, Romney never convinced true conservatives, the base of the GOP that he was worthy of the nomination. Hence, it is unlikely that they will be enthusiastic Romney voters in November and Mitt will end up like Bob Dole in 1996 - unable to motivate his base and will go on to lose. Therefore we need to nominate someone (Santorum or Newt) who truly represents the party.
This will be a pitch at Party elites who may be able to sway the Republican "superdelegates" (offically uncommitted delegates) who are mostly party officals who may be able to convince the convention to reconsider a Romney nomination.
I give this about a 5% chance of actually occuring. A split and disunited party is much more likely to lose than one that coaleses around a candidate - even if doing so reluctantly. Romney is too disciplined a candidate to self-destruct at this point and he should - barring unforseen events - will end up getting the GOP nomination...eventually. Why the heck not, he has been running for about ten years now.
For Santorum IL which is voting in a couple of days is truly critical. If he can pull off a victory there, it will help with his narrative that Romney has no real strength in the Midwest - an important swing region in November.
April may be the cruelest month for Gingrich as NY, CT, RI, and DC are likely to deliver large delegate totals for Romney. Santorum has a good shot in WI and ought to win in his home state of PA. MD and DE may produce mixed results. At this point Gingrich (unless he is delusional) probably realizes that he cannot win and is in this purely to be a force at the convention.
Ironically by staying in Newt is helping Romney. Newt's continued presence in the race keeps this a three-way race although recent polling shows Gingrich voters splitting almost evenly between Santorum and Romney. Ego does go a long way and I expect Gingrich to remain as a candidate despite the Santorum campaign's "suggestion" that he needs to quit and endorse Santorum.
In May, there will be a number of Midwestern and Southern primaries culminating with TX which may help Santorum. But with many of these states apportioning delegates proportionally, Romney's slow march to the nomination should continue.
Look for additional updates in the next few weeks - this ride is far from over!