Romney and Republican rivals face difficult path to gaining 1,144 delegates

Mitt Romney has repeatedly argued that no rival can catch up to him in the delegate race, making him the inevitable Republican nominee.

But in the convoluted delegate soup that candidates must navigate, another potential outcome has emerged: that Romney himself will come short of securing enough delegates to earn the nomination.

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Even the most optimistic delegate projections show it to be nearly impossible for Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich to win the 1,144 delegates necessary to secure the GOP nomination.

But both candidates, in particular Gingrich, have said they believe they can keep Romney from hitting the magic number needed to avoid a brokered convention in Tampa this August.

And the math might agree with them.

The same proportional allocation of delegates that makes it hard for Santorum to bridge the gap with Romney makes it difficult for the former Massachusetts governor to quickly make the substantial gains that would get him closer to 1,144 and close the door on the GOP race. 

Instead, the primary calendar is primed for a war of slow attrition, where candidates can only gradually improve on their vote totals and momentum is increasingly difficult to earn.

Without question, Romney is still the strong favorite to capture the nomination, and to do so before the convention. But for a campaign looking for a signature win that could help pivot the narrative to a one-on-one showdown with President Obama, the rules and schedule of the GOP calendar make shaking his Republican foes a difficult task.

"Any week like what we had Super Tuesday, what we had over the weekend, what we had Tuesday night with Mississippi and Alabama, is kind of a missed opportunity for both of them," said Josh Putnam, a professor of Political Science at Davidson College who monitors the delegate race. "The math was already pretty much impossible for Santorum, so it went from impossible to even more impossible. For Romney, it's just a missed opportunity to build a cushion."

Romney came in third in Alabama and Mississippi Tuesday night — a disappointment for the former governor — but he won in Hawaii and American Samoa. And, under the complex rules of delegate distribution, Romney actually won the most delegates.

It was a good enough showing to maintain his nearly two-to-one lead over Santorum in the race, but still short of even half the delegates he needs to secure the nomination. Romney has 495 delegates, according to The Associated Press, while Santorum has 252 and Gingrich has 131.

With the finish line so far out of sight, Santorum's campaign can argue reasonably that the race is far from settled while continuing to hammer the inevitably argument that has been a cornerstone of Romney's campaign.

"The biggest stumbling block for Romney is that he's using an atomic bomb to kill an ant, and Santorum just isn't going away," said GOP strategist Ford O'Connell, who worked on the McCain-Palin campaign.

Santorum, himself, mocked Romney's delegate argument. Campaigning in Puerto Rico on Wednesday, the former Pennsylvania senator told CNN: "It's pretty sad when all you have is to do math instead of trying to go out there and win it on substance and win it on what Americans want to hear about."

He added: "We're a long, long way from over. You know what? I suspect if we keep winning state after state after state he ain't gonna be the nominee."

In turn, Romney's campaign has been forced to play defense, spending money and resources on an increasingly prolonged primary campaign that has sparked concerns it could hurt the GOP in the general election.

"We're focused on this number 1,144 and not on the number 270," O'Connell said, alluding to the number of electoral votes necessary to win the presidency.

That's not to say there aren't encouraging signs for Romney on the horizon. The biggest prize remaining this month is Illinois, where Santorum wasn't able to file a full slate of delegates, essentially guaranteeing that Romney will emerge with the most delegates in the state.

In April, the calendar turns even more favorable, with contests in the District of Columbia — where Santorum failed to qualify for the ballot at all — Maryland, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

With the exception of Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania, Romney can expect to be competitive in each of those contests. And unlike contests in Ohio, Michigan and Mississippi, where delegates are assigned proportionally throughout the state, many of the April contests award delegates congressional district by congressional district, favoring the candidate with a stronger — and better funded — ground organization. Delaware and D.C. are winner take all.

"We may potentially see some momentum in this race … we're getting to states that are winner-take-all by congressional district, so there are bigger opportunities in some of those states," Putnam said.

The continued and defiant presence of Gingrich on the campaign trail should also help Romney, splitting the conservative vote and keeping Santorum from meeting thresholds that would automatically award additional delegates.

Still, Santorum has shown a tenacity to overperform expectations and knows that if he's able to prevent Romney from capturing the nomination before the convention, anything could happen.

Nearly every election night through June provides at least one contest where Santorum could be competitive, offering him an opportunity to maintain relevance and prevent Romney from a set of wins that would undeniably sew up the nomination.

Obama's delegate counter, Jeff Berman, told Buzzfeed there's still a chance for Santorum to block Romney's nomination.

"There is a path forward for Santorum," Berman said. "Whether it’s attainable or not is not yet clear."

"If Romney cannot accumulate the magic number of delegates for the nomination, it’s possible that none of the candidates will get there before their national convention. Notwithstanding Romney's early delegate lead, their race remains wide open."

For Republicans eager for Romney to "earn" the nomination via a decisive win, that will likely prove frustrating. Instead, argues O'Connell, the former governor needs to abandon the inevitability argument and shift to political populism.

"I don't think that's a winning message — people want to see Romney make the sell, and the sell needs to be, 'We're in a bad economy, I'm the best person to fix it,'" O'Connell said.

Romney's team remains confident, arguing that by any delegate count, Romney has knocked his competitors out of the race. Campaigns, news organizations, and the Republican National Committee have all released different totals, each within a handful of delegates of one another, but none are final until each state completes the process of selecting delegates under a complex set of rules unique to each state.

"To put it simply, the past week has been yet another missed opportunity for them to close the gap. Instead of closing the gap, they watched the gap grow," Romney political director Rick Beeson said of the other GOP contenders in a statement.

But while Romney may be the only candidate remaining with a path to 1,144 delegates, that doesn't guarantee he will earn them, leaving Team Romney with serious — and costly — work left to do.