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Delegates, demography and ego

Mitt Romney seems destined to limp over the finish line in Tampa, Fla., as the weakened, exhausted and widely disliked leader of a divided, unenthusiastic Republican Party. Whether the weeks between now and then provide him pleasure or pain might prove beyond his control. 

He is winning the delegate race even as he continues to lose states. As of Monday, Romney had about a third of the delegates he needs to secure the nomination, nearly 40 percent more than Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul combined. Delegate counters continue to debate the fine points of allocation rules and vote scenarios, but nearly all agree that if Romney is not yet the inevitable nominee, he is vastly more likely than his opponents to amass the requisite number of delegates. 

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Santorum is paying a price for his late-blooming and generally disorganized effort. For example, by failing to even secure a place on Virginia’s ballot, Santorum handed Romney 43 of the state’s 46 delegates without a fight — more than the front-runner has won in any state other than Florida. 

The rules also seem to conspire against Santorum. He bested Romney by 6 points in Oklahoma, but that yielded the Pennsylvanian just one more delegate than Romney will take to the convention. Put differently, through Monday, Romney has won less than 41 percent of the vote, but captured 59 percent of the delegates. By contrast, Santorum has garnered 25 percent of the vote but only 20 percent of the delegates.

Yet the front-runner continues to lose state after state. He eked out a win in Ohio, but in recent days suffered defeats in Kansas, Tennessee and Oklahoma. The returns reveal the differing bases of the candidates’ support. Geography matters a great deal — Romney won just 19 of Ohio’s 88 counties, only 26 of Michigan’s 83 counties and a mere 17 of Iowa’s 99 counties.

In short, Romney is winning big urban areas, but losing smaller towns and rural areas badly — an observation borne out by the exit polls. Romney beat Santorum by 14 points in Ohio’s cities, and by 4 in the suburbs, but lost by 18 in rural areas. 

Romney is also losing among white evangelicals while winning other segments. In Ohio, those born-again voters went for Santorum by a 17-point margin, while the rest of the electorate supported Romney by 14 points. In Tennessee, evangelicals gave Santorum an 18-point margin, while Romney won those who did not fit that description by 13. 

The patterns repeat themselves in state after state.

And they suggest problems for Romney in Mississippi and Alabama (the results of which you already know, but, as of this writing, I don’t). Republicans are more likely to be rural and evangelical in those states. In 2008, 69 percent of Mississippi Republicans and 77 percent of Alabamians identified themselves as evangelicals, while a mere 1 percent of Mississippians and 17 percent of Alabamians are urban. 

Enter ego, in the form of Gingrich. There is little doubt that absent Newt, Santorum would be sweeping these states, sapping Romney’s momentum. 

But those two states, and others still to come, could be close — indeed, Romney could even win — if Gingrich remains in the race as an avowedly regional Southern candidate. By confining his campaign to states near his Georgia home, Gingrich admits he is no more than a regional candidate, if that, and regional candidates don’t win nominations. But they can take votes from others — in this case, Santorum. Though Gingrich appears to reserve special animus for Romney, the ever-flexible former governor owes the former Speaker an immense debt of gratitude. Gingrich gives Romney a chance to prevent a rout in the South and keep Santorum from piling up delegates there. 

Ironically, Gingrich’s vanity provides vital support to Romney’s unprincipled ambition. What a party!

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.).