Ah, how times flies when you're having fun.
One minute you're shovelling snow in Des Moines, and the next you're whistling Dixie.
So: Alabama and Mississippi. Two wins for Santorum, if just barely. Enough for him to scurry happily onwards, even as the delegates continue to throng to Romney (who sneakily grabbed Hawaii and American Samoa whilst nobody was looking).
So nothing's really changed, right? No, that's right. Nothing's changed.
Except, perhaps, for one thing. To put it bluntly (as The National Review did), Gingrich is now officially "toast". Or, as Erick Erickson over at Redstate said: "It is time for Gingrich to exit." Or, as the Washington Post stated, rather more amiably: "Prominent conservatives have already begun to go public urging him to leave the race and that drumbeat will only grow louder if he refuses."
There's a memo which you might or might not be aware of. It was written by Randy Evans, a senior adviser to Gingrich. It was sent to Gingrich's campaign staff on Tuesday, and in it, Evans says:
"Today’s contests in Alabama, American Samoa, Hawaii, and Mississippi are big, but it’s still early. Louisiana, on March 24th, will actually be “halftime” in the race for the GOP nomination.
"Heading into Louisiana, states with delegates totalling 1,141 will have decided - just short of the 1,144 needed for the nomination. It will be Louisiana that moves the process past the halfway mark with 34 states accounting for 1,187 delegates having been voted.
"Yet by halftime, the process will be far from over. Just look at the math."
And guess what? Evans then looks at the math. Somewhat fuzzily, to be sure, but he does give it a Newtian work over. And then he concludes:"So here is the bottom-line reality: this nomination will not be decided until the fourth quarter – and that is not until June. It also means that the candidate who closes strongest in this race is going to win (...)
This race is going to be decided by a big debate – a big choice – among GOP primary voters about the future of the Republican Party (...).
That is the debate Newt is going to win, and with it, the nomination and the election."
I'm not quite sure anyone with half a brain would actually believe the "winning" part. Redstate doesn't, and neither does The National Review (and all those guys are pretty conservative, I'm told). Neither, it seems, do "prominent conservatives" in general, according to the Post.
To be frank, I don't think that Gingrich staffers believe it either, or Gingrich himself for that matter (in spite of the fact that Evans points out various Helpful Facts, such as Wisconsin being Callista Gingrich's home state).
However, the memo, if somewhat obliquely, addresses an important, and rather tantalising, issue, one that was raised in Part Nine of this series. Neither Santorum nor Gingrich have a hope in hell of prevailing in the delegate count, but there is a chance, if just a very slim chance, that they (along with Ron Paul) may somehow prevent Romney from winning, too.
The question is, how do they do that? And, to be a little more concrete: would it help their cause if Gingrich drops out?
In an article written a few days ago for the New York Times, Nate Silver asked himself the question: "How Would Santorum Do Without Gingrich?" That's more or less the same question, except that, in Silver's case, he answers his query only by looking at the contests that have already been concluded. The real question, of course, is what would happen to Santorum if Gingrich drops out now. How would that shape the coming primaries and caucuses?
Well, the first and most obvious answer is that, should this happen, there will only be one Anti-Mitt left standing. As such, Santorum's position would be substantially strengthened; he would become, both in theory and in practice, the focal point for all those Republicans who don't like the idea of President Romney.
Would that, however, actually translate into more Santorum wins? Or, rather, more Romney losses?
Well, have a look at, say, Illinois, which is now shaping up to be the next Michigan, or the next Ohio. Currently, Romney's leading in the polls, if only slightly: he's at 35%, whilst Santorum is at 31%. Gingrich, by contrast, is at 12%.
If Gingrich exits the race, one might suspect - as Nate Silver seems to do - that perhaps a little more than half of Gingrich's support would go to Santorum, whilst about a quarter would go to Romney. In other words, Santorum goes up by 6%, and Romney by 3%. What's the result? Romney would be at 38%, and Santorum at 37%. It'd be very, very close, but Romney might win anyway; Gingrich's depature may not accomplish anything.
But perhaps more importantly, there's another fact that generally inserts itself in narrowing competitions: the fewer opponents there are, the easier it becomes to acquire greater numbers. In other words, Romney could find it easier to get the requisite number of delegates if the number of his competitors dwindles. Look at it this way: it is very, very difficult to win an outright majority if you're facing, say, three or four others; it becomes much easier if you're battling just a single competitor. In the first case, you can "win" by conquering the others, but could still lose by ending up below the 50% mark. In the second case, that problem sort of takes care of itself.
Consider, too, the recent contests in Alabama and Mississippi. Together, Gingrich and Santorum won over 70% of the vote. What would have happened if Gingrich hadn't been in the race? Frankly, I very much doubt that Santorum could have gotten much more than 50%, let alone gotten close to 70%. In other words, in very practical terms, it would seem that in some contests the combined presence of Gingrich and Santorum can hurt Romney more than the single presence of Santorum would have.
So, when all's said and done - what would the exit of Gingrich actually mean for the race? Well, I think it probably would not, as many seem to think, pave the way for a possible Santorum win. Although it might well strengthen Santorum, it would strengthen Romney as well. And in a two-man race, I'd tend to put my money on Romney.
The again, of course, my money's on him anyway.