Robert Bennett: Is Mitt Romney the inevitable nominee?

Published: Monday, March 12 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Republican presidential candidates Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, left, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, second from right, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, right, watch as former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during a Republican presidential debate Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2012, in Mesa, Ariz.

Jae C. Hong, Associated Press

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Last week, following Super Tuesday, Team Romney called upon the other candidates to recognize reality and withdraw, so that the campaign focus could switch to President Obama. They said that the mathematics of the race for the Republican nomination were now inexorable, that Romney was the inevitable nominee.

Unsurprisingly, that triggered sputtering and hissing in the other camps, all of whom quickly dismissed the idea as nothing more than a Romney ploy; Santorum called it "bullying." It also produced a great deal of number-crunching analysis by the pundits. Some say Romney is right and the fight is essentially over, and others say no, there is still a real chance Romney could end up with a delegate count short of a majority. Instead of coming down on one side, I will simply lay out the numbers in a historical context and let readers come to their own conclusions.

In the pre-primary days when there were eight contenders for the nomination and Romney polled better than anyone else, his opponents said that didn't mean he was the strongest candidate because he was not drawing enough of the Republican base. Shrink the field, they said, consolidating the non-Romney vote, and he would lose; 25% was his ceiling.

When the actual voting started, that proved not to be true. The field shrank quickly in January, and the vote percentages for that month were Romney, 43%; Gingrich, 32.6%; Santorum, 13.4%; and Paul, 11%. In the delegate count, the numbers were even better for Romney – 65% to Gingrich's 23%, Santorum's 7% and Paul's 4%.

In February, when there were more votes cast, the percentages were Romney, 43%; Santorum, 35%; Paul, 12%; and Gingrich 10%. Delegate percentages were Romney 48%; Santorum, 32%; Paul, 12%; and Gingrich, 10%.

So far in March, when more votes have been cast than the first two months combined, Romney's share has dropped to 38%, Santorum's has risen to 27%, Gingrich's to 23% (because of his win in Georgia) and Paul's to 12%. In delegates, however, Romney has taken 54%; Santorum, 22%; Gingrich, 17%; and Paul, 7%.

Overall, the current delegate count stands at Romney, 55%; Santorum, 22%; Gingrich, 15%; and Paul, 8%.

Team Romney says, "The trend is clear. Even as the size of the slate against us shrinks, we still get a plurality of the votes and, more importantly, a majority of the delegates. This has gone on for two and a half months and is bound to continue. The outcome is certain."

Romney's opponents say, "The trend is going the other way. March shows that your support has a cap on it, just below 40%, and is waning. We are staying in because it will continue to diminish and your delegate count will soon drop below 50%. The outcome is up in the air."

Who is right? I could make a case either way.

On one hand: "Romney's weakness is there for all to see. His 'must win' victories in Michigan and Ohio have been squeakers, even though none of his challengers had the money or organization he did. Tough races lie ahead, with the potential that sooner or later he will stumble and lose a 'must win.' That says he loses."

On the other hand: "Romney has exceeded expectations. His perceived 'cap' on vote totals has risen to 40%, well above the predicted 25%, and his organizational muscle, which none of his opponents can match, has enabled him to go over 50% in the delegate harvest. It is still very much intact. That says he wins."

Those are the two views of what the numbers are saying. Take your pick.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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