The week leading up to Tuesday's elections was marked by landmark endorsements for presidential candidate Mitt Romney from holdouts who were waiting until the primary race was conclusively over. Among these was Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who gave his endorsement in a back-handed manner and in doing so probably confirmed he does not want to be on the ticket.
But the exit polls Tuesday night confirmed that GOP voters know this primary is over and want it done. Romney won by double-digit margins in both Maryland and Wisconsin — among GOP voters that is.
Rick Santorum showed only two sparks of life last night: among white evangelicals, many of whom remain doggedly opposed to Romney, and hard-left liberal Democrats, most of whom want the fun to go on. In this respect, they are not unlike Santorum himself, who all observers now agree cannot stop Romney from winning the nomination.
The only explanation in both cases is what might be called "mayhem," defined as fun and strategic benefit derived from feigning the straight game while actually playing another game.
Liberal Democrats support Santorum in Republican primary voting to weaken the GOP by prolonging its agony and draining its resources. No mystery there.
Meanwhile, Santorum's only remaining real game is the Reagan 1976 model: scuttling the current GOP White House bid while setting himself up as the White Knight in four years time.
The key indicator that Santorum's straight game is over is his slippage with evangelicals. For the first time, Romney got a close split in this demographic in both states, losing them in Wisconsin to Santorum by just three points but actually winning them in Maryland by two points. If that trend holds, Santorum's strategy will fail in short order.
But one group still enthusiastically backs Santorum. Because Maryland does not allow Democrats to vote, they played no role there, and Romney thus waltzed to victory with a 20-point margin, 49 percent to 29 percent.
It is worth noting that Maryland independents voted in large numbers, and they favored Romney by a smaller margin than GOP voters. Since Santorum is unlikely to outpoll Romney among independents, this suggests a little mayhem here as well.
But it is in Wisconsin where the evidence is thick and even amusing. Begin with "somewhat liberals," where Santorum beat Romney by four points, 37 to 32 percent. Since no one in this demo actually would prefer a Santorum presidency, that's 3.3 that can be taken off of Santorum's 37, roughly speaking.
Twelve percent of the voters "strongly opposed the tea party." And they split for Santorum 40 percent to Romney's 20. That's a possible 4.8 of Santorum's 37.
Finally, Wisconsin has a unique exit-poll question with national significance. Gov. Scott Walker drew a firestorm of opposition from public employee unions and their supporters on the left when he and the legislature tweaked the pension system and ended collective bargaining on pension issues. Walker is now facing a recall campaign, and the issue remains a national flashpoint in the impending struggle over how to deal with insolvent state pensions.
Anyone who strongly opposes Walker is embracing the public employee/Democratic Party side of this debate, and this clearly understood local question is probably the strongest indicator of mayhem.
Fourteen percent of the voters said they "strongly disapproved" of Walker's performance as governor, and 42 percent of these favored Santorum compared to 15 percent for Romney. That suggests that 5.9 of the Santorum 37 can reasonably be viewed as mayhem.
So this is where Santorum's campaign stands on the eve of his last stand in his home state. A quickly fading evangelical advantage now offers him no better than a close split, and a rowdy crowd of hooligans on the left taunt him with their support.
To eke out any win in any remaining states will likely require a state with lots of evangelicals — with slippage in evangelicals reversed — and an open primary, so the hooligans can get in. Unfortunately for Santorum, April is a series of closed primaries in low-evangelical states. He has to look forward to Arkansas and Texas toward the end of May, but these will quickly be overwhelmed by California on June 2 — a closed, winner-take-all primary.
In short, the 2012 primary game is over. The question becomes what game Santorum is playing. Tuesday he said it was "half time," as only half the delegates have been assigned. But if that's true then he is down by 40 points and his QB and offensive line all have concussions.
As was noted earlier, Santorum's expressed model is 1976 when Ronald Reagan challenged Gerald Ford, forced a convention fight, lost and and regrouped to win it all four years later. The subtext of course is that the GOP narrowly lost the White House that year in 1976, thanks in part to the drag on party resources and unity.
The alternative strategy was played by Romney himself, who recognized quite early in the 2008 race that the numbers were stacked against him, abruptly withdrew and began campaigning for John McCain.
Santorum clearly is not interested in that strategy, which suggests that he really does believe Romney is so unacceptable that damaging his November chances involves little actual harm. This fits with Santorum's Reagan 1976 game and his four-year time frame.
Exit question: What game is Newt Gingrich playing? The answer appears to be that the former Speaker has reverted to the loveable Muppet role he played very early in the campaign before he briefly tried to eat the drums.
Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at [email protected].