Mr. Romney’s campaign has warned donors and supporters that even with his victories in the coming contests, the Republican competition may very well last until at least the middle of May. They said the situation did not indicate diminishing prospects for Mr. Romney but rather was the result of the party’s delegate-allocation rules and the additional time those require for any candidate to accumulate the 1,144 delegates necessary to secure the nomination.
The acknowledgment that the intraparty competition will most likely continue into the spring would seem to sweep aside the Romney campaign’s hope that it could string together a series of early victories sufficient to claim the nominee’s mantle — symbolically, at least — and begin focusing exclusively on Mr. Obama.
That the Republican contest isn’t going to end in the immediate future is not exactly a shock, but it’s still interesting that the Romney campaign is going public about it. I suspect their motives don’t have much to do with setting expectations with the electorate and political journalists, but are instead aimed at bolstering their fundraising pitch. Inevitability might be a good thing, but if the people who write the checks think you have everything so locked down that you don’t need any more money, you’re going to run out of cash. And money is becoming a real problem for Mitt Romney, so he doesn’t want to let that happen.
But in making their pitch, I wonder if the Romney campaign isn’t accidentally conceding a very damaging point. Implicit in the idea that the primary will extend into mid-May is their belief that either Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich (or perhaps both) will continue to fight for the nomination. Also implicit is the idea that Romney does not believe he will emerge as the prohibitive favorite among Republican voters anytime soon, if ever.
It’s fair to say that if Romney were to start racking up victory after victory with double-digit margins, any doubts about whether he is likely to be the GOP nominee would vanish. But Romney’s campaign doesn’t think that’s likely to happen, otherwise they wouldn’t be talking about mid-May, by which point 80 percent of delegates will have been selected. There’s a catch, though: as Nate Silver points out, the GOP’s delegate procedures are very murky, and roughly one-quarter of all delegates aren’t actually bound to a candidate. That means that as of mid-May, perhaps forty percent of all delegates won’t actually be firmly committed. It’s impossible to imagine a scenario where Romney had locked up the nomination on the basis of delegates alone by that point in time.
To be clear, I’m not saying that the race won’t be over by mid-May. What I am saying, however, is that there’s nothing special about mid-May that would suggest it’s the point at which Mitt Romney could begin declaring victory. If he begins blowing out his opponents in contest after contest, the primary campaign could be over long before May; but if in mid-May he’s still in a dogfight and one or more of his opponents is still capable of winning contests, the nomination won’t be anywhere near over.