Mitt Romney lost two more states yesterday, finishing third in both Alabama and Mississippi. Rick Santorum won both states, which were seen as Newt Gingrich’s last chance at relevance; he’s apparently pressing on regardless, though it certainly seems that doing so hurts Santorum much more than it does Romney. Despite lackluster performances in strongly conservative states, Romney’s still basically on track to secure the nomination at some point, but it’s probably going to take winning some of the big, winner-take-all states later in the calendar. That means there’s theoretically still time for a Santorum miracle — he needs to win a significant majority of remaining delegates to actually secure the nomination before the convention — or that we could be heading for the ultimate Washington press corps fantasy, the brokered convention.
As Ed Kilgore notes, relaying comments from Jonathan Bernstein, party elites retain considerable power in the nominating process. They want Romney, and they have for a long time. Whatever happens in traditional primary states, there are enough delegates chosen at county- and state-level conventions (that is, the later parts of the caucuses that actually matter) to keep things slouching toward Romney if the voters don’t come through. But what happens if the party bigwigs change their minds? What might make Santorum suddenly palatable?
Romney’s big selling point has always been electability, and it’s been especially prominent since he’s had to focus on an opponent whose last election was a 17-point loss. But the more he tries to balance appeals to the far-right of the GOP primary electorate and general-election moderation, the tougher it becomes to secure his own base going into the general election. With the economy picking up and Barack Obama looking like more of a favorite, GOP elites might start thinking not just about who they want as President (it’s still Romney, and will continue to be), but also about damage-mitigation in the event of a loss. I don’t think there’s any question that a Santorum loss to Obama is better than a Romney loss for the future of the Republican Party; frankly, a Romney loss could lead to the kind of intra-partisan shake-up we haven’t seen since the Dixiecrats switched sides. That he wasn’t conservative enough to win would be the rallying cry of the right going into Obama’s second term and the 2014 and 2016 campaigns. A Santorum loss wouldn’t necessarily push the party back toward the center, but it would provide leverage for those trying to pull it there.
But let’s be clear: A flood of elite abandoning Romney for Santorum is the only way Santorum wins the nomination. Romney might not win it cleanly or anytime soon, but if the party chiefs want him, they’ll find a way to get him before the convention. The brokered convention dream is an illusion in modern politics, in much the same way the small-conference national college football champion dream is an illusion pursued by so many sports reporters and pundits. Like the Boise State Broncos, Rick Santorum can only win if the system wants him to win, and right now it doesn’t.