Illinois changes nothing: Romney wins, but not until the end

As you may have heard, this cute little state below is voting today, and all indications are that Romney will win, and win big (graphic from FiveThirtyEight.com):

A major victory in a populous winner-take-all state. Surely a turning point, no? Well… I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but one of the interesting things about “turning points” in this race is how little they’ve actually done to change the underlying dynamics. So far, 44% (or so) of the union, in population terms, has voted (graphic from Wikipedia): 

When Romney took Michigan and Arizona, that was considered a major win. When Santorum then won Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, there was a lot of talk about Romney’s future being in doubt. Washington and Maine wins shored Romney back up. Then Santorum won Kansas by a huge margin (ah yes, but note that Romney got the majority of the delegates that day, thanks to caucuses in US territories). On Super Tuesday, Romney was on top after winning 6 states, including Ohio. Or was he shaky for losing 4 states and barely squeaking by in Ohio? Whichever, he got half the delegates that day. Then last week, Santorum won convincing victories in Alabama and Mississippi, where Romney placed third. Except that, thanks to Hawaii, and more US territory caucuses, Romney got about as many delegates as Santorum did that night.

Now, coming off of a big win this weekend in Puerto Rico, Romney will likely take Illinois tonight. He’s on his way! Except when Santorum wins Louisiana and Missouri this weekend. And on it will go…

The very earliest I could picture Santorum getting out would be after April 24th, if, say, he lost Wisconsin April 3rd, performed weakly in other contests, and then was embarrassed by losing his home state of Pennsylvania. More likely, he’ll do well enough in enough places that he’ll be encouraged to stay in going in to May. And Gingrich has made clear that he’s not going anywhere, even though all his best chances to break out have already passed.       

The upshot of all of this? Despite Gingrich’s self-justification for staying in, and Santorum’s continuing zeal, as Nate Silver makes clear, Romney’s machine is competing so strongly across the board, pulling in delegates even in places he doesn’t win, and taking winner-take-alls when they come, that he’s almost certain to get to 1,144 before the convention. Barring a candidacy-hobbling scandal (which, come on, a Mormon is not likely to give rise to), Romney will be the nominee.

But not very quickly. As noted above, about 44% of the country has voted, population-wise. And Romney has gotten (sound of computer clicking and whirring), yes that’s right, about 45% of the total he needs:

1,275 Delegates remaining to be selected as of 3/19/12
628 Romney still needs (1,144 total, minus 516  he currently has according to Real Clear Politics tally)
49.3% Percentage of remainder needed

There’s no reason, given the states remaining, that he should do worse than this. His popular vote total thus far is running at about 40%, but delegation allocation rules, and his campaign’s skillful targeting of opportunities for delegate upside, is giving him more than 50% of delegates on average. But there’s also no reason that he should do markedly better. As you’ll see below, there’s no real trend on his part toward getting above 50% thus far:

Mathematically, Romney will, almost certainly, be the nominee. And mathematically, he will, almost certainly, not get there until nearly the end (probably when California, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota vote on June 5th, maybe not until Utah does on June 26th). Nothing that happens in Illinois tonight will change this.

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