After his commanding victory in the Republican primary in Florida last week, Mitt Romney handed leading rival Newt Gingrich a thumping loss in Nevada on Saturday.
In the usual race for the GOP nomination, the margin of those two victories, confirming that Romney is best-suited to most sections of the ideologically-diverse Republican Party, would have all but ended the contest.
But this is not a normal year, because the Republican National Committee has altered the rules governing the nomination process to avoid a repeat of 2008. Then, John McCain effectively won the nomination by early February. Republicans watched bemused as the Democratic nomination process dominated the headlines until early June, when Barack Obama finally defeated the challenge of Hillary Clinton.
While this was not the sole reason for Obama's victory in November 2008, Republicans regarded the enthusiasm and interest generated by the prolonged Democratic fight, and the momentum for Obama's presidential campaign, as a major contribution to McCain's failure to win the Presidency.
The rule changes, made in 2010, want to ensure that this 2012 contest does not end too early, dampening the enthusiasm of grassroots supporters: “Any presidential primary, caucus, convention, or other meeting held for the purpose of selecting delegates to the national convention which occurs prior to the first day of April in the year in which the national convention is held, shall provide for the allocation of delegates on a proportional basis.”
The idea is that awarding delegates proportionally, rather than on a "winner-take-all" basis, would prevent any front-runner from wrapping up the contest early, before many States got the chance to participate. The rule also encouraged larger States, who prefer to award their delegates on the winner-take-all basis, to stick to a later date in the process.
It is this proportionality rule that may convince Romney's remaining challengers that they should keep campaigning. And that is where the Newt Gingrich/Rick Santorum/Ron Paul rationale for persisting gets complicated.
None of the three men will admit it, as anything hinting at a defeatist attitude is a death-knell in American politics, but they hope to force a brokered convention. In that scenario, if Romney does not get the 50% of delegates he requires on the first ballot, the State delegates who were pledged to him can switch their support to another candidate.
Some "back of a napkin" mental arithmetic illustrates this reasoning.
The contests before 1 April award around 50% of the total delegates. If Romney continues to get 40% support in those contests, he ends up with around 20% of the final delegate count. This means he has to get another 30% (600) of delegates from the remaining 50% (1150) of delegates.
Texas --- a winner-take-all state --- awards around 150 of those post-April 1 delegates, and Gingrich is confident he can win that State with Governor Rick Perry backing him. So that leaves Romney to pick up approximately 600 delegates from the 1000 remaining. If Santorum remains in the contest at that point, then he would be favourite to win Pennsylvania, which awards 72 winner-takes-all delegates on 24 April. Romney now needs 600 from 930, and that might be a tough prospect
At that point, possible outcomes at a brokered convention become even more speculative. Some examples: there is a rumour that Ron Paul supporters have been quietly working behind the scenes --- standing for other candidates --- to get selected as delegates in as many States as possible. When they are released from supporting Romney, Gingrich, or Santorum, they will give Paul a significant power bloc on the second ballot. Or there is the scenario that Republicans will turn to someone like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush or current Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels to accept the nomination.
And then there are even murkier possibilities. Romney's victory in Florida gave him 50 pledged candidates at August's GOP National Convention in Tampa Bay. But Florida's winner-take-all ballot conflicts with the revised rule that early States must award their delegates proportionally.
Romney's campaign is confident that the Florida allocation will stand come August, on the premise that a State --- Florida has already had its delegate count halved --- cannot be punished twice by the RNC. But Gingrich's staff believe a challenge will force Florida to assign their delegates proportionally.
Another difficulty in calculating if Romney will have the 1,144 delegates he needs are the so-called superdelegates. Every State GOP, plus American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, appoint three officials as unpledged delegates.
That means 168 delegates go the Convention free to vote for whoever they want. As a comparison, the five States who have held their contests so far do not total 168 delegates between them.
These are some of the straws to which Romney's opponents are clinging. Their optimism is almost certainly misplaced, but when Newt Gingrich held his press conference after the loss in Nevada, the signal was clear: he wants to take this fight all the way to the Convention.