Mitt Romney's decision to leave the presidential race this week handed the Republican crown to John McCain, the man whose dominating wins on Super Tuesday put him well past the halfway mark on the march to 1,191 delegates — the magic number needed to nominate.
It also meant the super-early placement of Super Tuesday on February 5 had achieved its predicted effect. It enabled a GOP nominee to emerge sooner than in any previous cycle in history, barring only those instances when an incumbent Republican was seeking re-election without significant opposition.
In fact, McCain claimed the nomination even earlier in the year than incumbent Republicans George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford had in 1992 and 1976, respectively.
Romney bade his farewell in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual red-meat festival for activists in Washington D.C. The crowd groaned and there were shouts of "No! No!" But Romney said he had to get out now because a protracted nomination fight would help the Democrats.
Perhaps. But it's not likely the former Massachusetts governor would scruple such a thing if the numbers gave him a chance of succeeding. As it was, a review of the facts told this former investment banker not to throw any more good money after bad — especially considering how much of that money would have to be his own.
Thanks to Republican winner-take-all rules, McCain got all the swag Tuesday night in New York, New Jersey, Missouri, Arizona, Connecticut and Delaware. In California, where it's winner-take-all by congressional district, McCain got virtually all the 170 delegates; and in Illinois, where they use proportional distribution, McCain still got 54 out of 67.
You get the drift. So did Mitt.
When the counting was done, McCain had more than 700 delegates while Romney had fewer than 300. To overcome this gap, Romney would have to win better than three out of four delegates available in the remaining events. This was not plausible.
And, it was going to be inordinately expensive.
Romney has reported spending $35 million of his own in 2007 on this campaign, and he appears to have been largely self-financing since. Right after losing in Florida, the Romney campaign hesitated before making its media buy for Super Tuesday — no doubt pondering how much to add to its sunk costs.
So, the runner-up bowed to the inevitable, leaving only Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul to chase the frontrunner. Huckabee won five Southern states on February 5 and may win some more in the weeks ahead. But neither he nor Paul will impair McCain's march to his 1,191.
It is far less obvious, but Romney's departure may also move things along on the Democratic side.
The Democrats' events on Super Tuesday did not produce a clear winner or a frontrunner: Hillary Clinton won the biggest states, much as McCain did, but the proportional rules of her party meant Barack Obama got lots of delegates in these states too. In California and New York, he got three for every four she got. In New Jersey, his 48 nearly matched her 59.
That allowed Obama to battle back in the 13 states he won, most of them smaller caucus states that nonetheless produced fat margins for him — including 2 to 1 ratios in Georgia, Minnesota and Colorado. On the night, the difference between the two candidates was a handful.
So right now, the Clinton-Obama duel looks set to continue indefinitely. Over the next four months, Democrats will be voting or caucusing in more than a score of states. We could have the first nomination contest that lasts into June since Walter Mondale held off Gary Hart in 1984.
Or, possibly, not. Consider the psychological and practical effects of the Romney decision on Democratic contests to come.
Watching the Republicans fall into line behind their nominee ought to make Democrats long for closure as well, especially as they spend tens of millions of their dollars on an internecine struggle — money they would rather spend against McCain. An endless and debilitating fight of this kind would sap the party's energy and create animosities. A multi-ballot convention might make it all worse.
And if all that waste is not enough to change the minds of many Democrats, the votes of independents and crossover Republicans might be enough to alter the outcomes of future Democratic primaries.
Take the February events, for example. Virginia and Wisconsin allow non-Democrats to take part. Picture yourself a voter in either state who might have been planning to vote in the GOP primary (probably for McCain). There's no suspense there anymore, and McCain does not really need your vote. But on the Democratic side, it's quite a different story.
In the states that have voted so far, independents and Republicans who take a Democratic ballot usually vote for Obama. If that holds true down the road, it could tip the balance in more than a few states. It is worth noting that the open primaries still to come include not only Virginia and Wisconsin but also Texas, Ohio, North Carolina and Indiana.
In the end, it may well come down to the superdelegates. These are the elected officeholders and party officials who are delegates by virtue of their position. Right now, Clinton has the stated loyalty of more than 200 superdelegates, roughly 80 more than her rival. But there are 825 all told. Most have not yet recorded a preference between these two candidates, and all 825 are free to change their minds.
The superdelegates' job is to help the party reach a decision and pull itself together. And nothing focuses the mind of a superdelegate quite as quickly as the sight of a Republican nominee in place, preparing for November.