Mitt Romney scored a monster victory on Tuesday, one so decisive that it may finally convince Republicans that their primary race has already been decided.
The campaign so far has been a contest between Romney and a gaggle of opponents all vying to be the anti-Romney candidate. But for the first time the vote totals of those who simply aren't Mitt, don't combine to give their side a victory. In a large diverse sample of Republican voters (independents were not allowed in the primary) Romney won convincing victories in key demographics, even among Tea Party voters. After slamming his opponents with an overwhelming onslaught of ads, Romney's victory was "total" and the tide appears to have turned in his favor for good.
The only person who doesn't seem to have noticed that is Newt Gingrich. The prevailing story line is that Gingrich just needs to hang on until Super Tuesday, where Southern state primaries will give him a chance to rack up some victories and get back in the race. But that's five weeks from now. The first week features four contested events — all caucuses, where manpower and organization put Gingrich at a huge disadvantage and he's unlikely to earn any first-place finishes. Then the campaign goes dark for two whole weeks. There are no debates between now and February 22 and then — a whole week after that —two primaries where, once again, Gingrich is not expected to win. Forget momentum, Gingrich will struggle to even get his name in the paper this month. Unless he wants to talk more about pie-in-the-sky (or moon) ideas that make him a punchline.
Romney is miles from the needed delegates to clinch the nomination, but when you consider how February is likely to play out, his lead and electoral advantages will come into stark relief. Once we get to Super Tuesday, it's not even clear that Gingrich can expect victories there either. If he was not even a factor in Florida, it's unlikely he'll be the favorite in Tennessee or Georgia. (And he's not even on the ballot in Virginia, the only other Southeastern state voting on March 6.)
By the time that day rolls around, Romney could very well be on a eight-state winning streak. Even two of his three opponents bowed out and their supporters combined forces, he's still hold comfortable leads in the polls. Voters in Florida still say Romney isn't conservative enough, yet he won their primary by double digits. It's hard to argue that his nomination is anything but inevitable.
Still, Gingrich is not deterred. After watching his non-concession concession speech last night, Toby Harnden of the UK's Daily Mail said Gingrich sounded like a man who "refused to come to terms with the reality of his defeat."
Apparently, no one had told the former House Speaker this was supposed to be a concession speech ... The voters in Florida made a few things clear but Gingrich's uncontested leadership of the American conservative movement wasn't one of them.
Ross Douthat at The New York Times concurs:
We can expect a last burst of media chatter about how Gingrich could still recover, ride a wilderness campaign to a Super Tuesday comeback and fight Romney tooth and nail all the way to the convention. But chatter is all it will be. For Gingrich and his media enablers alike, the dream died in Florida...
Gingrich may refuse to give in and may even be able to carry his war of attrition all the way to the convention. And he may bruise and batter Romney along the way, dragging him down into the muck and forcing him to dig into his general election war chest. But last night made it clear that Romney is firmly in command. If the ten days between South Carolina and Florida accomplished anything, it is that gave Republicans enough time to realize that the "Massachusetts Moderate" may not be their preferred option, but he is their best bet to unseat the president. They're finally voting accordingly.