Super Tuesday marked a giant day in the Republican presidential primary — 10 states voting and more than 400 delegates at stake. But even after the nail-biter between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in Ohio, the contours of the race are unchanged from weeks ago.
Romney is still limping toward a nomination that looks nearly inevitable, if a long way away, and continues to show weakness with big swaths of the Republican base. The former Massachusetts governor has yet to win an overwhelmingly conservative electorate, but none of his rivals is seriously threatening his frontrunner status.
With that in mind, here are five things we learned from Super Tuesday:
1 The Republican National Committee badly miscalculated with its 2012 primary schedule.
The GOP's protracted fight for the nomination is "going to be great for our party," RNC chairman Reince Priebus said Wednesday on CNN. That's either delusional or transparent spin.
RNC members two years ago created a primary schedule designed to slow down the picking of a nominee. They wanted to give more states a voice in the process and keep more party activists engaged.
Nice idea in theory. Except all evidence suggests the calendar has done more harm than good.
Polls show Republican voters have become less enthusiastic about the choices. And the relentlessly negative primary fight has damaged the GOP brand heading toward the general election.
While President Barack Obama's job approval numbers have risen, a national Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released this week found only 1 in 10 voters said the primary had made them more favorable toward the Republican Party and 4 in 10 said less favorable.
Only 28 percent of voters have a favorable view of Romney while 39 percent have an unfavorable view, according to the poll. That's worse — far worse in most cases — than Obama, John McCain, John Kerry, George W. Bush and Bob Dole looked to voters at this point in their primaries.
And remember, while the Republican candidates are spending resources competing in states that will be irrelevant in November, the Obama campaign is building formidable ground organizations in battleground states. So far it has 15 campaign offices running in Florida. The Republican candidates? Zero.
2 It's all about delegates.
In 2008 Hillary Rodham Clinton lost the Democratic nomination to Obama largely because her campaign assumed momentum would drive the contest, while the Obama team built a methodical state-by-state strategy for amassing delegates.
Four years later, Romney likely will win the nomination because his team paid attention to delegates.
It takes 1,144 to clinch the nomination, and Romney is just over one-third of the way to that threshold. Still, the delegate math looks nearly insurmountable for his rivals.
Santorum would need to win over 60 percent of the delegates in the remaining 34 contests to reach 1,144, and Newt Gingrich 70 percent. Between now and the final contest in Utah on June 26, there are few chances for big hauls.
Only four — Utah, New Jersey, the District of Columbia and Delaware — are winner-take-all elections, so the vast majority of remaining states will split their delegates among the candidates.
Santorum can't even compete for Washington, D.C.'s 19 delegates on April 3 because he failed to qualify for the ballot.
Neither Gingrich nor Santorum is giving any sign of dropping out, but the Romney campaign suggests that in ignoring the delegate realities they are only helping Obama. Four years ago, Romney quit his race against McCain on Feb. 7, after losing Florida's Jan. 29 primary and then faring poorly on Super Tuesday days later.
"He looked at the math after those contests and saw it was going to be very difficult. Gov. Romney made the decision to step back and allow Sen. McCain to get a head start on the general election," said Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams, suggesting that Santorum's inability even to fully compete for delegates in several states points to his general election weakness.
3 Republicans face an enthusiasm gap.
Party leaders have long assumed that once the nomination is settled, the specter of a second term for Obama will be enough to unify and energize the GOP in the general election.
But Republican turnout across the Super Tuesday states was off more than 8 percent from four years ago, part of a continuing lack of excitement in the Republican field. In Ohio, more than 6 in 10 Romney supporters told exit pollsters they would not be satisfied if Santorum won the nomination, and more than 6 in 10 Santorum supporters said the same of Romney.
Months ago, it was easy to find veteran Republican strategists optimistic about beating Obama in November. Not now.
Romney faces the real risk of a self-fulfilling Dole perception problem as the slog continues — an uninspiring frontrunner who fails to instill confidence.
4 The strongest reason for Gingrich to stay in the race is personal ego.
Former House Speaker Gingrich won his home state of Georgia on Tuesday but finished third or worse elsewhere.
He no longer looks like a credible candidate, having shown no momentum since winning South Carolina. He looks more like a spoiler preventing Santorum from emerging as the lone conservative alternative to Romney.
U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, meanwhile, looks increasingly irrelevant. Don't expect him to drop out anytime soon, but with no wins to date, he's likely to draw little media attention.
5 When it counts, Romney comes through.
For all the gaffes, the setbacks, the unexpectedly close elections, Romney wins when it matters most. He won Florida after his crushing loss in South Carolina. He won Michigan after Santorum surged. And he won Ohio when Santorum threatened.
The campaign sometimes seems stronger than the candidate, but someone who repeatedly comes through under pressure is precisely what Republicans will need to beat an incumbent president.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]