Mitt Romney picked up a total of six states on Super Tuesday, with Rick Santorum gaining three and Newt Gingrich one. The results, particularly a close race in Ohio, left the contest far from decided. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.
Updated at 7:47 a.m. ET: Campaigns live and die on the momentum swings of big victories, strong debate performances or debilitating gaffes. But nominations are won with delegates, and in this year's Republican presidential campaign, the math is relentless: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is starting to pile them up, and faster than any of his rivals.
That's partly because of the nature of the 2012 race, but it's also because, more than in any other recent campaign, the state Republican parties are doling out their delegates in a variety of ways this year. They've moved away from the more traditional system in which the winner of a congressional district takes most or all of that district's delegates — a winner-take-all approach that has led to the nomination's having been decided after just a few big primaries and caucuses in previous cycles.
Casual followers of politics might assume that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, won most of the 76 delegates Tuesday night in his home state, Georgia — and he would have under the winner-take-all system. But the Republican National Committee has tried to steer the state parties toward district allocations that more accurately reflect the popular vote.
The upshot is that even though Gingrich won Georgia, according to NBC News' projection Tuesday night, he could end up with fewer than half its delegates. Romney, meanwhile — despite finishing second or third — could come away with a quarter of them or more.
Math like that made it possible for Romney to hit 323 total delegates, according to NBC News' projections through 12:35 a.m. ET — more than triple the number won by Gingrich (105) and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania (101) and 13½ times those won by Rep. Ron Paul of Texas (24).
NBC's David Gregory, Chuck Todd and Savannah Guthrie weigh in on the Super Tuesday results, which left the Republican primary race still wide open.
And it's the kind of math that makes it harder for a non-front-running candidate to make a big leap in delegates, which he could do by winning an upset in a big winner-take-all state.
The problem for Santorum and Gingrich is that there are only 12 such opportunities this year, compared to 25 in 2008. That's the number of states — none of them on Super Tuesday — that were running largely winner-take-all contests, while 22 were awarding delegates more along proportional lines.
Mark Humphrey / AP
See pictures from around America as 11 states hold contests that will award a combined 424 delegates in the Republican primary.
Patchwork of rules
(As for the rest of the states, they were waiting for state conventions or were using a combination of the two systems, many of them with unique complications — like Ohio, where delegates were being allocated proportionally unless one candidate won a clear majority, in which case it would switch to winner-take-all. Tennessee was using a similar arrangement, except the winner-take-all trigger wouldn't be pulled unless one candidate won two-thirds of the popular vote.
(None of this takes into account the three wild-card delegate spots in each district reserved for members of the RNC. Still with us?)
Boil it all down, and what it means is that having to navigate such a patchwork of rules rewards candidates with well-financed national campaigns that can compete in every state.
It rewards Romney, in other words.
Besides having won six contests going in to Tuesday, Romney had also finished second in four of the five others, winning a significant number of delegates in many of them. Besides adding three more wins by mid-evening, he was also running second or was in a virtual tie for the lead in most of the rest of Tuesday's contests that had reported returns.
Certainly, an unexpected development, like a candidate's withdrawal or a major mistake in a debate, could change the calculus, but as it stands now, the problem for Gingrich and Santorum is that, no matter how good they look in national polls compared to Romney, they're finishing third or fourth too often.
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images
Mitt Romney arrives at a Super Tuesday gathering with his family in Boston.
Meanwhile, the majority of winner-take-all states, where they theoretically could begin to catch up, are backloaded this year, with most coming in April or later. By that time, Romney could well have taken on the mantle of inevitable nominee, thanks to lackluster but good-enough finishes to keep the delegates ticking into his column.
Romney all but pointed that out himself at a rally Tuesday night in Boston:
"Tonight, we are counting up the delegates for the convention — and counting down the days until November," he said.