The good news for Mitt Romney is that he comes out of Tuesday night with a boatload of delegates and a symbolically important win in Wisconsin, where it was once tempting to imagine Rick Santorum pulling off an upset. It's all but certain that Romney will become the GOP nominee, and that he’ll do it by nailing down the 1144 delegates he officially needs before this summer's convention.
The bad news for Romney is that his Wisconsin win probably wasn’t solid enough to drive Santorum from the race before May, when there are a number of Southern contests—Arkansas, North Carolina, Kentucky, Texas—that he's likely to steal from the de facto nominee. Which, suffice it to say, isn’t exactly the visual Romney wants heading into a general election against an increasingly formidable incumbent.
The problem is that, coming into Wisconsin, the polls showed Romney carrying the state by about eight points. The actual margin was more like four. A decisive Romney win might have given Santorum second thoughts about carrying the fight to Pennsylvania, his home state, which votes on April 24. Instead, Santorum is now likely to enjoy a trace of momentum heading into the state (barely perceptible to most of us; tsunami-like within the Santorum campaign), and even more coming out of it.
Why does this matter if Romney’s going to be the nominee anyway? Just look at what happened in Wisconsin in the run-up to the primary and it becomes pretty clear. Romney spent the previous four days touring the state with its iconic conservative congressman, Paul Ryan. And while this surely boosted his prospects on election day, it just as surely dented them for November. Thanks in part to all those hours Romney spent mugging it up with Ryan in diners and VFW halls, and reassuring voters that the two men share a worldview, the radical House Republican budget—the one the Obama campaign is practically panting over—is now plausibly known as the “Ryan-Romney” budget.
One can imagine Romney trying to tether himself to other conservative icons in other primary states so long as he’s got Santorum to fend off and right-wingers to prove himself to. There’s the arch-conservative senator Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania (who recently vouched for Romney’s bona fides but stopped short of endorsing him), and John Cornyn in Texas (who’s also yet to endorse but has intimated it’s time to line up behind Romney). The longer the campaign goes on, the more Romney has to whisper sweet nothings into the ears of such nationally polarizing figures, and the less time he has to etch-a-sketch away those rough edges for the general.
For the sake of his chances against Barack Obama, then, it would have been far, far better to dispatch with Santorum tonight. But, as we’ve come to expect these last three months, Republicans weren’t ready to pull the trigger.
Update, April 4: Strangely, Romney's lead went from under 5 points with 97, 98 percent of precincts reporting to over 7 points with 100 percent reporting. I'm not entirely sure what happened, and it definitely cuts against my thesis--hard to see Santorum getting even the mildest of boosts out of this result. On the other hand, the basic point still stands: This was not the sort of expectation-beating victory that would have abruptly bounced Santorum from the race. The question now is whether Romney competes aggressively in Pennsylvania to try to settle this thing or essentially concedes it to Santorum, along with the handful of southern states that follow.
Follow me on twitter: @noamscheiber