Ninety-one days after the Iowa caucuses kicked off the 2012 political season, Mitt Romney on Tuesday night all but locked up the Republican presidential nomination, sweeping the Maryland, Wisconsin, and District of Columbia primaries in a show of electoral strength that indicates his party is closing ranks behind him for the coming general election campaign.
Mr. Romney won at least 83 delegates in Tuesday’s contests, according to the Associated Press. That gives him 655 of the 1,144 needed for nomination. Rick Santorum has 278, Newt Gingrich 135, and Ron Paul 51.
Romney’s closest rival, ex-Pennsylvania Senator Santorum, would need to win 80 percent of the remaining delegates to clinch the nomination, according to the AP. Given that most of the state contests to come award their delegates proportionately in some manner, that’s a close-to-impossible task.
These numbers mean that there is a 97 percent chance of Romney’s wrapping up the nomination prior to the GOP national convention in Tampa, Fla,, according to the statistical prediction system of New York Times polling analyst Nate Silver.
That means that Wednesday could be considered the first day of the general election campaign, with presumptive nominee Romney training his rhetorical fire on President Obama instead of fading GOP rivals.
In remarks to cheering supporters on Tuesday night, Romney himself compared his dream of an American “opportunity society” with Obama’s more government-centered ideas.
This pivoting toward the final contest could also be seen in the announcement that Romney and the Republican National Committee will begin a joint fund-raising effort.
The establishment of a joint party-presumptive nominee committee will allow top donors to write checks as large as $75,000 per person, according to The Wall Street Journal, which reported the move. It shows that Republicans are anxious to begin amassing cash to compete with what they assume will be a well-funded Obama effort.
Romney’s performance among different groups of voters in Wisconsin shows the logic behind this shift in party focus. The ex-Massachusetts governor performed better than he has in the past among evangelicals, the relatively less well-off, and strong tea-party supporters, notes a report in the Fix political blog of the Washington Post.
Romney won 38 percent of evangelicals, for instance. (Rick Santorum won 43 percent.) Romney beat Santorum by 11 percentage points among GOP voters making less than $50,000, and by two percentage points among tea-party adherents.
Still, Santorum vowed to fight on.
“This isn’t the time to sit down and rest,” he told supporters in a Tuesday night speech from his home state of Pennsylvania, which holds the next big primary on the GOP agenda.
Santorum did not mention Romney by name. He said only that he faced competitors whose values were written on an Etch-A-Sketch.
“We don’t win by moving to the middle. We win by getting people in the middle to move to us and move this country forward…. This isn’t half time…. It’s time to go out there and fight,” said Santorum.