“Senator Santorum is at the desperate end of his campaign,” Mitt Romney told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday. Oops. For weeks, Team Romney and many of its allies have been eager—one might even say desperate—to end this campaign. The Republican primary electorate has been resisting this, and the voters in Alabama and Mississippi engaged in massive resistance yesterday, giving Romney less than a third of their votes.
What's next? Contests in Missouri, Puerto Rico, Illinois, Louisiana, D.C., Maryland, and Wisconsin over the next three weeks will (presumably) produce victories for both Romney and Santorum. Their campaigns certainly won't end anytime soon. But Newt Gingrich's might. He's won only twice so far—and Santorum, his rival for conservative standard-bearer, has beaten him in twenty of the twenty-four states where they've both been on the ballot. If Newt chooses to end his campaign in late March or early April, and with Ron Paul having yet to win a single state, we'd be in a two-man race. As the examples of Ford-Reagan in 1976 and Obama-Clinton in 2008 suggest, the victor in such a contest tends to seem by its conclusion a worthy winner, and is able to run a strong general election campaign coming out of the convention. If Romney were to earn the nomination in those circumstances, he'd be far better off than if he had clinched the nomination early by out-spending and out-muscling a divided field. If Santorum were to win an upset victory, he'd have a real wind at his back going into the general election.
So contrary to conventional wisdom, last night was a good night for Republican prospects to defeat Barack Obama. The point, after all, isn't to end the primary campaign early. It's to end the Obama presidency in November.