Delegate Math: Don't Anoint Romney Just Yet

Mitt Romney may have won Iowa and New Hampshire, but even if he wins in South Carolina and Florida, he will technically still have a long way to go before winning the GOP nomination.

Mathematically, no candidate can seal the nomination until late April, which leaves a lot of campaigning yet to be done.

Delegates-not voters-will decide the GOP nomination, and Iowa and New Hampshire award next to none, even as those states have bestowed on Romney a crush of media attention, a wave of momentum, and a growing impression of inevitability.

In officially allocated - or "bound" - delegates, Romney (seven) leads Ron Paul (three), and Jon Huntsman (two).

If that sounds paltry, it is. To be nominated for president, a GOP candidate will need the support of 1,144 delegates, a majority of the 2,286 who will vote at the August convention.

New Hampshire allocated just 12 delegates on Tuesday night - fewer than one percent of the national total. Iowa, though it will send 28 delegates to the GOP convention, didn't technically award any: All of its delegates, to be selected at congressional-district conventions and the GOP state convention in June, are free to support any candidate they choose in Tampa, site of  the GOP national convention.

Including projections of how Iowa's unbound delegates will vote at the August convention, ABC News' running delegate tally shows Romney (20) leading Rick Santorum (12), Paul (three) and Huntsman (two).

Until Romney wins the obligated support of 1,144 delegates, he can't be crowned the GOP winner. Not until polls close in New York on April 24 will that many have been awarded, in total, to all the candidates combined.

Ron Paul, meanwhile, has a long-term plan to disrupt Romney's smooth sailing toward the convention. Since 2008, his young, energized supporters have shown a penchant for organizing in overlooked places, and if Paul scratches and claws for enough votes along the way, the GOP race could still be interesting well into spring.

Republican Party officials wanted it this way.

After seeing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton wage a long primary war that brought more national attention to them than to the already-anointed John McCain, the Republican National Committee adopted new rules in August aimed at prolonging the Republican race. Under pressure from the RNC, most state Republican parties began awarding their delegates on a proportional basis. A win in Texas's Super Tuesday (March 6) primary, for instance, won't be worth all of the state's 152 bound delegates; it will likely be worth fewer than half.

If the race is to drag on, at least a small handful of candidates will have to keep running, if only to siphon votes and delegates away from Romney, or from any other late-emerging front-runner. Since a candidate will need a majority, someone has to keep the front-runner's total below 50 percent.

And the also-rans will have to keep also-running competitively. Some states require candidates to win 15 percent of the vote, statewide and within congressional districts, to win any delegates at all.

Which means it could be in Paul's interest for other candidates to stay in, and stay active.

What would Paul, the leading candidate to force a drawn-out primary, gain from dragging things all the way to the convention? For one, a voice in the party.

Paul was not invited to speak at the 2008 convention in St. Paul, Minn., and he said party officials told him he would need to be chaperoned if he set foot in the building. So Paul instead held a counter-convention the day before John McCain accepted the GOP nomination, drawing upward of 12,000 of his disillusioned supporters to the Target Center in Minneapolis.

This year, if Paul wins a plurality of delegates from five states in 2012, he will meet the qualification for having his name read aloud at the Tampa convention as a candidate for the nomination and could secure a high-profile speaking slot.

"If we don't pull it off, and we're not in first place, yes, that would be a good goal," Paul said, before the New Hampshire vote, of appearing and speaking at the Tampa convention. "I run to win, and I have won a lot, but we also want to help direct the party and the country in a certain way, so that would be a very positive strategy to have an influence in the party."

Paul is poised to stretch the GOP race longer than any other candidate, other than Romney. His campaign has said it raised $13 million in the fourth quarter of 2012, and Paul clearly has a long-term strategy for delegate accumulation,  ABC's Jonathan Karl has reported. Paul's campaign has already spent money on direct mail in Louisiana, Nevada, Maine, Colorado, Washington and North Dakota.

If a single candidate fails to win 1,144 delegates, convention mayhem will likely ensue, and the nomination process will become a maze of state-party rules about when delegates are released from their binding and how strictly they're bound. Arizona's state law, for instance, requires delegates to use their "best efforts" to support the statewide winner. In Illinois, campaigns select their delegates and in the past have asked them to sign pledges of support-but it's not entirely clear whether those pledges are binding.

The big day to watch is March 6 - Super Tuesday - when 22 percent of all delegates will be won or lost. By the end of the day, states will have allocated more than half of the 1,144 needed for a single candidate to win the nomination.

If Paul and Santorum, Paul and Perry, Paul and Huntsman, or some other surprise combination of candidates has hung around long enough to keep Romney below 50 percent after Super Tuesday, the firewall date of the Republican primary is June 5, when California, South Dakota, New Mexico , Montana and New Jersey all vote. Only Utah will follow them.

But there's no guarantee anyone will seal the nomination before the Tampa convention. More than 20 percent of all GOP delegates are unbound, and not up for grabs in any primary.

If that happens, campaigns will sweet-talk those unbound delegates and the GOP race will look a lot like the Democratic race in 2008: long and complicated.