Observers cite the possibility of a brokered convention as the only reason for Newt Gingrich to remain in the race for the Republican nomination. If Mitt Romney cannot accumulate a majority of committed delegates prior to the convention, then Newt’s delegates give him bargaining power, with the possibility of throwing them behind Rick Santorum or even forging a Santorum/Gingrich ticket.

But why wait for the convention? If Gingrich and Santorum can strike a deal why not do it right now? There are tradeoffs.

1. If all primaries awarded delegates in proportion to vote shares there would be no gain to joining forces early. Sending Newt’s share of the primary voters over to Rick gives him the same number of delegates as he would get if Newt collected those delegates himself and then bartered them at the convention. But winner-take-all primaries change the calculation. If Santorum and Gingrich split the conservative vote in a winner-take-all primary, all of those delegates go to Romney. Joining forces now gives the pair a chance of bagging those big delegate payoffs.

2. Teaming up now solves a commitment problem.  If both stay in the race and succeed in bringing about a contested convention, the bargaining will be a three-sided affair with Romney potentially co-opting one of them and leaving the other in the cold.

Those are the incentives in favor of a merger now.  Working against is

3. A candidate has less control over his voters than he would have over his delegates. Newt endorsing Santorum does not guarantee that all of Newt’s supporters will vote for Rick, many will prefer Romney and others would just stay at home on primary day.

Gingrich and Santorum are savvy enough, and there is enough at stake, for us to assume they have done the calculations. Given the widespread belief that any vote for Rick or Newt is a really an anti-Romney vote, they surely have discussed joining forces. But they haven’t done it yet and probably will not, and this tells us something.

The huge gain coming from points 1 and 2 can only be offset by losses coming from point 3. Their inability to strike a deal reveals that the Gingrich and Santorum staffs must have calculated that the anti-Romney theory is an illusion. They must have figured out that if Gingrich drops out of the race what will actually happen is that Romney will attract enough of Gingrich’s supporters (or enough of them will disengage altogether) to earn a majority and head into the convention the presumptive nominee.

Newt and Rick need each other. But what they particularly need is for each to stay in the race until the end, collecting not just the conservative votes but also the anti-other-conservative-candidate vote in hopes that their combined delegate total is large enough come convention-time to finally make a deal.

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