Even if Romney scores a landslide victory, his opponents will likely fight for the nomination as long as anyone is willing to vote for them.
You've heard it many times before -- in Florida, in Michigan, on Super Tuesday, and again in last week's Southern primaries: This could be the vote that ends the Republican primary. Each time, the primary has rather impolitely declined to comply with the wishes of an increasingly bored pundit class and an increasingly exasperated Mitt Romney campaign. But on Tuesday, as Illinois voters cast their ballots, it's true again.
Romney cannot mathematically sew up the nomination for another couple of months. But this race isn't going to end because a delegate majority has been achieved; Romney's competitors have proved quite impervious to mathematical arguments. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have been busily disputing the math for the past couple of weeks, spinning implausible scenarios about changes to delegate-allocation rules and picking up delegates at state conventions in caucus states. Santorum's attempt to spin the counts is particularly ironic considering that no matter how well he does in the Illinois popular vote, his organizational flubs in the state make it highly unlikely he gains delegates there.
It also isn't going to end because the competition gives in, as much as Romney would like them to. Romney, a sensible respecter of rules, graciously ceded the 2008 primary to John McCain when it became clear that that's where things were headed. But Santorum, Gingrich, and Ron Paul are fired by a passion more visceral than logic or party unity, and while Paul likes him well enough, Santorum and Gingrich seem to harbor a personal animosity for the straitlaced Massachusetts executive.
No, the primary is going to end when the voters say it's time -- when the people who make up the Republican Party across the nation decide they've had enough. You can't blame Santorum and, to a lesser extent, Gingrich for thinking they have a mandate to continue when the voters keep egging them on. Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Jon Huntsman dropped out because people weren't voting for them and there was no reason to believe that was going to change. Continuing to campaign started to seem overwhelmingly pointless.
For Gingrich, the mood of pointlessness is beginning to descend. His delusions, powerful as they may be, will only take him so much further if his support from voters begins to dwindle to single digits. Once Gingrich isn't taking a substantial chunk of the vote, Santorum can test his contention that he would win a one-on-one faceoff with Romney, and if that's not the case it will be his turn to see the writing on the wall.
So the vote in Illinois could, like so many before it, be the beginning of the end of the neverending Republican primary. Or it could, once again, tell us that the rank and file of the GOP aren't ready to throw in the towel.
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Molly Ball is Time magazine’s national political correspondent and a former staff writer at The Atlantic.