So it looks like the edifying spectacle of a Republican primary season is going to go on for months, yet. The calendar, more than anything, has seen to that.

Rick Santorum is (presumably) going to win the Missouri caucuses (he won the “beauty contest” primary already) and Louisiana, and even if he loses Illinois narrowly as he did Michigan and Ohio (which is what I expect), that won’t lead him to drop out. Nor will he take any note of Romney’s upcoming victory in Puerto Rico, any more than anyone cares that Romney won American Samoa and Hawaii last night (wins that, in delegate terms, more than made up for his narrow losses in Alabama and Mississippi), nor that he won the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and the Northern Marianas on the 10th (nearly compensating for his trouncing in Kansas).

Then comes Wisconsin, which Santorum should win, and Maryland and D.C., each of which he should lose to Romney. Once again, Romney will likely win the most delegates, but Santorum won’t drop out. Then, on April 24th, the great Mid-Atlantic primary: New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware. Santorum will win Pennsylvania; presumably he’ll lose everything else. But he won’t drop out! Because Santorum country is right around the corner: North Carolina, Indiana, West Virginia, Nebraska, Kentucky, Arkansas – Texas! As long as he has enough money to keep going, why shouldn’t he?

The usual answer to that question is “you can’t win; you must drop out for the good of the party” and the usual rejoinder to that is “we have to stay in for the good of the cause.” But is the party actually being hurt? And, conversely, is there a cause? Santorum and Romney are attacking each other over who is the “real” conservative, but they don’t seem to disagree in any important way about what a “real” conservative is. Of course, there’s the negative advertizing – but most of that is coming from Romney, and most of the attacks being made on Romney are ones that are going to be aired anyway in the general election.

The more I think about it, the less I feel like this primary season actually matters at all. Santorum’s insurgency has been compared to Goldwater in 1964, Hart in 1984, Jackson in 1988 – but these campaigns all reflected real and substantial disagreements about where the party should go, substantively, with different factions lined up behind the alternative candidates. But the more I watch this race, the less I see that kind of dynamic. There are cultural, geographic and demographic divisions between the two candidates’ bases of support. And there are obviously a whole lot of people who just don’t particularly want to vote for Mitt Romney. But I don’t see a battle for the soul of the party. I see a battle between two guys who want to be President.

The contest may be more similar to Obama-Clinton than we thought: two candidates with very different demographic coalitions and very different personalities/personal stories, but with little ideological disagreement between them. In this case, the party is lukewarm at best about each candidate, rather than fairly enthusiastic about both, and the establishment candidate is much stronger than the insurgent. But in terms of what it will mean for the general election, I’m increasingly thinking: not much.

Which is one reason why the contest will keep going on: it’s just not that important to end it.