More pivotal to the outcome of the GOP presidential race than Rick Perry's position on Social Security or Mitt Romney's record on health care reform may be a procedural matter imperceptible to most voters — the 2012 primary calendar.
The order in which states cast their votes is as vital to a campaign's success as dollar bills. Certain candidates jibe better with certain states, due to their political, geographic, and demographic profiles. Winning the nomination entails hitting the sweet spots (or states) at the right time and in the right combination to get to the magic number of delegates.
As the Republican primary narrows into a two-man contest between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, the implications of the 2012 calendar for each candidate are becoming clear. With the two men representing opposite wings of the party — Romney, the mainstream, business establishment and Perry, the tea party-tinged, religious conservative base — likely victories and defeats can be blocked out on the calendar as the race jumps from state to state.
What's more, new Republican National Committee rules could fuel a drawn-out scrimmage, similar to the epic Democratic matchup between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008.
The national party is requiring states that hold March contests to award delegates proportionally, meaning a first-place finish doesn't guarantee the whole bag. Winner-take-all states can't vote until April. The arrangement is designed to slow the flow of delegates to a trickle, unlike the fast floods typical of modern-day nominating contests that render the late-voting states irrelevant.
"From my vantage point, it looks like it's going to be a protracted battle, and both the Perry and Romney camps are showing that they are planning for something long term," said Josh Putnam, a visiting assistant professor at Davidson College whose FrontloadingHQ blog is a leading authority on the primary calendar.
In 2008, more than 50 percent of the Republican delegates were awarded by the time the race got to the multistate contest known as Super Tuesday, which fell on Feb. 5. The 75 percent threshold was crossed by March 4, Putnam said.
Although the 2012 calendar is still very much in flux, Putnam predicts that 50 percent of the delegates won't be awarded until March 13 — one week after Super Tuesday — while 75 percent won't be allocated until May 8.
"We always hear about the states like Arizona and Michigan that are trying to move up, but underneath the surface we have a majority of the states complying with the rules, and a number of them have moved their dates back," Putnam said.
(Putnam's calculations do not account for the penalties the national party could impose. The RNC allows only four states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina — to vote in February. Scofflaws are subject to losing half their delegates, making them only half as influential in the nominating contest.)
The battle will begin, as it has for decades, in Iowa. Perry, a born-again Christian, is banking on this state where 60 percent of the 2008 caucus-goers identified themselves as evangelicals. Romney, a Mormon who once favored abortion rights, is spending little time here. Advantage: Perry.
Next up will be New Hampshire. Romney, who owns a home in the state and was governor of neighboring Massachusetts, has been campaigning in the Granite State for months. With a smaller proportion of religious conservatives than Iowa, and a primary that's open to independent voters, New Hampshire is likely to favor Romney's more mainstream brand. Advantage: Romney.
Nevada will go third. Romney's ties to the state's large Mormon population helped him earn 51 percent of the votes cast in 2008, and he is favored to win the caucus again. Advantage: Romney.
South Carolina votes next. Christian conservatives who lean toward Perry are influential here. Advantage in the first primary in the South goes to the Southerner, Gov. Perry of Texas.
The race for momentum is roughly a draw at this point, though South Carolina has propelled its winner to the nomination in every GOP contest since 1980. That momentum could be a key advantage for Perry going into Florida, which is jockeying to vote next. If he wins South Carolina and Florida, he's more than likely to be the nominee.
"We've had a pretty good history of picking the winner, and we're proud of that," said David Wilkins, a South Carolina legislator on Perry's team. "I'm a big believer in the momentum coming out of our state." None
Naturally, Romney allies are more skeptical, questioning the force of South Carolina's momentum if Perry is the heavy favorite. "As South Carolina becomes more predictable, it becomes less relevant," argued former Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis.
If he's right, and Romney is able to rebound from a South Carolina defeat to win Florida — perhaps by exploiting Perry's hostility toward Social Security in the retiree-friendly state — the race could get interesting. One possibility is that Florida — the largest battleground state in the nation — settles the score in Romney's favor. Another is that Perry keeps going. Right around the corner is Super Tuesday, which will be dominated by a number of Perry-friendly Southern states.
"That's a Perry day," Putnam said of the March 6 contests featuring Texas, Tennessee, and Oklahoma, which will be followed closely by even more Southern states such as Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
Here's the catch: Even if Perry sweeps the South in March, his lead could be limited by the proportional allocation of delegates in those states. By April, when the winner-takes-all option kicks in, the race heads to Northeastern states closer to Romney's home turf.
The constant shifting among states friendly to Perry and Romney could turn the primary season into something of a relay race. Which candidate will be holding the baton at the finish line is still anybody's guess.