Advantage, Romney?

Changes in how Republican delegates are awarded could work to Mitt Romney’s benefit in the 2012 presidential race.

Mitt Romney Speaks at 2011 Faith and Freedom Conference
National Journal
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Beth Reinhard
Sept. 22, 2011, 12:45 p.m.

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.”

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.


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