NEED TO KNOW: POLITICS

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
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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