Following the Gingrich victory in South Carolina, the race for the Republican presidential nomination has taken yet another turn. And this time, for the first time since probably early December, the contest is lodged in the gray area between being a momentum contest1 and a delegate counting contest.2 Truth be told, the line is often blurred between those two distinctions. Most nominations in the post-reform era have tended to be momentum contests with a frontrunner -- having been established in the invisible primary -- winning early and often and using those early wins as springboard into a Super Tuesday series of contests to build a seemingly insurmountable lead (both in momentum and in delegates).
Due to the way the primary calendar is set up in 2012 and the current fits and starts nature of the dynamic in the race, however, this cycle is shaping up differently. The notion of Mitt Romney sweeping or nearly sweeping the January contests and putting the nomination race to rest are gone -- even with a Florida win. But the idea of a momentum contest -- one that will typically develop behind the frontrunner, no matter how nominal -- is not completely dead. Romney remains the frontrunner. The former Massachusetts governor is viewed as the establishment choice and is the only candidate to this point to have placed in the top two in each of the first three contests. He is still the favorite to build a consensus around his candidacy -- just not as much as he was in the five days or so after the New Hampshire primary.
But the question remains just how will Romney, or any other candidate for that matter, build a consensus and win the nomination. There are two main avenues from FHQ's perspective; one narrow and one fairly broad. The narrow path to the nomination is that Mitt Romney bounces back from the South Carolina primary, wins Florida, uses his organizational advantage over Gingrich and Santorum in the February caucus states, and then wins in Arizona and Michigan. The broader path is one that devolves into a contest-by-contest struggle; a battle for delegates the end game of which is the point where one candidate has a wide enough delegate margin that cannot be overcome given the number of delegates to be allocated remaining. [See Norrander, 2000]
FHQ is conservative in how we approach these things. Our basic rules of thumb are: 1) No option is off the table until it is off the table. 2) Past precedent tells us that the frontrunner usually ends up the nominee. [See, Mayer 2003] Now, past is not necessarily prologue, especially when the dynamics, calendars and rules differ across such a comparatively small number of observations in the post-reform era. But in this case, FHQ sees the narrow path described above as the likely outcome; more likely than the delegate counting route.
The hold that has on our thinking, though, is very tenuous indeed. It is not far-fetched to see Romney rebounding from South Carolina to win in Florida on January 31. It is not far-fetched to foresee the former governor parlay that win into wins in the remaining February contests -- though that mid-February gap in the calendar is a great unknown in terms of these calculations. Previously, FHQ has argued that that February period with no contests would put significant strain on candidates financially. That view was predicated on a Romney (near-)sweep in January forcing amped up pressure on the remaining candidates to drop out. Gingrich's South Carolina win alleviates some of that potential pressure. A win allows a non-frontrunner candidate in these early stages to get his or her foot in the door for arguing viability. Romney, then, would have a more difficult time shutting the door on Gingrich and to some extent Santorum (if he can survive that long). [Ron Paul is in it for the long haul. That is why this discussion is light on the Texas congressman.]
But even a February sweep -- if we are constraining our view to the narrow path to the nomination -- is likely not enough to close this out for Romney or more to the point, to force the others from the race. There is one lingering question coming out of South Carolina that cannot be answered until Super Tuesday/March 6 at the earliest. Even if Romney wins all of the February contests he is still vulnerable to the charge that he has not won in the South; a core constituency within the Republican Party.3 Now, that is not to suggest that Romney as the Republican nominee would struggle in the South in the general election. Yet, not winning in the reddest region of the country in the primary phase does signal that the part of the core of the party is not on board with the former Massachusetts governor's nomination. That may or may not be enough to "veto" a Romney nomination, but it does provide his opponents with a solid argument for staying in -- particularly if it is the same candidate (presumably Gingrich) winning there.
The other layer to this -- the one about which FHQ has received the most inquiries since Saturday -- how the rules for delegate allocation begin to affect all of this. To reiterate an earlier point, the rules are the exact same as they were in 2008 in each of the states with contests prior to March. To the extent we witness differences, it will be due to the dynamics of the race and not the delegate allocation rules. The changes brought about because of the new "proportionality" requirement on the Republican side begin to kick in once the calendar flips to March. Now, it is still too early to tell what impact those rules will have. Mainly, that is due to the fact that we just don't know which candidates -- or how many candidates, really -- will still be alive at that point. The modal response from the states to the RNC proportionality rule was to make the allocation of delegates conditional on a certain threshold of the vote. If a candidate receives at least 50% of the vote, then the allocation is winner-take-all (or the at-large delegate allocation is winner-take-all). But if no candidate crosses that bar, the allocation is proportional (overall or for just the at-large delegates). The more candidates that survive, in other words, the more likely it is that the allocation is proportional. It would be more difficult for one candidate to receive 50% of the vote. The double-edged sword of proportional allocation is that while it may make it harder -- take longer -- for the leading candidate to reach 1144 delegates (if triggered), it also makes it more difficult for those attempting to catch the leader as well. The margin (of delegates) for the winners is often not that large.
Taken together, the South questions and the proportionality requirement jumble the outlook for this race. Romney may or may not be required to win in the South to win the nomination. But winning there would go a long way toward forcing other candidates from the race and preventing the nomination from falling into a delegate count. The problem is that those two things -- the race turning South again and the potential proportionality kicking in -- hit at the same point. And that leaves us with any number of permutations for directions in which the race could go, whether taking the narrow path or broad path.
Will the rules matter? They always do, but they will really matter when and if Romney is unable to rebound and run off a series of February wins. That is what we should be looking at now.
1 Defined by a candidate sweeping or nearly sweeping the early contests to overwhelm his or her opponents.
2 Defined by a candidate at some point beyond the first handful of contests either crosses the 50% plus one delegate threshold or develops a big enough lead to force his or her opponents from the race at some point outside of the first handful of contests.
3 There are no southern primaries or caucuses after South Carolina until a series of contests on March 6.
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