GOP’s primary calendar may aid Romney

Past run also in his favor

Texas Gov. Rick Perry has the momentum now, but the calendar may give rival Mitt Romney an advantage over the front-runner if the primary battle for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination turns into a marathon hunt for delegates.

Thanks to the way the party’s primary contests are spread out next year — and the historical tendencies of GOP voters to favor past candidates — the former Massachusetts governor could hold a distinct edge in the big, delegate-rich states that vote later in the process.

Mitt definitely gets the advantage if the nomination gets decided by big moderate states like California, New York and Pennsylvania that vote in May or June,” said Mary Ann Meloy, a former Reagan White House aide and a behind-the-scenes power in Pennsylvania GOP politics who is undecided on the GOP contest.

“The way the primaries are scheduled this time adds to the Romney edge,” added veteran pollster John McLaughlin.

Even if one candidate managed to win every delegate in every contest beginning with the Feb. 6 Iowa caucuses, the Feb. 14 New Hampshire primary, the Feb. 18 Nevada caucuses and the Feb. 28 South Carolina primary, he or she could not attain a majority of delegates until moderate New York and Pennsylvania vote on April 24 — by which time at least 1,223 delegates will have been elected.

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With states still jockeying over their places on the primary calendar, that date could move up to April 3 if four other states hold their contests on March 6, Super Tuesday, but even that would still be a month later than it took in 2008 to settle the GOP nomination.

Whatever the final calendar, many predict that the GOP challenger to President Obama in November 2012 will not be known until May or June at the earliest. Wild cards in that calculation include a stumble by one of the two front-runners, a surge by Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota or another of the second-tier hopefuls, or the late entry such of a candidate such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, scrambling the field.

Mr. Romney is running second in national polls to Mr. Perry, but is beating the Texas governor by 8 percentage points in the latest poll of California primary voters.

In 2008, Sen. John McCain of Arizona was able to wrap up the Republican nomination by early March, building on victories in early February’s “Tsunami Tuesday” when 21 states voted, and then sweeping the March 4 “Super Tuesday” contests, including Ohio (88 delegates) and Texas (140 delegates).

That eye-blink quick win can’t happen this time because there will be no Tsunami Tuesday; by March 4, 2012, it will be mathematically impossible for any candidate to claim a majority of delegates.

The exact magic number for victory next year will depend on as-yet unknown final apportionment results in each state, based on the 2010 census. But using 2008 as a reference, when the total delegate count was 2,380, the nominee next year will have to accumulate at least half that number plus one, or at least 1,191 delegates.

Beyond the favorable primary schedule, Mr. Romney may have enhanced his position this time around when he decided to drop out of the 2008 GOP nomination contest in March after Mr. McCain’s surprise comeback.

For last 43 years, every successful Republican nominee, save one, had sought the prize at least once before, beginning with Richard M. Nixon in 1868, then Ronald Reagan in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1988, Bob Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008. George W. Bush in 2000 was the only exception.

“It’s hard for a Republican to win the nomination first time out,” said Mr. McLaughlin, the pollster. “That alone gives the advantage to Romney.”

“Republicans normally award the gold to the guy who has been around the park,” added pollster John Zogby. “They also nominate the more moderate candidate. The exception was Reagan, but he was next in line after 1976 and he had the good fortune to battle several prominent moderates for the nomination.”

“That said, the edge goes to Romney just on history,” Mr. Zogby said.

Ironically, the moves by Republican officials in Arizona, Florida and Michigan to jump the line and move their delegate-selection contests up to Feb. 28 in violation of Republican National Committee rules are unlikely to render them the kingmakers they had hoped to be.

Even if they are able to seat their full delegations — instead of only half, as the party rules dictate — at the GOP presidential nominating convention in August, candidates like Mr. Romney and Mr. Perry would not be able to officially clinch the nomination one day sooner than the current April 24 projection.

In any case, the RNC appears to be on the way to achieving its goal of stretching out the primary-caucus timetable to avoid hasty decisions, giving more Republicans in more of the country a say in who best can win in November.

“Given a fully contested primary, without one candidate gaining huge momentum in early primaries, the nomination process is likely to go until April or May, regardless of Arizona, Florida or Michigan moving up,” said former Republican National Committee Chairman Mike Duncan, who is staying neutral in the contest.

Some think that the outcome will be known earlier than May because the competition for contributions will produce momentum behind one of the candidates and pressure will mount on the rest of the field to withdraw. It is also possible to have a prolonged war of attrition like the 2008 Democratic contest between Mr. Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, but that will require at least two well-funded candidates.

Mr. McLaughlin for one thinks that’s still very much in the cards: “Perry and Romney have the staying power, the funding and the political base.”

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About the Author
Ralph Z. Hallow

Ralph Z. Hallow

Chief political writer Ralph Z. Hallow served on the Chicago Tribune, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Washington Times editorial boards, was Ford Foundation Fellow in Urban Journalism at Northwestern University, resident at Columbia University Editorial-Page Editors Seminar and has filed from Berlin, Bonn, London, Paris, Geneva, Vienna, Amman, Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Belgrade, Bucharest, Panama and Guatemala.

 

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