And then there were three — for the GOP

Amazing, isn’t it?  A week ago, everyone was crowning Mitt Romney with the Republican nomination.  A small win in Iowa, a big win in New Hampshire, and a big lead in the polls in South Carolina, and it looked like 1-2-3 and away we go for Romney.

What a difference a week can make in politics!  A recount showed that Romney’s near win in Iowa was actually a near-miss; on review of the votes, Rick Santorum was awarded first place.  In South Carolina, a couple debates in which Newt Gingrich came out firing and Romney looked flustered, and bang, Romney no longer looked like what everybody was after:  “the person most likely to beat Obama.”  So voters flocked to Gingrich instead, seeing him as an articulate fighter who could inflict the most damage on Obama in debates to come.  Romney went from a large lead to a distant second.

What now?  It looks like a long, drawn-out fight to the end.  With three different winners in three primaries, and EACH of the leaders having suffered at least one humiliating defeat, the call may go out again for a dark horse saviour.   Ron Paul remains a mystery — how long will he run?  Who will get his support when and if he drops out?  If it is Santorum, then Santorum becomes a more significant contender.  If it is Gingrich, then Romney really has cause for worry.

Santorum is in many ways the most significant player.  The longer Santorum stays in, the better Romney’s chances of winning primaries by letting Gingrich and Santorum split the very conservative vote.  But if Santorum withdraws after a poor showing in Florida, then Gingrich will have a clear shot to capitalize on the “anybody but Romney” vote.

But the primary schedule favors Romney. After Florida, the GOP primaries prior to “Super Tuesday” are in Nevada, Maine,  Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri (whose primary is a popularity poll that will not impact GOP delegate counts), Arizona, and Michigan.    Nevada, Colorado, and Arizona border the Mormon stronghold of Utah (where Romney’s mother ws born), and Arizona’s senator McCain has already endorsed Romney.   Maine is a New England state, where Romney is strong, and Michigan is where Romney’s father ws a popular governor.  Only Missouri looks to favor Gingrich as a southerner, and only Minnesota looks like ‘neutral’ territory, giving Romney the edge in 5 of 7 of these primary states.  So Romney should roll into super Tuesday with great momentum.  Given that Gingrich didn’t make the Virginia ballot, Romney might emerge from super Tuesday with an unsurmountable lead in delegates.

Still, as we learned this week, politics is full of suprises.  Anything can happen in Florida, a highly diverse and unpredictable state.  And if anything can happen there, there’s no telling what will happen afterwards.  This is starting to be fun.

Oh yes, there is one clear winner from the GOP primaries so far — President Obama, who continues to happily raise record amounts of funds while the Republican candidates spend their campaign cash fighting each other.

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About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
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