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Romney vs. Perry: How the Numbers (and the Calendar) Stack Up

By Sean Trende - August 16, 2011

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We’re missing quite a bit of data here, but we still have exit polls for states with over half the total delegates, and they’re reasonably representative of the sample as a whole. Notice that these late primary states are overall substantially more moderate, and significantly less evangelical than the earlier states.

This could prove critical in a drawn-out race. The reason is simple, and yet not well-known. The RNC has provided that states holding primaries before April 1 must allocate delegates proportionately. But after that date, states may opt for winner-take-all primaries, and many of these states have done so. In other words, we could have a situation where a conservative candidate (or a pair of conservative candidates) does well in the first three months, but has to give some delegates to the more moderate candidate. This is similar to what happened to Clinton, who won crucial primary battles late in the game, but couldn’t make much headway in the delegate count because of how these delegates were allocated. So despite winning the majority of primaries, the conservative candidate could end up with only a small lead in delegates over the more moderate candidate. If the moderate candidate then performs well in April or afterward, he could quickly rack up enough delegates to break away and claim the nomination.

Of course, the moderate candidate in this scenario would have to win some primaries in February and March if he hoped to stay in it. But there are probably enough big, moderate states like Illinois, Michigan, Florida and New Jersey that a moderate candidate could stay in it. In other words, an extended race probably favors a candidate like Romney.

Question 3: How Long Does Michele Bachmann Stay In?

Of course, an extended battle is all the more likely if there are two candidates splitting the conservative vote. If Bachmann wins Iowa, Perry wins South Carolina, Romney wins Nevada and New Hampshire, and some combination of these three candidates pick up any remaining unsanctioned primaries, Bachmann could easily stay in through Super Tuesday, when many of the March states hold their primaries. Given the proportional representation rules, this could be a real headache for Perry.

Bachmann presents an additional potential headache for Perry in a drawn-out primary, and it takes us back to our first chart. We’ve thought about the GOP primary in terms of ideology, but let’s also think in terms of regional coalitions. Perry’s most likely coalition in an extended race consists of a combination of Southern and Great Plains states. Romney probably holds the Northeast (as McCain did in 2000 and 2008), and his Mormonism will help in the Mountain West. But if Bachmann holds on in Iowa, where she is playing heavily on her local roots, she could translate that victory to other Upper Midwestern caucus states, especially North Dakota and Minnesota. That could deprive Perry of some crucial delegates in states that have pretty conservative Republican presidential electorates.

Again, we can’t dismiss the possibility that Perry knocks Bachmann out in Iowa, which would make it a two-person race early on. Perry really has to hope for that, as it simplifies his path to the nomination significantly.

Question 4: Who catches fire at the last minute?

Recent history doesn’t lie. In 1996, Pat Buchanan caught fire in New Hampshire, and stunned Bob Dole. In 2000, John McCain surged at the last minute and smashed George W. Bush in the Granite State; McCain did it again to Romney in 2008. In 2004, Kerry’s campaign rose from the dead to come back in Iowa (after mortgaging his house to keep his campaign going), as did Obama in 2008.

This time, I’d keep my eyes on two candidates, both of whom would probably hurt Romney (this assumes no further late entrants, like Sarah Palin or Rudy Giuliani). The first is Jon Huntsman, if for no other reason than he has lots and lots and lots of money. If he finds his footing and gives up this ludicrous “nice guy” approach to the nomination (see Pawlenty, Tim), he could emerge as a threat. The other is Ron Paul. He has a core group of supporters who would crawl over broken glass to vote for him, and has only had his stature enhanced since 2008 by the financial crisis. He’ll have the money to keep going for the long haul, and could steal some delegates, especially in caucus states.

In short, I think if Perry can unify the Republicans early -- and I believe he can unify them -- he could make short work of the GOP primary process. But over the long haul, the dynamics of the GOP primary that are presently at work will begin to weigh him down. He needs to strike hard early on, or hope his opposition implodes. 

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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