Mitt Romney has spent a lifetime around politics. His father George Romney was a governor of Michigan and a one-time candidate for president, and his mother Lenore Romney also once ran for the Senate. And starting in 1994, and then much more intensely in the past decade, he has run for Senate and governor of Massachusetts, and then for president. But despite all his hard work and preparation, he might be facing his most formidable opponent yet: The primary calendar.
Taking a step back from the various state polls, and looking at the flow of the calendar itself, something starts to become clear: If a person had sat down to write a primary calendar, designed around the goal of making things hard for Romney, they could not do much better than the current one.
It is, of course, too early to know what will happen. But on the other hand, if the current trends do end up continuing — and if his new main rival, Newt Gingrich, does not collapse — Romney may be on the verge, despite his long march of running for president in 2008 to now, of having a very rough time in January.
The earliest contests in January are mostly in territory that is simply not a natural fit for Romney. Things turn around in February, with primaries and caucuses that could be better for him — but by then, if current polling trends holds out, the damage could be irreparable.
So let’s take a look:
January 3 — Iowa caucuses, 28 delegates: Back in 2008, Romney made a major push for this state — and lost. In a major upset, Mike Huckabee won with 35% of the vote followed by Romney at 25%, Thompson 13%, McCain 13%, Paul 10%, and Giuliani 4%.
The polls during this cycle have all shown Romney consistently stuck in a narrow range, from the teens into the 20’s — very similar to his actual showing last time around. And when he has been ahead, it has been thanks to the severely divided opposition. But with the field narrowing a bit since Herman Cain dropped out, and much of Cain’s support headed right over to Gingrich’s column, the polls have only gotten worse for Romney.
In short, if there is a single step where Romney could be thrown off his balance, and where a single anti-Romney could be anointed, then this is it.
January 8 — New Hampshire primary, 12 delegates: This state has long been viewed as a foundational state for Romney — his firewall against an early loss in Iowa. As a former governor of Massachusetts, he is the only candidate with a base in the New England region. Furthermore, he has literally led in every single New Hampshire poll of the cycle.
But even here, there is a problem. Remember that Romney previously lost the 2008 primary to John McCain, the man who had previously won the state’s primary in 2000. And the latest polling in the state has Romney continuing to lead Gingrich — but only with a plurality in the middle and upper 30’s, only slightly above his 32% showing in 2008.
So even though Romney remains the frontrunner in New Hampshire, nothing is guaranteed. And if he were to win it only narrowly, the political class might just brush it off as a serious underperformance.
January 21 — South Carolina primary, 25 delegates: Here is where things might start to get really ugly. Back in 2008, Romney came in fourth place, and it is widely assumed that his Mormon faith could be a problem with this evangelical electorate.
The state is also friendly to native Southern candidates — Mike Huckabee only narrowly lost to John McCain, for example, despite the party establishment having begun to close ranks around McCain. As such, the polls throughout this season have variously shown other Southern-based candidates ahead: Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and now Gingrich. What is more, one recent CNN poll gave Gingrich a landslide-like lead of 43%-20%.
January 31 — Florida primary, 50 delegates: This big swing state was originally not an officially sanctioned early state. However, they proceeded to jump the calendar into January — thus pushing the other contests, which were supposed to be in February, into earlier in the first month.
Back in 2008, when Florida also jumped the calendar, this was the state where John McCain really sealed the nomination, beating Romney by a 36%-31% margin.
And this time around, the recent polling also has Gingrich jumping way ahead. Even worse for Romney, a Quinnipiac poll finds that in a direct two-man race, Gingrich would lead Romney by a whopping 52%-34%.
The bottom line: January is currently looking very, very bad for Romney.
This then brings us into February. These contests actually look a whole lot better for Romney than anything in January. Unfortunately for him, if he does not outperform the current polls of the January states, he could end up heading into February after a string of defeats, and facing a single opponent. Even if the party establishment really did put their backs into supporting him, it could be hard to overcome such challenges.
February 4 — Nevada caucuses: Now here is a good place for Romney. Unfortunately for him, they were originally supposed to be one of the contests in the first month (which was supposed to be February) — but after Florida jumped into January, and New Hampshire was threatening to go into December, the national GOP convinced the Nevada state party to go on February 4, right after Florida. So if Romney were to do horribly in Florida, would people even give him any major credit if he did well in Nevada four days later?
Romney won the 2008 caucuses in a landslide: Romney 51%, Paul 14%, McCain 13%, Huckabee 8%, Thompson 8%, Giuliani 4%, Hunter 2%. One thing that especially aided him in racking up such a margin was that a quarter of voters were Mormons, a group he took with 95% — but even without the Mormon vote, he still would have won the state caucuses anyway, albeit with a decent plurality.
February 4 and February 11 — Maine caucuses, 24 delegates: Romney could do well here, owing to his status as a New England-based candidate. And notably, he easily won the 2008 caucuses, beating John McCain by a 52%-22% margin.
However the recent rise of Tea Party dominance among state party’s activists might be bad news for him. Also, back in October, a PPP (D) survey gave Herman Cain a lead of 29%-24%.
February 7 — Minnesota caucuses, 40 delegates; and Colorado caucuses, 36 delegates: Back in 2008, Romney won both of these states’ caucuses. However, a recent PPP (D) survey of Colorado has given Gingrich a 37%-18% lead.
Also February 7 — Missouri primary, zero delegates: Because the state law kept this primary on February 7, corresponding with Super Tuesday of the last campaign cycle, state Republican leaders opted to instead go with a caucus on March 17, which would keep them consistent with this year’s official primary calendar. It should also be noted that Newt Gingrich will not be on the ballot in the primary — though he says this was “not a mistake,” and he is avoiding “beauty contests.” Regardless of whether or not this is true on his part, the bottom line is that this primary won’t matter for delegate math — but of course, we can expect the winner to claim bragging rights and momentum.
February 28 — Michigan primary, 30 delegates; and Arizona primary, 29 delegates: Romney’s victory in the 2008 Michigan primary helped keep him in the race for a few weeks. He grew up in this state, and is the son of the late Gov. George Romney, who was also a major auto executive. The polls have all shown Romney leading in Michigan, albeit with a plurality. On the other hand, Arizona polling has previously shown a tough race with Perry, then Cain, and now Gingrich.
Over the course of the primary season, Romney has seen various opponents rise and fall. First there was Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry, and the now-withdrawn Herman Cain. Newt Gingrich has risen as the newest challenger — and the big question is whether he is different from the others, and will be able to sustain his high rise in the polls, or if he too will self-destruct as the others did.
But all the while, Romney himself has not yet been able to solidify a true frontrunner status in the polls. If he ends up going through a series of defeats in January — as he did in Iowa and then New Hampshire in 2008 — can he ever still go on to win?