So what happens after the Florida primary this Tuesday? If indeed we are all in for a long, drawn-out contest, then the next four contests over the next two weeks could turn out to be crucial — and could also contain more pitfalls for Mitt Romney.
As of this writing, the polling in Florida is a mixed bag — some surveys show Newt Gingrich taking the lead after his big landslide win in South Carolina, while others have Mitt Romney still holding on.
If Newt Gingrich were to win the primary, he would likely get a huge national bounce. But if Mitt Romney wins, he can reconsolidate his position as the frontrunner, and retake the campaign narrative.
But as TPM has previously noted about this stage of the calendar, he might need that momentum. Because as it turns out, the next four contests over the two weeks after Florida are all caucuses, which can often be dominated by activists who are more strongly conservative than even a typical Republican primary electorate. Furthermore, Romney would face significant embarrassment to lose even one of them — because he swept them all the last time he ran, in 2008.
In 2008, when John McCain was practically sweeping the primaries, pushing Romney out of the race after Super Tuesday, Romney had in fact built up a decent number of victories: Wyoming, Nevada, Michigan, Maine, Alaska, Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and Utah.
But on close examination, there is a clear theme. Of those 11 contests, eight were caucuses.
The three primaries Romney did win were in states to which he had close personal ties: He was born and raised in Michigan, where his father was Governor in the 1960’s; He was governor of Massachusetts; and Utah is both home to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and Romney had been the successful head of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
As for the caucuses, Romney had emerged as the main conservative alternative to the establishment frontrunner John McCain. But this time around, Newt Gingrich has emerged as the conservative alternative to the establishment frontrunner — Mitt Romney.
So with all that knowledge in hand, let’s take a look at what’s coming up:
February 4 — Nevada caucuses: Fortunately for Romney, this state is still probably a very good place for him, and it is also the very first contest after Florida. But 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.
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 helped him in racking up such a substantial 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, with a decent-sized plurality of the non-Mormon vote.
The question then is whether Gingrich will be able to harness enough anti-Romney feeling among conservative activists to make a decent showing, or perhaps even pull off a win. And as it turns out, Gingrich’s big financial benefactor, Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson, may have already given Gingrich a leg-up: Getting the Clark County GOP to schedule a special caucus session later on Saturday night, for religious Jews who won’t caucus earlier during the Sabbath. And not only that, but the site is a school founded by Adelson, and named in honor of himself and his wife.
February 4 through 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. The results will be announced the night of February 11.
On the other hand, one does have to wonder how much of Romney’s victory was also due to his being the anti-McCain option, and whether that same force could come back to bite him this time. Also, there has been a marked rise of Tea Party dominance in the state GOP, as noted by the election of Gov. Paul LePage.
February 7 — Minnesota and Colorado caucuses: Back on Super Tuesday in 2008, Romney won both of these states’ caucuses, as the option for conservatives who were against McCain.
But on Wednesday there arrived some bad news: A survey of Minnesota by Public Policy Polling (D) gave Gingrich a lead over Romney of 36%-18%.
There is no current poll of Colorado. However, a PPP survey from back in early December, during Gingrich’s previous rise and fall, gave him a 37%-18% lead.
If Romney were to lose both of these contests in one night, that would be a very bad night indeed.
Bonus: 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 in full compliance 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 said at the time that this was “not a mistake,” and he was avoiding “beauty contests.” Regardless of whether or not this was true on his part, the bottom line is that this primary won’t matter for delegate math — but of course, we can expect Romney to tout his all but certain victory as a sign of momentum, and to cast light on Gingrich’s disorganization compared to himself.