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Like a torrent of water through a mountain pass, the GOP primary campaign has till now been a series of roaring waterfalls: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and now Florida. Starting today, the river flattens out into a broad valley, with lazy forks wandering across the map, until March 6 when everything converges again in a 10-state deluge.
Gingrich’s mission in February is to deflate Romney’s aura of inevitability, softening him up for Super Tuesday. If the former speaker stays afloat till then, he has a good chance to propel himself forward with wins in Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma — populist states with evangelical bases, like South Carolina.
Next up is a binding caucus in Nevada this Saturday, followed on Tuesday by non-binding contests in Maine, Colorado and Minnesota (all caucuses), and in Missouri (a primary). After an Arizona debate on Feb. 22, the month culminates with binding primaries in Arizona and Michigan, before plunging toward the March 6 Super Tuesday.
If 2008 experience offers any clue as to how these February caucuses will play out, there is good news for Gingrich: Minnesota and Colorado that year rewarded an insurgent conservative who won by appealing to a disgruntled base fed up with an “inevitable” moderate supported by the establishment. The insurgent also won caucuses in Nevada and Maine. Bad news for Gingrich: the insurgent conservative was Mitt Romney. The establishment centrist was John McCain.
“Colorado conservatives are true conservatives,” exclaimed one Romney spokesman Kristy Campbell to the Denver Post after the 2008 win. Another Romney spokesman said, “It's very encouraging that those who are following the race closely and who represent the party's conservative base are actively supporting the governor.”
Stop right there. Was it really just four years ago that Romney (now Gingrich) rallied the conservative base, shoving aside another conservative, Huckabee (now Santorum), to challenge the unacceptably moderate McCain (now Romney). Holy tangled narrative, Batman!
Given the weirdly reversed roles, Romney’s 2008 victories in Colorado (60 percent to McCain’s 18) and Minnesota (41 percent to McCain’s 21) will be hard to repeat. Indeed, one poll last week showed Gingrich leading Romney in Minnesota 36 to 18 percent, with 17 percent going to Santorum. But that poll is already old, caucuses are notoriously hard to poll anyway, and Romney did win both states in 2008. If he can repeat the feat in 2012, it may be very hard for Gingrich to recover.
So the fun begins Saturday in Nevada, and for Romney it should begin well. He waltzed to victory here in 2008, when 26 percent of voters at the GOP caucuses turned up Mormon. Overall, Nevada is 7.5 percent Mormon, and has two Mormon U.S. senators. The state is unlikely to be seriously contested, and a win here will be discounted.
Maine’s caucuses run from Feb. 4 through Feb. 11. In 2008, Romney won handily, with over 51 percent to McCain’s 21 percent. While not as close to Massachusetts as New Hampshire, Maine still is very close to home territory for Romney, and he should win. But again, caucuses are hard to predict and are often friendly to insurgents.
Feb. 7 is fraught with danger for Romney. Colorado and Minnesota caucus, while Missouri runs a nonbinding primary. While Romney has the advantage in money and organization, both Colorado and Minnesota are hotbeds of tea party activism, and Romney this year is wearing the wrong decoder ring. In Missouri, Gingrich did not make the ballot for a nonbinding Missouri primary. So a Romney win here will be discounted, but a loss or a near miss against Santorum would be a disaster.
The lull ends Feb. 28, with binding primaries in Arizona and Michigan. Romney was raised in Michigan, where his father was a three-term governor, and is well organized there. Arizona has a large Mormon population, and Romney also has support from Sen. John McCain and popular tea party leader Rep. Jeff Flake. Gingrich has signaled that he intends to concede Michigan but will contest Arizona, and a win there would be significant.
All of this sets the stage for the March 6 Super Tuesday, when Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia all hold primaries. The big story here is Gingrich’s failure to make the Virginia ballot, due to organizational incapacity.
If Gingrich is to be viable after March 6, his path forward cuts through Oklahoma, Tennessee and Georgia, where evangelical and tea party bases create wedges against Romney. Without wins in two or more of these, his threat to carry the fight through to convention may become as likely as his plans to colonize the moon.
Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.