A lot can change in the four weeks before Republicans kick off primary season with the Iowa caucus, but here's a look at the positioning of the current field based on the latest polling numbers from the early voting states.
The Iowa caucus will take place on Jan. 3. As the first race in the nation, the Iowa caucus is noteworthy for the considerable media attention it receives. Showing well in Iowa can translate into momentum going into future races. In a poll conducted by Washington Post/ABC News, Newt Gingrich lead with 33 percent. Mitt Romney and Ron Paul are tied in second with 18 percent each.
New Hampshire's primary is scheduled for Jan. 10. Unlike most Republican primaries, independents are allowed to vote in this race, a major reason it is not uncommon for the results of the New Hampshire primary to be different from the results in Iowa. Poll averages done by Real Clear Politics show Romney leading the field by a 15-point margin. Romney supporters account for 36 percent of New Hampshire voters, while 21 percent back Gingrich. In third place is Ron Paul with 13 percent.
The South Carolina primary will be on Jan. 21. From the primary's inception in 1980, the winner of the South Carolina contest has gone on to represent the Republicans in the general election without exception, reports the polling numbers released by Survey USA show Gingrich leading the pack by 22 points, by far his most commanding lead. Gingrich is currently polling at 45 percent. Romney is second with 23 percent. No other candidate in this race is polling above 6 percent.
Polling numbers in three of the four early primary states favor Gingrich, but the race schedule could work against him in states that vote later. A unique feature of this year's election cycle is the gap that separates early voting states from the block of states that vote in March, says Nate Silver, New York Times political blogger.
Traditionally the early voting states produce momentum for candidates, but there is some evidence to suggest it has an expiration date, Silver says. For example, in the 1980 Republican Primary, George H.W. Bush beat Ronald Reagan in the Iowa caucus. The win gave Bush some momentum and he started seeing a jump in his New Hampshire polling numbers, eventually leading Reagan in some surveys. But that year there were 36 days between the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. The lag gave Reagan time to recover and he took New Hampshire by a 27-point margin.
The drawn-out schedule could benefit a candidate like Romney. Should he suffer setbacks in some of the early voting states, he would have time to regroup. His superior campaign infrastructure, fund-raising and institutional support mean he is the candidate best positioned to withstand volatile election results.
The delay also gives Republican voters time to think about which nominee matches up best against President Obama, Silver says. For conservatives whose priority is to unseat Obama, electability is an important consideration. A recent Fox News poll shows that Romney is the more competitive Republican candidate in a general election against President Obama. Though Obama bests both Gingrich and Romney in general election match ups, he only beats Romney by a margin of two points whereas he beats Gingrich by six. Numbers like these could cause Republican voters to switch their support from Gingrich to Romney.