There is probably no greater gulf between perception and reality in a presidential campaign than in the opening weeks of the primary season. And that is certainly the case these days in the 2012 Republican contest.
The perception is that after a very narrow victory in Iowa and a win in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney has the GOP nomination virtually locked up. As is often repeated, no candidate in modern times has captured the Republican nomination without winning Iowa or New Hampshire. And Romney is the first GOP candidate since Gerald Ford in 1976 to have won both.
On the other hand, the current reality is that only two small states have voted, one of which is in Romney’s back yard.
Of the 25 million or so Republican primary and caucus ballots that are likely to be cast this year, Iowa and New Hampshire together accounted for less than 400,000. Of these, barely one third went for Romney (34%), compared to 22% for Ron Paul, 14% for Rick Santorum, and 11% apiece for Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich.
And of the 2,285 Republican delegates this year, only a dozen have been allocated. According to CNN, the present tally stands at 7 for Romney, 3 for Paul, and 2 for Huntsman. A total of 1,143 delegates will be needed to nominate.
In years past, perception has trumped reality in the early going. Momentum gained by the front-runner has been vastly magnified by the media, enhancing a sense of inevitably. Combine that with the glut of early primaries in recent GOP nominating contests, and the result invariably has been a quick knockout.
This year, the first two elements are the same as always. The front-running Romney has early momentum and large parts of the media have fed the belief that he essentially has a lock on the nomination, particularly if he wins South Carolina Jan. 21.
But the third element in this equation – the Republican calendar - is much less favorable to an early ending in 2012 than any arrangement of primaries and caucuses in the past generation.
Super Tuesday is smaller in scope and fully a month later than it was in 2008. It will take place five weeks after Florida votes Jan. 31, rather than the one-week interval that separated the two events four years ago. And the month of February this time essentially acts as a long intermission, with a few caucuses and a non-binding primary in Missouri at the beginning of the month and primaries in Arizona and Michigan at the end. On the eve of the March 6th Super Tuesday, roughly 85% of Republican delegates will still remain to be chosen.
Between now and then, it is an open question what will happen.
Should Romney win South Carolina and Florida (as polls now favor him to do), will some of the front-runner’s momentum still dissipate in the long emptiness of February?
Will conservative opponents to Romney use the time to coalesce around a single alternative, including the possibility of fielding a new candidate altogether?
Will the media back away from crowning Romney the de facto nominee based on the January voting alone, and consider the nominating process still open heading into Super Tuesday?
If the answer to these three questions is no, then there could be a quick knockout as has been the Republican norm in recent decades.
Yet for the first time in decades, the 2012 GOP presidential nominating process is not built for a rush to judgment, but for a considered evaluation of the front-runner and his rivals. Should the latter, joined by leaders in the conservative movement, wish to keep fighting, the primary calendar in 2012 offers plenty of encouragement.