The good news for Romney is that not very many of those voters actively despise him, but those who prefer him represent at best a quarter of the likely GOP voters, and that support may be declining toward a fifth.
Ominously for the former Massachusetts governor, when other candidates drop back or drop out, none of their supporters seem to be shifting to him — he clearly is not even the second choice of the vast majority of those who will choose a Republican nominee. And if the number of viable Not Mitt Romney candidates declines to one or two, he will struggle to win pluralities, much less majorities, in caucuses and primaries.
Nearly all the contests for the first three months of the nomination battle lack a winner-take-all formula for delegates, meaning that if Romney (or any other candidate) can’t knock his or her opponents out of the box by mid-February, the odds of an early resolution of the nomination move down, and the odds of a Romney nomination take a hit.
The good news for Romney is that the rest of the field has been exceptionally weak, and Gingrich’s sudden rise will not necessarily be sustained.
But even if it is — and he is showing this week a rare, impressive self-discipline, with only four weeks to go until Iowa — and even if Romney finds that he finishes third or worse in Iowa, struggles to build any momentum in the next week heading to New Hampshire, falters in South Carolina and can’t capture any magic in Florida, in subsequent weeks his organization and pre-planning may be a huge plus for him.
Winning delegates still means getting on the ballot in all the states and qualifying to accrue delegates before deadlines that in some cases have already lapsed or are looming.
For Gingrich, this means scrambling now to get a real organization in place, including an army of campaign lawyers and operatives to get the tedious work done, or he may lose a large number of potential delegates regardless of his performance.
So here are a few questions to keep in mind over the coming weeks:
— What if Newt stumbles or self-destructs? Does Perry manage to re-emerge, despite not even knowing the voting age or date of Election Day? Does former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) finally get to play the role of Not Mitt Romney?
— Can Jon Huntsman somehow get his mojo in New Hampshire? If not, can he take enough votes from independents and moderate Republicans to deny Romney a clear victory when he most needs it?
— What if Ron Paul wins Iowa? Will he continue to be brushed aside like a fly on one’s lapel by the GOP establishment? Will he start to think about running an independent campaign for the presidency?
— Is there a real chance that no one emerges as the clear-cut nominee by April, giving us the first GOP convention since 1948 to go to a second ballot? At what point will establishment figures such as Haley Barbour decide that, faced with electoral liabilities in Romney, Perry and Gingrich, it is better to let that happen and hope that a Jeb Bush or Mitch Daniels can emerge to end their nightmare?