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Prolonged 2012 Primary Risky for GOP

Nominating Calendar Ensures Candidates Will Not Acquire Needed Number of Delegates Until April 24

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is one of the few Republican presidential candidates making preparations for a long-haul delegate fight. The GOP's nominating calendar makes a drawn-out contest likely.

Republican operatives and party insiders are increasingly worried that a drawn-out primary fight could have unfavorable and unintended consequences next year for the GOP nominee.

The irony is that Republicans wanted it that way.

In early 2010, Republican National Committee members voted to overhaul their nominating calendar, allocating more delegates to states with later primaries. After watching Democrats win the White House following their prolonged primary in 2008, the RNC changed the system to ensure more states had a voice in the 2012 nominating process.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. But the RNC’s new nominating contest paves the way for a protracted delegate fight this spring, likely drying up the resources of the presumptive nominee
before the general election.

“Having a robust primary that concludes in early spring is a healthy thing for our eventual nominee,” Gentry Collins, former political director for the RNC, told Roll Call. “But I think having a long, drawn-out primary that lasts until late spring or early summer leaves us financially flat-footed. That’s clearly going to be problematic for our nominee if it goes that long.”

Yet that situation appears increasingly likely as new polling shows that early state Republicans remain undecided about their nominee.

At the end of February, only 174 RNC delegates will be awarded out of the 1,143 needed to capture the nomination. That’s 15 percent of the necessary delegates to claim victory in the GOP primary.

Compare that figure with the last GOP presidential primary, when 1,407 delegates had already been awarded by the end of February 2008. That was 59 percent of RNC delegates — and more than enough for Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) to seal the nomination.

To be clear, top Republicans caution candidates can still win the nomination early in the calendar if they pick up enough momentum to clear the field. But even if there’s a presumptive nominee by the end of February, a campaign must have enough momentum to make it until late spring before he or she clinches the nod.

That’s because this cycle, a candidate will not be able to acquire the required number of delegates to secure the nomination until April 24. 

No presidential contender knows this delegate math better than former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. If the current delegate allotment rules were applied in 2008, Romney’s delegate tally would have almost tied with McCain’s after the Florida primary — when Romney bowed out of the race.

But how to prepare for a delegate fight is an undeveloped science, GOP campaign operatives said. Every state awards delegates differently, varying in whether they allocate them proportionally or
winner-take-all. Even the threshold to determine a victor is different state by state.

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