LAS VEGAS — No one would deny that the Republican presidential race has had more than its share of surprises and unexpected twists. But there has been a curious predictability to it as well, one that conforms closely to the expectations and preparations established months ago at the Boston headquarters of Mitt Romney’s campaign.
Long before anyone knew that a businessman named Herman Cain would, for a moment, lead the polls for the GOP nomination, or that a potentially formidable Texas Gov. Rick Perry would falter once on the national stage, Romney’s advisers surveyed the calendar of primaries and caucuses and anticipated that the race would unfold almost precisely as it has.
The Washington Post's Rosalind Helderman looks at the numbers behind Mitt Romney's victory in the Florida primary. (Jan. 31)
Pre-game analysis: The GOP presidential field heads to Nevada for its “first in the west” caucuses on Feb. 4.
They may not have known which of Romney’s many rivals would become his principal opponent. On that they were no smarter than anyone else. But they understood their candidate and the political geography of the early states — the perils and opportunities. They built a strategy with the goal of putting Romney in command of the race by the beginning of this month and equipped for a potentially long fight. Which is where he is today.
Romney’s advisers knew that two of the first five states would be trouble: Iowa and South Carolina. They considered New Hampshire and Florida firewalls to protect against multiple defeats that could unravel the former Massachusetts governor’s fragile front-runner status. They saw Nevada as they see it today, an exclamation point that could give their candidate enormous advantages heading into a slow month that could starve rivals desperate for attention and victories.
Take the five early states in sequence. Iowa was a problem for Romney because its caucuses are dominated by the kind of GOP voters who are least likely to embrace him. Evangelical Christians and very conservative Republicans are not his natural constituency. Romney poured millions into the state in 2008 and was still whipped by former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. His advisers vowed not to repeat that mistake.
This time they handled Iowa deftly, playing down expectations through most of last year, forgoing participation in the costly and ultimately irrelevant Iowa straw poll, and hoping they might do unexpectedly well with a late push. On that they succeeded: Romney was ahead by eight votes on caucus night and surrendered that apparent victory to former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) only when it no longer mattered.
Anticipating a loss in Iowa, Romney’s team took no chances in New Hampshire. The candidate spent a year or more securing his base there. Parsimonious with his campaign appearances in most states through much of last year, he slighted New Hampshire less than any other. He rounded up establishment leaders — elected and otherwise — and reached out as best he could to tea party activists. He was rewarded with a big victory — bigger than some expected.
South Carolina always loomed as Romney’s weakest of the early-voting states. He was something of a misfit for the electorate there: a Northerner in a Southern state, a moderate in a land of conservatives and a Mormon among evangelicals. He finished fourth there in 2008 after essentially ditching the state in the final week of campaigning. He knew a loser when he saw it.