GOP presidential race could grind on and on

No, it’s not just you: Presidential nominating contests are getting longer.

Four years after a Democratic primary battle that lasted until June, the GOP presidential race looks as though it will grind on for weeks or months more, despite Mitt Romney’s clear lead and likely win in Florida’s primary on Tuesday.

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Stepping through the nomination process.
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Stepping through the nomination process.

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Former House speaker Newt Gingrich said Sunday that he intends to stay in the Republican presidential race through the party’s national convention in late August. And the campaign of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) has said it aims to press on long enough to amass a stable of delegates to require some negotiation during the convention.

Both candidates hope, if they cannot win the race themselves, to prevent Romney from winning a majority of delegates — a result that could force the convention to pick a nominee.

The idea of a brokered convention remains a remote possibility, and whether Gingrich and Paul can actually make good on their aims to stay in the race remains an open question. Still, the days of the quickly decided presidential nomination seem to be over.

“In this year, with these candidates, the nomination contest will not be quick and tidy,” said Tennessee Republican National Committeeman John Ryder. “It is unlikely that any candidate will be forced out until April. I think we will have a contest for another two months.”

Romney’s campaign had hoped for a knockout blow with victories in South Carolina on Jan. 21 and Florida on Tuesday, but he fell short in the first contest.

Variables and obstacles

Even Romney and his supporters are starting to acknowledge that the race will not end in Florida.

“We’re now three contests into a long primary season,” the former Massachusetts governor said after his second-place finish in South Carolina.

The reason for the longer campaign appears to be threefold.

First, there remains conservative resistance to Romney’s status as the presumptive nominee. Second, the proliferation of political media outlets and the uptick in debates makes it easier for a candidate to get his or her message out without much money. And third, super PACs, which have no contribution limits, can prop up a candidate whose campaign is otherwise struggling to raise money.

Gingrich has used all three of these to work his way back into the race and could conceivably keep his campaign afloat by continuing to exploit them — particularly the conservative hesi­ta­tion toward Romney.

“These races, I believe, are the result of a very polarized electorate both in general but also within the parties,” said longtime RNC member David Norcross, who supported Romney in 2008 but is neutral this year.

Norcross likened the race between Romney and Gingrich to the 2008 Democratic primaries in which an establishment candidate — Hillary Rodham Clinton — faced resistance from some in the party who were set on finding an alternative, which turned out to be President Obama.

The prospect of that scenario repeating itself may seem remote, but Gingrich’s campaign has said it will give it a try regardless of the result Tuesday.

“Either way, there is a long way to go before either candidate clinches the nomination, and this campaign will continue for months,” Martin Baker, Gingrich’s national political director, said in a memo.

In a lot of ways, the rules are on Gingrich’s side.

In the run-up to the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee changed its delegate rules so that no state that holds its contest before April is allowed to award all of its delegates to the winner; instead, it must allocate delegates on a more proportional basis, which makes it much more difficult for a front-runner to rack up a huge early advantage.

Baker notes that the winner of Florida’s primary Tuesday will have fewer than 10 percent of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination.

In fact, most delegates won’t be handed out until well after the March 6 Super Tuesday voting, which means Romney or any other candidate cannot officially lock up the nomination for at least two more months. And even then, with the new proportionality rules, it could take significantly longer.

Fewer than a quarter of delegates will be handed out on a winner-take-all basis (504 of 2,286), 918 delegates are awarded proportionally (either by statewide vote or by congressional district), and 864 are available via either unpledged delegates or some other formula.

Despite all this, Romney may still be able to wrap up the nomination earlier rather than later.

Path to an early conclusion

His opponents could run out of money. Or it could become so clear that he will win a majority of delegates that his opponents retreat. In the 2000 and 2004 races, neither a Republican nor a Democratic contest lasted more than 50 days from the first vote until the last major candidate dropped out.

But there is precedent for candidates remaining in the race despite the long odds.

In 1996, commentator Patrick J. Buchanan won a few early states before then-Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) swept all nine contests on Super Tuesday. But Buchanan stayed in the race anyway. By the end, Dole had won 39 of the final 40 contests, but Buchanan had double-digit vote percentages in almost all 39.

 
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