The 2012 Republican presidential race is looking like it could be a drawn-out contest, with New Hampshire potentially setting its primary for early December and a series of meaningful states set to vote in early March.

But whether the Granite State goes in 2011 or not, Republican National Committee officials were already banking on a longer process than they have had in recent presidential primary fights.

To that end, they have changed how states can award delegates in an attempt to de-emphasize the early-voting states and allow later states to have more of an impact on the eventual nominee.

The results, some suggest, could be a delegate race much like the one we saw between President Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008.

“More candidates will be visiting and organizing in more states in an effort to compile delegates,” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus predicted in a recent memo.

But is that really likely to happen? And what would a delegate race look like and work?

Answers below!

What is a delegate?

A delegate is someone who has been sent by a state or territory to the national party convention to cast a vote for the party’s presidential nominee.

Most recent presidential primary races have effectively ended in February or March because all but one candidate dropped out of the race. In the old days, though, parties often went all the way to their conventions without knowing who their top-of-the-ticket candidates would be. Once they got there, delegates from each state would pick their nominees.

While today’s races are much more about momentum and who can (or can’t) sustain a lengthy campaign, delegates are still awarded according to how candidates finish in a given state. And in 2008, we were frantically counting those delegates to determine whether Clinton still had a chance to win.

How many delegates are there?

States and territories are awarded delegates based on how many congressional districts they have and how many Republicans are elected in that state. So the bigger the state is, the more delegates it will have. By the same token, the more Republicans in the state’s government, the more delegates it will have.

The total number of delegates at stake in this year’s GOP race will be more than 2,200. There are 2,425 delegates total, but some states are losing half of theirs because they set their contests too early, in violation of RNC rules.

How are delegates awarded?

Each state picks its own method. Some will award them according to the proportion of the vote each candidate gets, some will give them all to the winner, and some will award many of their delegates by the candidates’ performance in each of a state’s congressional district.

New Hampshire, for example, awards its delegates proportionally to every candidate who gets more than 10 percent of the vote. So if former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney wins 40 percent of the vote, businessman Herman Cain wins 20 percent, and no other candidate gets 10 percent of the vote, Romney would get eight of the state’s 12 delegates, while Cain would get four, since Romney got twice as many votes.

Ohio, on the other hand, awards 48 of its 66 delegates by congressional district. In each of its 16 districts, the winner of the district gets three delegates. Of the remainder, 15 at-large delegates are awarded proportionally (like in New Hampshire), while the state’s three Republican National Committee members can vote for their candidate of choice — similar to the so-called “superdelegates” you may remember from the 2008 Obama-Clinton race.

Several states hold caucuses rather than primaries. In these states, there is often a complicated and lengthy process for awarding delegates, and it’s not clear how many delegates each candidate has won until weeks or months after the caucuses.

Why is this year different?

Before this year’s election, the RNC changed its rules so that any state holding its contest before April cannot award its delegates on a purely winner-take-all basis. Many states prefer the winner-take-all method because it allows them to have more impact and get more attention from candidates, because the result of a winner-take-all contest can swing the delegate race in a more dramatic way.

This year, the RNC hopes that since delegates will be awarded more proportionally early on, one candidate won’t be able to amass a huge early delegate lead and end the contest before most states have a chance to vote.

What are the practical effects?

It will be harder for one candidate to build a big delegate lead early in the race because of the proportionality requirement. But some of the early reporting on this may have overstated this fact a little bit.

Only about one-third of the 30 states holding contests before April have a purely proportional system for awarding delegates. Many others – including most big states – are still allowed to award most of their delegates by congressional district, which could still lead to big swings.

For example, even though Ohio is technically a proportional state according to RNC rules if one candidate wins every congressional district, he or she will have won 48 of the state’s 66 delegates. And if that candidate also takes 40 percent of the vote statewide, he or she could take home all but a handful of the state’s delegates.

In other words, the only effect the RNC’s new rule has on Ohio, then, is to force it to award fewer than one-quarter of its delegates proportionally rather than winner-take-all.

Now, this is an extreme case, but most of the big states with lots of delegates award their delegates by congressional district. So if one candidate dominates the state, they can still win the vast majority of its delegates.

There is also a question about the rule-breaking states Arizona and Florida, which are set to vote before April but have winner-take-all systems in place. RNC officials have said that they can only punish a state once, and since those two states have already broken the rules by moving their primaries up, it stands to reason that they might as well go with the winner-take-all method. (Some RNC officials think there is still a method for preventing them from going winner-take-all.) Thus, despite their reduced delegate totals, they could both cause significant early swings.

In the end, big swings are still very possible before April. And given the role of momentum and money in presidential campaigns these days, its far from certain that we will see a delegate race last that long.