It's Not Over

South Carolina's Republican Primary Won't Decide the Race

It seems like the GOP race is down to the wire, but Rich Galen says that no matter what happens in South Carolina, the beat will go on for the Republican primary.

01.21.12 2:33 PM ET

No matter what happens Saturday in South Carolina, the beat (as Sonny and Cher cheerfully reminded us 45 years ago) goes on.

There will be no reason for any of the four remaining Republican candidates to get out of the race until at least the Florida primary on Jan. 31, assuming they have money for food, gas, and motels.

The Republican National Committee changed its rules for this cycle so that no state primary can be winner-take-all until April 1. In past cycles, whoever wins Saturday could have been awarded all South Carolina’s 25 delegates, but because of the rules they will instead be split three or four ways. Florida has twice as many delegates, 50, but they, too, will be awarded proportionally.

This rule was put in place to stop the front-loading of the system. South Carolina’s first-in-the-South status will have generated approximately $12 million in advertising dollars, plus the huge influx of reporters and hangers-on, all of whom need hotel rooms, coffee shops, rental cars, and restaurants. All to see how just about 1 percent of the total number of delegates to the national convention will be apportioned.

Put that against Texas (155 delegates) currently scheduled for April 3 and California (172 delegates) scheduled way down the road for June 5 and it is likely that the race will be mathematically—or at least effectively—over, and the media hordes will be back to stalking the House and Senate office buildings in Washington looking for nuggets of arcane legislative fare.

About half the states will have their primaries or caucuses before the April 1 changeover, so it is possible in this Year of Debates and Year of Super PACs that the same four men will be in the hunt for the back half of the process.

So why, in the face of the Newtonian charge we’ve seen over the past five days, are Republican graybeards still so confident of an ultimate Romney victory? Again to the calendar. 

Although it feels like there have been nothing but election nights so far in January, and we still have Florida to go, January is the lightest month of the cycle. Depending how you count, there will be seven events in February, 19 in March (including 10 on March 6, Super Tuesday), 12 in April, and six in June. Those numbers may not be exact, but the arc of activity is.

Four election events in January look like spring training against that calendar. Rick Santorum won in Iowa because he spent months there working and organizing. He couldn’t duplicate that in the seven days between Iowa and New Hampshire and came in a disappointing fourth—but still beat Gingrich, who faded in Iowa and thumped to a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire.

Ten days later, we are in South Carolina with Newt rushing to the front of the pack aided by a “turnabout’s fair play” super PAC attack on Mitt Romney which may reach over $3.5 million. If Gingrich wins here, that will certainly provide momentum for Florida, another 10 days hence. But then he has to figure out how to attack Nevada, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, Arizona, and Michigan in the ensuing 28 days.

The conventional wisdom is that Romney has the only campaign with the funding and the infrastructure to build organizations and run campaigns in more than one state at a time.

The notion of starting from scratch in the third week of January, to build out a campaign plan for March 6 is daunting to people who have done this before and have the financial and human resources to pull it off. To insurgent candidates like Gingrich and Santorum, it may prove to be impossible.

Can Twitter and Facebook replace storefronts and phone banks? We’ll find out over the next few months. As Sonny’s lyric reminds us: the beat goes on.