After South Carolina

After South Carolina: the Road Ahead Gets Tougher for Newt Gingrich

Nearly half a million mail-in ballots in Florida’s winner-take-all race could halt Newt Gingrich’s latest comeback.

Charles Ommanney for Newsweek

Today was a bad day for Mitt Romney. One week ago, the former Massachusetts governor appeared to be cruising to the GOP nomination. But as grim as tonight’s results appear, with exit polls showing Romney lagging behind former House speaker Newt Gingrich in almost every demographic in South Carolina, the path ahead for Romney appears easier. Eight states (and one commonwealth) will select delegates to the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa before “Super Tuesday,” and Romney remains heavily favored in many of them.

The next state to vote is Florida, where Romney leads in the polls. He’s already spent more than $1 million there and is mounting a concerted effort to target absentee voters, since many in the Sunshine State vote early. At least 185,436 votes have already been cast, and there are nearly 300,000 more absentee ballots still outstanding. These voters will be impervious to the sort of last-minute momentum shifts that helped Gingrich claim victory in South Carolina.

Further, the diverse demographics of Florida appear to favor Romney. Although much of the northern part of the state is as deeply tied to the Bible Belt as any other part of the South, Florida will also be the first state where there will be significant minority participation in the GOP primaries, particularly in the Cuban community in South Florida where Romney has already secured a number of major endorsements, including Representatives Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

There were will be two more debates before Florida votes, which will offer more opportunities for Gingrich to toss out red meat to conservatives and take advantage of free television time. But former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum has said his campaign will continue after his disappointing third-place finish in South Carolina, and he’s likely to eat into Gingrich’s vote total. Florida awards all its delegates on a winner-take-all basis, and while it’s likely that Gingrich and Santorum combined will beat Romney, it will be very difficult for either candidate to gain a plurality. (Texas Congressman Ron Paul has effectively conceded the state, telling CNN Saturday night that “ “We’re really looking beyond Florida—Florida is a big state and it takes a lot of money … better spent to go to the caucus states.”)

After Florida, there are no more debates for almost a month—which could hurt Gingrich, who’s used his debate performances to effectively counteract the large spending advantage held by Romney and the Super PAC supporting Romney. Instead, there will be a quick sprint through four caucus states spread across the country. Nevada holds its caucuses on February 4 and Romney will be heavily favored there because of the state’s large Mormon population. The heavy impact of the financial crisis there will play to Romney’s strengths as a candidate as well. Not to mention that the state with legalized gambling and prostitution is not exactly a social conservative stronghold. In fact, Romney’s strongest challenge in Nevada is expected to from Paul, who will try to take advantage of the state’s strong libertarian streak and the low turnout nature of the caucuses to win a significant number of delegates.

Both Minnesota and Colorado will hold their caucuses on February 7th. Minnesota will feature a more divided Republican electorate. While it has a strong tradition of moderate Republicanism, exemplified by former governor Arne Carlson, it has also has a strong competing tradition of evangelical social conservatives, as typified by former Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann. Though Romney will have a strong advantage among the party establishment, being backed by former governor Tim Pawlenty and former senator Norm Coleman, he will still be vulnerable to the right, particularly in a low-turnout caucus. If Minnesota social conservatives coalesce around either Santorum or Gingrich, particularly if one of them scores Bachmann’s endorsement, Romney could be in trouble.

Social conservatives will play a far more dominant role in the Colorado caucuses. While Ron Paul will likely rack up support in more rural and libertarian parts of the state, the winner will be determined in Colorado Springs, which is one of the most strongly evangelical metropolitan areas in the country. It is home to a number of prominent social conservative organizations like Focus on the Family. Further, it is a state where Republican primary voters in 2010 backed tea party candidates for governor and senator over more mainstream Republicans who were backed by the party establishment, which is not a promising sign for Romney.

The last of the four caucus states is Maine, which will hold municipal caucuses over the course of a week from Feb. 4 to Feb. 11, with the final results not announced until Feb. 11. Maine is possibly the last stronghold of traditional liberal northeastern Republicanism, with two pro-choice Republican Senators. Romney also will be the hometown candidate, coming from nearby Massachusetts and having spent much of the past year campaigning in the bordering state of New Hampshire. He won the Maine caucuses overwhelmingly in 2008 and should do so again this year.

There will also be caucuses in the Northern Mariana Islands on Feb. 25, which will be the only Republican primary (with just nine delegates at stake) during the three-week lull between Colorado and Minnesota on February 7 and the races in Arizona and Michigan on Feb. 28. The Islands went overwhelmingly for John McCain in 2008 in a very low turnout race, even for a commonwealth with a total population of approximately 50,000. It’s unclear whether the islanders will follow past precedent and overwhelmingly back the establishment candidate in the Republican primary but it is safe to predict that the Northern Mariana Islands will not see too many campaign stops.

Arizona and Michigan, on the other hand, will see very active campaigning. Romney will try to use these two states, where he holds significant advantages to try and seal the perception of inevitability before Super Tuesday rolls around on March 6. In Michigan, Romney is a native son as his father, George Romney, was a popular governor of the state in the 1960s. This helped him win the state handily in 2008 and should prove a major advantage again this year. If Rick Santorum is still a viable candidate, he could prove Romney’s biggest threat there, as his message of conservative economic populism and concern for American industry could resonate there. The Wolverine State also has a large population of Dutch-American evangelical Protestants, a group Santorum won overwhelmingly in Iowa. Michigan is also the one state where Ron Paul will have a congressional endorser, namely Justin Amash, the freshman Congressman from Grand Rapids. This by no means makes Paul the candidate of the Michigan party establishment but will give him a strong local surrogate for the first time.

In the 2008 Republican primary, Mitt Romney only lost Arizona by 13 points to the state’s senator, John McCain. In 2012, with McCain’s endorsement, it is hard to foresee Romney faltering there given his former rival’s support and the state’s significant Mormon population. For Romney, the question isn’t if he’ll take Arizona, but the margin of victory.

While the lineup of states over the next month favors Romney, that also raises expectations for him. If things start to go wrong for him in Florida it could trigger a chain reaction. But if Romney clears that hurdle, the schedule becomes more favorable to him. Further, because the campaign then increasingly shifts to states with major metropolitan areas, it will allow the former Massachusetts governor to take full advantage of his major financial advantage over the rest of the GOP field. Although he may not be able to run the table, the favorable schedule for him puts him in the catbird’s seat for Super Tuesday.