By Alexander Bolton - 12/11/11 07:20 PM EST
The 2012 GOP presidential primary is poised to become a protracted battle over delegates, such as the one that consumed Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008.
A little-noticed change in Republican Party rules last year means almost all of the states holding caucuses and primaries before April 1 will allocate their delegates proportionally.
This will make it very difficult for Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney to land a lights-out punch early in the contest. Unless one candidate dominates the first several caucuses and primaries, the race could easily stretch into April and beyond, say GOP veterans.
“The rules changes adopted by the RNC will be reason for that because of the lack of winner-take-all states early on,” he added.
Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie last month predicted a drawn-out fight for delegates.
"This process is different for Republicans this time in that we're going to have proportion delegate allocation throughout a lot of our process, which we haven't had," Gillespie said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Of the states holding primaries or caucuses before March, only Florida and Arizona will allocate all delegates to the candidate who wins the state.
This will make the Sunshine State a big prize in the race for delegates. But will not give Gingrich, Romney or any other candidate who may surge to the front a decisive advantage. The winner of Florida will collect 50 delegates, instead of the state’s usual 99, because of a penalty imposed on the state for advancing its primary to Jan. 31.
Arizona lost half of its 58 delegates by moving its presidential primary to February 28. There too the winner will collect them all, according to a state party spokesman.
To clinch the nomination, a candidate will need 1143 delegates, according to a Republican National Committee memo.
By March 1, only 146 delegates will have been allocated from the primaries in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Candidates will lay claim to a portion of the 156 delegates in Iowa, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota and Nevada but these are caucus states and they will not set the final allocation of delegates until state conventions set for later 2012.
Recent polls show Gingrich leading in Florida, Iowa, South Carolina, Colorado and Arizona and Romney leading in New Hampshire, Michigan and Nevada — although the Nevada poll was taken before Herman Cain dropped out of the race.
If a candidate can amass 10 to 20 percent or more of the vote in states holding primaries, they will pick up delegates. Nevada, which holds a caucus, sets a minimum threshold of 3.5 percent for winning delegates.
So while Gingrich leads in several of the early states, Romney will likely pick up enough delegates to keep within striking distance going into March, and possibly into April, when most of the contests are winner-take-all affairs.
Recent polls by CNN/Time show Romney winning 20 percent of the vote in Iowa, 35 percent in New Hampshire, 20 percent in South Carolina. A Magellan Strategies poll from late October gave Romney 38 percent of the vote in Nevada.
This would give Romney half to two thirds as many delegates as Gingrich in Iowa and South Carolina and roughly a third to 50 percent more delegates in New Hampshire, Michigan and Nevada. This assumes Gingrich can boost his percentage of vote in the Silver State to what a poll showed Cain having in October: 26 percent. (Gingrich had 16 percent of the vote in Nevada in October. If he captured the lion’s share of the Cain vote, he could tie Romney in Nevada).
Keep in mind this projection does not count delegates from Maine, which has 24 delegates and holds a caucus the week of Feb. 4, and Minnesota, which has 40 delegates and holds a caucus on Feb. 7. Recent polling on the GOP primary standings in those states is not available.
The reward of winning early states is diminished by the penalty most of these states had to pay by moving up on the calendar. New Hampshire lost about half of its original 23 delegates, dropping to 12; South Carolina fell from 50 to 25; and Michigan saw its 59 delegates chopped to 30.
An 85-delegate lead heading into March would give Gingrich a nice cushion but would not seal his victory.
Romney could make substantial inroads by winning one of the delegate-heavy states holding elections in March, such as Texas, which has 155 delegates. Or by winning Tennessee, which has 58 delegates, or Virginia, which has 49. Because these states scheduled their contests before April 1, the Republican National Committee has required them to allocate their delegates proportionally. So winning Texas would give a candidate a nice boost but the second place team would also pick a significant share, perhaps giving his campaign incentive to stick around until April.
“If you come in second or third, you can still walk away with a substantial number of delegates to the national convention,” said Jesse Lewis, executive director of the Texas Republican Party. “If someone comes in second or third consistently, this thing can go on for a long time.”
Gillespie said on “Meet the Press” that he could envision second-tier candidates staying in the race longer than expected because of proportional allocation.
“There’s not going to be much incentive to Michele Bachmann or Rick Santorum or Rick Perry or Ron Paul to drop because they’ll be likely accruing delegates along the way,” he said.
That might be true in states such as New Hampshire which have lower thresholds for picking up delegates but it’s less plausible in states such as Texas, where a candidate must get at least 20 percent of the vote statewide or in a Congressional district to pick up delegates in the March 6 primary. Georgia, which holds a primary on the same date, has 76 delegates and also sets a 20-percent threshold.
It would be helpful to the second-place candidate if others stay in the race because many of the states give all of their delegates to a candidate if he wins 51 percent or more of the vote.