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Dream Sequence

Which GOP candidates will be helped by the 2012 primary schedule—and which will be torpedoed?

There are so many unknowns to bedevil any poor pundit trying to call the 2012 Republican nomination. For starters, we still don’t know for sure who’s going to run. We also don’t know how the candidates will respond to the pressures of a campaign cycle dominated by new campaign-finance standards and loaded with countless opportunities for gaffes. And here’s another crucial variable that rarely gets mentioned, which could actually be fundamental in determining whether the race becomes a drawn-out slugfest between Mitt Romney and an anti-Romney, or something resembling John Kerry’s quick 2004 victory over Howard Dean, or a savage coup for someone like Michele Bachmann: We don’t yet know when, and in what states, the primary contest will be decided.

Political junkies sometimes act as though the primary and caucus calendar came down from Mount Sinai on stone tablets. We are deeply accustomed to the rituals of Iowa and New Hampshire, where candidates hug babies in the cold hoping to make a good first impression and eager young activists pile into tour buses, having long prepared for “the presidential.” Yet those states are only the beginning, and the calendar is in fact a complex, ever-shifting amalgam in the hands of largely uncoordinated state legislators and local party officials. Every election cycle, the sequence and timing—and thus the opportunities and pitfalls for different candidates—has changed.

This election, the schedule is completely in flux. At the beginning of both the 2008 and 2012 cycles, the national parties actually made a serious effort to impose some order on the nominating calendar, in no small part to limit the phenomenon of “frontloading,” whereby every state has an incentive to schedule its vote earlier in order to gain more clout. In response to complaints (particularly among Democrats) that the old Iowa-New Hampshire duopoly wasn’t a representative sample, two other states, Nevada and South Carolina, were let under the velvet rope to hold officially sanctioned early contests. But the limited ability of national parties to control the states was evidenced by the Florida and Michigan fiascos of 2008, in which defiant interlopers very nearly succeeded in pushing the first event in Iowa back into 2007, and posed an uncomfortable challenge to national leaders reluctant to punish them with a loss of delegates.

Now, both parties have worked together on a coordinated calendar that tries to confirm the Iowa/New Hampshire/Nevada/South Carolina events as privileged; pushes them forward into February; and banishes the other states beyond a March 1 barrier. When these rules were adopted, they required 35 states, which were crowding into February if not January, to move their primary or caucus dates forward. And, notably, the Republicans added an additional inducement to later nominating events by limiting winner-take-all delegate awards, which enhance a state’s clout, to primaries or caucuses held after April 1.

But even as most states worked dutifully to comply with the new rules, bad-boy Florida acted out again, with Republican legislators threatening to leave the primary date at January 31—the day before the Iowa caucus—a maneuver sure to blow up the entire carefully arranged schedule, driving the “privileged four” early states to push their contests even further forward and expose themselves, along with Florida, to sanctions for defying the ordained calendar. Renewed pressures for “frontloading” could also tempt other states to sneak forward into forbidden territory. In saber-rattling typical of the jockeying for calendar position, the chairmen of the Iowa and South Carolina Republican Party have called on the RNC to move the 2012 National Convention from Tampa to some more law-abiding site.

Yet, adding to the confusion, there is another dynamic pushing in the exact opposite direction. Even as some states keep the frontloading pressure up, others are trying to schedule their contests very late, often because constrained budgets make it inadvisable to maintain separate presidential and state-local primaries. Texas is looking at a consolidated primary in late March or early April, and California may move all the way to June (where it was for many years). The unchallenged expert on all these complex dynamics, Davidson College’s Josh Putnam, explains at his amazingly focused site, Frontloading HQ:

If Texas were to move back [to late March or April] and California to June, it would fundamentally reshape the delegate calculus in the Republican nomination race. The point at which one candidate could surpass the 50% plus one delegate level would shift back significantly as a result and potentially shift back the point at which the nomination is settled in the process. It would also make Florida a much more attractive early calendar prize. As an aside, if the Texas primary is moved back to April the Republican Party in the state to keep the winner-take-all elements they have maintained in terms of delegate allocation in the post-reform era.

So how will these two cross-pressures ultimately sort out the field, and which candidates stand to benefit or lose under different likely scenarios? For one thing, the start-date in Iowa is more than a bit important to candidates in a field that has already been slow to emerge. You don’t want to be caught putting together your caucus organization in the autumn of 2011 if the big event itself is immediately after the holidays, as it was in 2008. That’s particularly true if you are, say, Haley Barbour or Mitch Daniels, competing with candidates who already started lining up highly motivated religious conservatives for the caucus back in March.

More generally, it’s thought that a heavily frontloaded calendar makes a relatively quick knockout victory—like those of Republican George W. Bush in 2000 and Democrat John Kerry in 2004—more likely, while an extended calendar favors candidates with the money and hard-core support to survive early losses and win by attrition, particularly if the early winners cannot mathematically win a majority of delegates until late March or April. The 2008 Democratic contest, which featured not one but two equally matched candidates with that kind of money and support, is unlikely to be replicated any time soon, and it’s worth noting that Obama might have wrapped up the nomination very early if he had won just a few thousand more votes in New Hampshire.

Perhaps the sequencing or “clustering” of states is as important as the pacing of primaries and caucuses. Consider the situation of Mitt Romney. The current “privileged four” calendar provides Mitt with two states where he has a significant built-in advantage—Mormon-rich Nevada and close-to-Massachusetts New Hampshire—but also two states (Iowa and South Carolina) where the dominance of the Christian Right is a problem for him. The identity of the states holding primaries or caucuses immediately after South Carolina could make a great deal of difference to Romney’s prospects. With an “early knock-out” win by any candidate made unlikely by an extended calendar, one highly plausible scenario is the emergence of a “true conservative” alternative to Romney who will match his money with fervor and a national base of support. On the other hand, if a lot of hard-core conservative states, especially in the South, pop up right after a big Romney loss in South Carolina, all the money in the world might not save him. And it could be that a gauntlet of highly differentiated states holding contests in sequence produces a “demolition derby” effect like the one that threw the nomination to John McCain in 2008. That might break a number of different ways but, on balance, it would probably favor someone like Tim Pawlenty, who appeals to the broadest swath of GOP constituents.

Of course, the calendar is just one of several key variables affecting the 2012 race. Romney’s health reform problem may keep him from even making it to the starting line. Candidacies by Mike Huckabee or Mitch Daniels or Sarah Palin or Rick Perry could scramble every calculation. “Electability” could emerge as a key issue if Barack Obama is looking strong in general election trial heats. But the shape of the calendar does matter a lot, and—unfortunately for anyone trying to gaze into the electoral crystal ball—until the primary schedule settles, the images will remain cloudy.

Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.

Follow @tnr on Twitter.