Where are we in the process to anoint the 2012 Republican Party nominee for president of the United States?
Well, if you listen to conventional wisdom, the race for the GOP nomination is just beginning.
However, if political-science research is any indicator, the determining factors will be the important New Hampshire primary in January (presumably) and the multiple events on Super Tuesday -- March 6.
In past presidential-election years, the winning nomination strategy has been to slam New Hampshire, meaning, first win that primary, and then use the increased name recognition, media coverage, and money to perform strongly on Super Tuesday -- when eight primaries or caucuses will be held this time around -- to clinch the nomination.
Slam New Hampshire
The New Hampshire primary election is critical in the nomination process because of its timing, because it is conducted by secret ballot (unlike the Iowa caucus), and because the state is seen as being representative of mainstream America and small-town America. To this latter point, voters in the New England state are believed to constitute a good barometer of what the bulk of the party members in the rest of the nation -- the Midwest, the South, and the Rocky Mountain region -- are thinking.
For this reason, the winner of the New Hampshire primary almost always secures the party's nomination for president.
However, there have been exceptions: The last was in 2008, when then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., won the New Hampshire primary but lost the Democratic Party nomination to then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.
Other New Hampshire primary winners who did not win their party's nomination include Republicans Harold Stassen (1948), Henry Cabot Lodge (1964), Pat Buchanan (1996), and John McCain (2000), as well as Democrats Estes Kefauver (1952) and Paul Tsongas (1992).
However, these are exceptions, and exceptions prove rules. And the rule is that this is one political-science theory you can take to the bank: If a candidate wants to win a party's nomination, he or she needs to win the New Hampshire primary -- or at least perform very well in it.
Example: In 1968, then-U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texas Democrat whose public-approval rating was very low due to the controversial and unsuccessful Vietnam War, as well as searing racial strife and urban tension, won the New Hampshire primary, but a comparatively unknown candidate -- then-U.S. Sen. Eugene McCarthy, D-Minn., running on an anti-Vietnam War platform -- came within 7 percentage points of beating the incumbent Johnson and was thus declared the de facto winner of the primary.
Net result: Seeing his party's overwhelming disapproval of his war policy, President Johnson subsequently announced he would not seek the Democratic Party nomination for president in 1968.
After New Hampshire Win, Concentrate on Super Tuesday
After a New Hampshire primary victory, the prudent strategy historically has been for the front-running candidate -- armed with the massive increase in name recognition, media coverage, and campaign contributions that such a win produces -- to concentrate assets and campaign time on Super Tuesday: the day when the most primaries or caucuses are conducted, and, by extension, the day when the most delegates to the nominating convention are chosen.
In 2008, Super Tuesday was on Feb. 5, but this time around, it will be on March 6, Given the longer gap between the New Hampshire primary and Super Tuesday in the current context, the primaries in-between -- in Arizona, South Carolina, and Michigan -- and the caucus in Nevada will count more from a momentum standpoint than they historically would. But Super Tuesday will still be the second major checkpoint in the nominating process: In other words, if a candidate wins the New Hampshire primary and performs very well on Super Tuesday, that candidate is all but assured of winning his or her party's nomination.
So Where Are We Now?
So where does the 2012 Republican race stand as of today? Simply, it's Advantage, former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney.
By virtue of his strong debate performances, Romeny is the GOP front-runner. Romney is the top choice among Republicans in the latest Associated Press and CNN/Opinion Research polls, garnering support of 30 percent and 26 percent, respectively.
Former Godfather's Pizza Chairman and CEO Herman Cain has come on strong of late, and he appears to be making a statement that he will be a formidable candidate in the New Hampshire primary. However, Cain's candidacy is so young -- and his name recognition so much lower than that of either Romney or Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- that it remains to be seen whether his recent rise is the sign of an enduring preference change by Republican voters or simply their willingness to latch on to any new, conservative face after becoming disillusioned with a series of conservative presidential-wannabes (e.g., U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Perry).
Hence, if Romney wants to win the 2012 Republican Party nomination, the strategy is obvious enough: 1) Slam New Hampshire, and 2) deploy almost all assets and spend as much time as possible in the Super Tuesday states so as to perform very well on that day.
Nominating Process: Hardly Fair
No, the nominating process is not fair. It bestows an inordinate amount of power on New Hampshire and the Super Tuesday primary states, at the expense of the other states. It bestows an inordinate amount of importance on money early in the nominating process -- the money a candidate attracts from a New Hampshire primary win helps attract more votes on Super Tuesday. And it bestows an inordinate amount of power on the media, at the expense of party professionals -- who are more qualified than is the public to choose the best candidate.
But this is the system the United States implemented in the late 1960s and early 1970s to popularize the nominating process -- and it isn't likely to change soon.