Of delegates, math, and election rules …
Let’s suppose, having just won Iowa, Mitt Romney goes on to win New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries (this is not an impossible scenario).
Romney would have, at that point, won just 37 of the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the GOP nomination. (The likely amount is much lower; he won’t win all 12 of New Hampshire’s delegates.)
Psychologically, he would be perceived as unstoppable. But mathematically, not so much.
Note: The reason Romney would have accumulated so few delegates is because the early states like New Hampshire and South Carolina (and Florida) were penalized half their delegates for moving their primaries to January.
In fairness to all the talking heads who would coronate Romney after gaining a miniscule number of delegates, he would have gained tremendous momentum. What is more, there is little evidence to suggest anyone else could wrest the nomination from him. (Is anyone else showing signs they could gain steam? … Any signs conservatives are about to actually coalesce around an alternative??)
But here’s my point: Even assuming Romney starts running the table, there would still be a lot of delegates to be had. And there is a reason we actually have elections.
So how might this play out?
If Romney does go 3-and-0, some of the other candidates will see the writing on the wall. If some of them — having accepted defeat (Rick Perry?) — drop out, maybe things change. Maybe that winnows the field, finally allowing conservatives to finally coalesce around a candidate.
Regardless, some of the candidates would surely hang around, hoping against hope that something comes up — that Romney somehow implodes (remember the Red Sox meltdown last year?) — and then, they will be the ones to pick up the pieces.
This could all last a while.
Even if Romney were to win New Hampshire and South Carolina, new RNC rules will conspire to slow down his “march” to the nomination.
A “winner-take-all” system might have allowed Romney to run up the score, despite winning with just 25, or so, percent of the vote. But the new rules stipulate elections held in March must incorporate some element of proportionality. This will slow things down.
(An aside: Conservatives might want to consider pushing for more radical rules changes in the future. It is often the case that the GOP nominates moderate candidates because the larger conservative voting bloc splits its votes among a large field of conservative candidates. Why not consider an instant-runoff voting system which would allow voters to rank their preferences?)
Ultimately, in an election year that has been so unpredictable, the notion that we can assume anything is absurd.