If Mitt Romney wins the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary, as polls suggest he may, the 2012 primary season will likely be recorded as one of the most decisive in history.
Following the South Carolina vote is the Jan. 31 Florida primary, where Romney is ahead in polls, and early February caucuses in Nevada, Maine, Colorado and Michigan — all states won by Romney during his unsuccessful quest for the nomination in 2008.
If he carries each of the states, the chance of a substantive challenge to his front-runner status grows increasingly slim, possibly resulting in other candidates bowing out of the race, with the notable exception of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who is expected to continue collecting delegates right up to the Republican convention.
If Romney wins South Carolina, “there’s a chance he can win them all,” Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told The Daily Caller.
“Provided that Romney does win in South Carolina, it’s hard to not see a sweep, because you then move into Florida, and then there is Nevada and Michigan [on Feb. 28] — those are all very friendly to Romney,” pollster John Zogby told TheDC.
Even if the nomination is essentially clinched by Romney after victories in South Carolina, Florida and the early February caucuses, there is still a possibility that he will lose a few states. But that scenario wouldn’t be particularly likely, according to Sabato and Zogby.
Three scenarios could derail a clean Romney sweep of all 50 states: A “favorite son” win in the home states of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum or former House speaker and longtime Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich; a win by Paul in low-turnout contests or in states where he performed well in 2008; or wins by Gingrich or Santorum in the deep South attributable to conservative voters’ displeasure with Romney.
“It’s a few of the caucuses that may cause some trouble for Mitt Romney. If he appears to have all but wrapped up the nomination, and only Ron Paul is left in the race, I could see a caucus or two falling Paul’s way,” said Sabato. “And you can’t rule out a primary upset someplace either, if turnout is low enough.”
“These would be seen as stumbles, and no doubt would generate talk about ‘Romney’s continuing unacceptability’ to conservative Republicans. But they’d be quickly forgotten on the road to the nomination,” he said.
But Zogby noted that Paul may not be a major beneficiary from caucuses this year, as “the two big caucus states are Nevada and Michigan, and those are good states for Romney.”
The states where Paul fared best in 2008 may be indicators of where he could pull off a victory against Romney. In 2008, Paul received 25 percent of the vote in Montana, 24 percent in Idaho, 22 percent in Washington State, 21 percent in North Dakota, 18 percent in Maine and 17 percent in Alaska.
In the first two contests this year, Paul has more than doubled his 2008 vote share — increasing from 10 percent to 21.5 percent in Iowa, and from 7.8 percent to 23 percent in New Hampshire — suggesting that he could double his share and win in his best-performing 2008 states.
Gingrich winning the March 6 Georgia primary or Perry pulling out a victory in the April 3 Texas primary are “perfectly reasonable possibilities” too, Sabato said. But, he cautioned, “They must still be active candidates to carry their states.”
“It’s unlikely that voters would come to the polls and endorse even a home-state contender who had already bowed out,” Sabato clarified. “A favorite-son candidate has to be willing to stay in the race.”
“There’s a long history of candidates losing their own states after they burn their candidacies out,” Zogby added. “In Gingrich’s case, those weren’t just loses in Iowa and New Hampshire, those were fourth or fifth place finishes. In South Carolina it could conceivably be another third or forth place.”
“You have to get some sort of the momentum” to remain relevant, said Zogby, who released a poll with the Washington Times on Tuesday revealing that “the critical mass of GOP voters is saying this is the guy who can win, and that even includes a plurality of tea party supporters.”
“If Romney wins South Carolina, it’s really hard to see how he’s blocked, unless you’re talking the nuclear option, which is a whole new candidate,” Zogby mused.
Another possible hindrance to a clean 50-state sweep by Romney would be the retroactive recognition of Santorum as the victor of the Iowa caucuses. The Washington Examiner’s Byron York reported that Santorum, officially behind Romney by eight votes, may in fact be ahead by 80 votes when the final Iowa count is certified. This recognition could also boost Santorum’s profile and perhaps propel him to wins in the deep South, where Zogby considers Romney vulnerable.
New York Times political blogger Nate Silver noted on Monday that a Romney sweep would indeed be historic, considering that “Al Gore in 2000 [was] the only non-incumbent to have swept all 50 states in the primaries. And Gore was a quasi-incumbent.”