Ronald Reagan was the last nominee to lose in South Carolina. Every candidate since has won South Carolina and either Iowa or New Hampshire, which makes this a special year that pushes the nomination process further than most expected just a week ago when everyone other than the nominees and their supporters were proclaiming Romney the nominee-in-waiting.
Florida now becomes the “must-win” for the four remaining candidates. Even Ron Paul, who has yet to win but still possesses the most passionate base, could make the race ever-more interesting with a first- or second-place showing in Florida, giving him the drive and momentum to mount a potential independent run if he doesn’t capture the GOP nomination. For Gingrich, Santorum, and Romney, Florida is now the place that will set the tone for the rest of the campaign period.
This is going to be the hardest-fought GOP race in decades. It has been uglier than most already and will only get worse over the coming weeks. Florida is the tie-breaker. The winner will be in the driver’s seat even with a weakened delegation in Florida this year. Normally awarded 99 delegates, they are only getting 50 this year because they broke the rules and moved their primary up to January 31st. It’s relevance over bulk; even if they don’t get as many, at least their state is a centerpiece to help decide the winner rather than in the past when their March primary was often meaningless by the time candidates made it around to them (that’s an entirely different issue and one of the biggest problems with the election system).
Regardless of who wins, we will see the same 4 candidates fight it out for weeks to come. A poor showing by Santorum could see pressure mount against him from the conservative base to bow out and point his votes at Gingrich. The opposite is true as well. Neither will let that happen until March at the earliest and by that time Romney may have the nomination locked up if he is the winner in Florida.
Here’s how the Florida scenarios play out:
- A Romney win will carry over into Nevada and Maine and give him a chance to get Colorado in a concession-vote. If he gets Colorado in this scenario, the race is over.
- A Gingrich win followed by losses in Nevada and Maine would prolong the contest further. He would likely win Colorado and Arizona (despite a Romney endorsement from John McCain), lose Minnesota to Romney, and fight for Michigan and Washington by pulling as many Santorum voters as possible. Going into the first Super Tuesday, he would be in good shape to take the race from Romney.
- A Santorum win in Florida could get him Nevada as well with Romney getting Maine. Depending on momentum, he could conceivably sweep all of the states other than Minnesota going into Super Tuesday, at which time Gingrich would likely concede and back him either just before or just after.
- A Ron Paul win would shake things up completely. A second-place finish would get him changing gears a bit, showing that there’s not enough support to get him the nomination but plenty of support within his base to start mounting a presidential campaign as an independent. He would remain in the GOP race as long as he continues to get exposure and invites to debates, and would position his lack of air time as the reasoning for running as an independent. This would, of course, put Obama in a good spot to win re-election.
The only thing that South Carolina cleared up was that nothing is cleared up at all.