What's Next After Florida: Entering the Dead Zone

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Enjoy the Florida primary while it lasts, because we're about to enter the dead zone of the Republican campaign season.

Florida will be the last big event for Republican presidential candidates until Feb. 28, when both Arizona and Michigan hold their contests. Between now and then lies a stretch of caucus states that have drawn little attention from candidates and won't immediately affect the race for delegates.

With its expensive TV markets, loads of national media attention, and relatively large number of delegates at stake, Florida has enjoyed a tremendous heap of political spending by Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and the super PACs that support them. And with good reason: Whoever wins Florida will more than double his delegate total and receive a momentum boost that can't be negated for at least a few weeks.

Florida is the first big winner-take-all state in the Republican primary, and it will award 50 delegates-more than three times the number of delegates controlled by New Hampshire (12), and almost as many as Iowa (28) and South Carolina (25) combined.

All three of those states awarded delegates on a proportional basis, but all 50 of Florida's delegates will go to one statewide winner.

Mitt Romney is poised to reap that windfall. The latest major poll in the state, conducted, Jan. 27 - 29 by Quinnipiac University, showed him leading Newt Gingrich by 14 percentage points, 43 percent to 29 percent. An NBC/Marist poll, conducted Jan. 25 and 26, showed him leading by 15 percentage points.

The Sunshine State broke new party rules by using the winner-take-all scheme and moving ahead of the Republican National Committee's approved date range.  In doing so, Florida lost half its delegates and other perks, including hotel space and the ability of its state chairman and RNC committee members to vote at the GOP convention, to be held this August in Tampa. But if Florida's goal was to maintain national significance in the primary, the gamble seems to be paying off.

What's Next?

The next stretch of contests could be called the Ron Paul States, as he's the only candidate to devote significant attention to them, betting big on Nevada, airing a TV ad in Minnesota, campaigning in Maine, and sending out mailers in Nevada, Maine, and Colorado-all part of his long-term strategy. None of those states will dole out as many delegates as Florida, or in a manner as simple as Florida's.

Here's what we have to look forward to, after today's vote:

  • Feb. 4 - Nevada caucuses. Worth 28 delegates, divided proportionally according to the statewide vote. Nevada hasn't gotten much attention from candidates or media; no major poll has been conducted there since December, when the Las Vegas Review Journal showed Mitt Romney with a slight lead, and no major polling agency has surveyed the state during primary season.
  • Feb. 4 - 11 - Maine caucuses. "Vacationland" will hold its caucuses over the course of a week-but those are just the suggested dates for precincts. The state's 24 delegates won't be allocated and will be free to support any candidate at the GOP convention, giving candidates little incentive to campaign in Maine. No major polling firm has surveyed in the state recently.
  • Feb. 7 - Minnesota caucuses. Though Minnesota will send 40 delegates to the Republican National Convention, none of this state's delegates will be allocated to any candidate either. Like in Iowa, the best a candidate can hope for is to win enough congressional-district and state-convention delegates to influence the selection of individual delegates later. No major polling firm has surveyed in Minnesota recently.
  • Feb. 7 - Colorado caucuses. Worth 36 delegates, Colorado will allocate them later at its congressional district and state conventions. As in Iowa, the Feb. 7 caucuses will elect delegates to those conventions. No major polling firms have surveyed Colorado recently.
  • Feb. 9 - 29 - Wyoming caucuses. Like Maine, Wyoming will let its precincts hold caucuses within a date range. The Wyoming Republican Party will announce the statewide results on Feb. 29, but they won't have anything to do with the state's 29 delegates, which will be required to state their candidate preferences before being elected Wyoming's state convention. They'll be bound to their candidate choices by word only, not by state law or party rules.
  • Feb. 28 - Arizona primary. Finally-another simple primary state. Arizona will likely draw more focus from candidates than all of the February states preceding it. Like Florida, it will award all of its 29 delegates to the statewide winner, and, like Florida, it lost half its delegates after breaking the new RNC rules prohibiting its early primary date and winner-take-all allocation scheme.
  • Feb. 28 - Michigan primary. Another relatively simple primary state, Michigan will award its 30 delegates proportionally (based on both percent totals and congressional-district winners). Like Florida and Arizona, Michigan was penalized by the RNC.
  • March 6 - Super Tuesday. Super Tuesday is the biggest event on the medium-term primary horizon. After Washington holds its caucuses on March 3, 10 states will vote, accounting for 437 delegates. After Super Tuesday, states making up over 35 percent of all delegates (72 percent of the delegates needed to win the nomination) will have finished voting.
  • June 5 - California primary. If Republicans are still campaigning against each other in early June, Californians will cast their potentially decisive votes second-to-last; Utah will end the primary season with its June 26 contest. California will award more national delegates (169) than any other state.

Delegate Math: How Long Will This Thing Take?

Regardless of who wins the Florida primary, the GOP campaign figures to last a while.

Right now, Newt Gingrich leads the delegate race with 23-out of 2286 total and 1144 needed to win the nomination. That should give some indication of how far Republicans are from selecting a nominee.

Gingrich won all of those delegates in South Carolina.

Romney has 21, including the seven he won in New Hampshire, the two he won in South Carolina, and the 12 unbound Iowa delegates ABC News estimates will support him, based on the caucus vote results there.

ABC News estimates Santorum will receive the support of 13 unbound Iowa delegates.

Given that Gingrich could sway those Iowa votes later in the campaign, Romney technically only has nine delegates, and Santorum has zero, against Gingrich's 23.

A Long Way from Clarity

State wins/losses, polls and fundraising reflect the general momentum in the campaign, but the delegates will pick the winner. And in terms of delegates, we're a long way from clarity.

Mathematically, no candidate will be able to seal the nomination before April. Barring a clean sweep of the next few states, it's unlikely any candidate will be able to win the delegate race before May. Although states accounting for 820 delegates will have finished voting after Super Tuesday, enough of those delegates will have been awarded proportionally - or will remain unbound - that a landslide delegate win isn't so likely.

For the primary campaign to effectively end, candidates will have to run out of money, or concede to the front-runner.

Over the next month, we'll find out whether Ron Paul's campaign strategy has worked. If it has, we can look forward to a month of headlines about Paul's strong performance in the caucus states. If not, the candidate may have made his last real stand.

If clarity hasn't arrived by the end of May, California's 169 delegates may decide the race on June 5.

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