Mitt Romney logged a big win in Florida on Tuesday, and the next stretch of states could favor him heavily.
We're now entering a dead zone in primary season: After the string of early primaries and caucuses in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida, the race moves on to a string of caucus states that, in most cases, either won't award their delegates to any candidate or will award them later at state and congressional-district conventions. Those states are likely to attract less time, money, and individualized focus from the campaigns-and less attention from the media. The next traditional primaries, in Arizona and Michigan, will be held on Feb. 28.
Romney won all of those upcoming caucus states in 2008, excluding Missouri, where a February straw-poll primary has been deprioritized by the state party in favor of new March caucuses.
Ron Paul has kept an eye on the upcoming stretch of caucus states, and he's the only candidate to devote significant attention to them early on in the campaign. Paul has bet big on Nevada, aired a TV ad in Minnesota, campaigned in Maine, and sent out mailers in Nevada, Maine, and Colorado-all part of his long-term strategy.
Rick Santorum campaigned in Missouri this week, and the pro-Santorum superPAC Red White and Blue Fund released a new TV ad for that state today. Romney, meanwhile, figures to make a strong showing in Minnesota with the help of former governor Tim Pawlenty, a Romney endorser and national Romney campaign co-chair.
Here's what we have to look forward to, after Florida:
Delegate Math: How Long Will This Thing Take?
With his win in Florida, Romney picked up the most delegates (50) awarded by any state so far
Right now, Romney leads the delegate race with 71 of 2,286 total and 1,144 needed to win the nomination. Mathematically at least, Republicans are still a long way from selecting a nominee, but the delegate race is starting to take shape, as Romney's estimated delegate total more than triples Gingrich's.
Romney's 71 delegates include 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.
Gingrich trails him with 23 delegates, and ABC News estimates Santorum will receive the support of 13 unbound Iowa delegates. Ron Paul has three total.
Given that Gingrich could sway those Iowa votes later in the campaign, Romney technically only has 59 delegates, and Santorum has zero.
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 outright before May.
Delegates will pick the winner-not state wins, polls, or fundraising. As momentum mounts for Romney, his opponents are left to make an easy argument about process: It's a long race, so let's see what the other states have to say. Romney has only won two of the states that have voted so far, New Hampshire and Florida.
The March 6 Super Tuesday vote, however, can pull the delegate race into focus, tipping the scales toward Romney or back toward his opponents. Super Tuesday will see 10 states vote, accounting for more delegates than all the states leading up to that day. After Super Tuesday, results will have been tallied in states accounting for 820 delegates (72 percent of the 1144 a candidate will need to win). Enough of those delegates will be allocated proportionally-or will remain unbound-that a landslide win is less likely, but a strong performance on March 6 could still give Romney a big lead, or provide a solid comeback boost to Gingrich, Santorum, or Paul.
If one candidate sweeps the pre-Super Tuesday states, the momentum will be clear heading into March 6. If not, that day should offer some general primary clarity.