After New Hampshire, What's Next?

The first polls are open in New Hampshire, and Mitt Romney is poised to win big in the Granite State's first-in-the-nation primary vote.

The latest major poll, conducted Jan. 5 - 8 by WMUR/UNH, shows Romney (41 percent) with a wide lead over Ron Paul (17 percent), Jon Huntsman (11 percent), Rick Santorum (11 percent) and Newt Gingrich (8 percent).

After his eight-vote win in Iowa, Romney can advance his efforts to become the GOP's inevitable nominee by beating expectations in the Granite State. Huntsman, meanwhile, has dedicated the early part of his campaign to New Hampshire and must show well today if he is to gain legitimate momentum going forward.

With Santorum and Rick Perry already turning their attention to South Carolina ahead of next week's vote, it's unlikely the GOP's 2012 will be won or lost in New Hampshire, even if Romney does, in fact, run away with the vote.

So what's next, and how long will this thing take?

What's Next?

After New Hampshire, candidates will move onto South Carolina and Florida for the next big votes. Here's a look at how the calendar will unfold:

  • Jan. 10 - South Carolina primary. The "First in the South" primary figures to be Newt Gingrich's last stand, and a possible moment for Romney to begin sealing the deal. Gingrich has seen his  23 percentage-point lead evaporate in South Carolina, as Romney (37 percent) now leads Rick Santorum (19 percent), Gingrich (18 percent), and Ron Paul (12 percent), according to the latest major poll, conducted Jan. 4 - 5 by CNN/Time/ORC. And if the rising Santorum is to consolidate the anti-Romney vote after securing a virtual tie in Iowa, he might have to show well in South Carolina.
  • Jan. 31 - Florida primary. Even after the Republican National Committee docked half of Florida's delegates for jumping the primary-date line, the Sunshine State will award 50 delegates (out of 2,286 total), more than any other early state. Another site of Gingrich's November/December surge, the former House speaker led there by 15 percentage points as recently as Dec. 7. But if Florida has taken after South Carolina, that support should be eroding a bit, giving way to Romney and Santorum.
  • Feb. 4 - Nevada caucuses. The first Western state to pick a candidate, Nevada has seen Romney open up a narrow early lead, but polling has been scarce.
  • March 6 - Super Tuesday. If a clear leader hasn't emerged by March 6, Super Tuesday could bring some clarity. Voting will occur in 11 states, including Alaska, Idaho, Georgia, Massachusetts, North Dakota and Virginia, to award a total of 497 delegates out of 2,282 total. By that time, 28 percent of all delegates will have been awarded.
  • 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.
How long will it take?
If no inevitable front-runner emerges after the first few states, the GOP primary could become a race for delegates, and the Republican Party's new rules, adopted in August, could turn the early-state skirmishes into a long, national war.

To win the Republican nomination, a candidate will need the support of a majority (1,144) of all national delegates (2,286 total). Should the current poll leader, Romney, emerge as the winner of several early states, another candidate could keep campaigning to unite a bloc of delegates against him.

Paul, as BuzzFeed's Ben Smith has  reported, is laying the groundwork for such a race,  following the Obama campaign's playbook of organizing for delegates in states that were all but ignored by other campaigns.

After today, only New Hampshire's 12 delegates will have been awarded. Despite the sizable hype surrounding the Iowa caucuses, none of the Hawkeye State's 28 delegates are bound to support any candidate at the Republican National Convention.

In other words: If Romney (or another surprise front-runner) doesn't wrap things up soon, this could take a while.

How a Race for Delegates Would Play Out

If the race isn't decided soon, attention will turn from national and state polls to delegate counts, just as it did for Obama and Clinton in 2008. And nearly half of all Republican delegates will be awarded in April or later.

By the end of January's contests, only 5 percent of all GOP delegates will have been won. On the eve of Super Tuesday, only 8 percent will have been awarded, and when Super Tuesday is over, 28 percent will have been awarded. A leading candidate could campaign into April, winning every single delegate available, and still not have the nomination mathematically clinched.

The Republican Party will use a byzantine system of delegate allocation in 2012, after its rule change was designed to mimic the drawn-out Obama/Clinton battle that drew national interest. Almost every state will use a different system of assigning its delegates to presidential candidates, and some will use county, congressional-district and state conventions to pick delegates to the August convention in Tampa, Fla. The new process will give far more opportunities to organize for delegates down the road.

Since a candidate will need a majority of delegate votes in order to become the nominee, the 2012 GOP race will end quickly if a particular candidate (such as Romney) begins to secure well over 50 percent of the delegates available. If the opposing candidates, collectively, can win more than half the delegates available, the race could drag on.

If that happens, campaign organizations could be put to the test, and the GOP 2012 contest could look a lot like the Democrats' race in 2008.