Why Democrats Think the GOP Race Might Last Until June

Paul Sancya / AP Photo

Game it out for a second. Look at the calendar.

This GOP race could go on for a long time, and Democrats profess to be thrilled about that prospect, about Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich continuing to bloody each other up, aided by Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.

Why would this go on for awhile? Because a combination of an elongated schedule, new Republican National Committee rules, and some quirks of fate have diminished the importance of individual contests and reduced the ability for knock-out punches.

Part of the reason for this schedule is then-RNC chair Michael Steele wanted an extended primary season so as to ensure a strong nominee; the elongated Barack Obama v. Hillary Clinton race indubitably made Obama a better candidate, and got out a lot of his "dirty laundry" - Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Tony Rezko, William Ayres, flag pins and such - long before the general election, so that his campaign could by the fall claim it was all old news.

But top Democrats are hoping that won't happen with the GOP race, that it will just provide more moments of Romney calling Gingrich "erratic" and Gingrich calling into question Romney's business practices.

Here's how top Democrats see it: On January 31 comes the Florida primary, as we know. Because the Sunshine State has opted to hold its primary on an earlier date than the RNC had sanctioned, Florida's 99 delegates have been shrunk to 50 as penalty, lessening the state's impact. These delegates will be winner-take all.

Whoever wins - Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, Paul - it's unlikely that the other three will drop out. As of now Romney, Gingrich and Santorum can brag about winning one contest. One of their rivals' jumping to two doesn't change the dynamic all that much, they can argue. Especially when all it means is 50 delegates out of 1,144 needed to win the GOP presidential nomination.

What comes after Florida? February brings four GOP caucuses - Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Nevada. That's a whole month for just 128 delegates, 5% of the total that can be won. All of these 128 delegates will be allocated proportionally. This won't encourage anyone to drop out - it will keep folks in the race. Third place finishers in caucuses can get delegates.

February ends with winner-take-all primaries in two other states that have been penalized by the RNC, Michigan and Arizona - a total of 116 delegates. All of this means that by the end of February, 85% of the delegates will still not have been awarded.

Then comes Super Tuesday, which will be less important this year, diminishing the opportunity for a knockout punch:

* It comes a month later in this election cycle than it did in 2008 - March 6, 2012 versus February 5, 2008.

* In this year's Super Tuesday a smaller number of delegates will be at stake - 466 delegates in 11 states this year, versus 1,069 delegates in 21 states in 2008. Gingrich could do well in his home state Georgia, and other southern states such as Tennessee. Romney and Paul are the only ones on the Virginia ballot, and he will no doubt romp in Massachusetts and Vermont.

* Plus, many, many more of this year's Super Tuesday delegates will be awarded proportionally as opposed to winner-take-all.

After Super Tuesday 64% of the total delegates will still be at stake, with 28 states not having yet voted.

April showers bring some Winner-Take-All showers that might allow Mitt Romney to build some delegate momentum. On April 24, northeast states such as New York, Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island will offer an estimated 231 delegates. (If Santorum has stayed in the race this long, his home state of Pennsylvania also holds its contest this day.)

But there are other states holding primaries in April where a conservative non-Romney could do well - take the Texas Primary on April 3. The governor has endorsed Gingrich, and the Texas State Republican Party may change its rules to award its 155 delegates winner take all, possibly offering Gingrich a counterbalance to the April 24th contests. Democrats hope the April 3 Texas Primary and the April 24 Northeast Primary essentially cancel each other out.

More than 25% of the delegates will still be un-awarded as the Republicans head into May. California and New Jersey don't vote until June 5.

And that's why Democrats think and wish this could be long and bloody for their rivals.

-Jake Tapper