Newt Gingrich will be the Republican nominee for president. Why? Because Mitt Romney is a Mormon, and the GOP primary/caucus schedule favors a non-Mormon candidate.
White Evangelical Christians are perhaps the strongest, most loyal constituency of the Republican Party. That is Romney’s greatest obstacle to the nomination. In a Pew poll conducted just before Thanksgiving, two-thirds of Evangelical Christians expressed the belief that Mormonism is not a Christian religion. In other polls, a significant majority of Evangelicals consistently express doubts that they would vote for a non-Christian for president.
Romney = Mormon = non-Christian
That same Pew poll, conducted shortly before Herman Cain’s implosion, showed the pizza godfather leading nationally among Evangelical Republicans at 26%. Newt Gingrich came next at 19%, followed by Romney with just 17%. Now that Cain is out of the race, his supporters must choose a new candidate. Many will move to second tier candidates like Michele Bachmann or Ron Paul. One can surmise, however, that a large percentage will select one of the two current front-runners. The Pew poll strongly suggests Gingrich will get far more former Cain supporters than Romney.
Now consider the primary/caucus schedule:
Jan. 3: Iowa
Jan. 10: New Hampshire
Jan. 21: South Carolina
Jan. 31: Florida
Feb. 4: Nevada
Feb. 7: Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri
Feb. 11: Maine
Feb. 28: Arizona, Michigan
Mar. 3: Washington
Mar. 6: Super Tuesday – Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia
If the race has not been decided by Super Tuesday, it will certainly be decided on that date. The primaries that follow Super Tuesday will play no role in the selection of a candidate.
I believe Gingrich will win Iowa rather convincingly. Evangelicals are an important part of the GOP base there. I also believe Romney will finish in 3rd or 4th place in Iowa. New Hampshire will go to Romney, but that race will probably be fairly close as Gingrich benefits from his Iowa win. Next comes South Carolina, another state where Gingrich will likely finish strong. As we come to Florida’s Jan. 31 primary, most of the second tier candidates will have left the race. Romney and Gingrich will be the two front runners, and there might be a few secondary candidates like Ron Paul who will hang on to the very end but will play no significant role in the outcome. Romney will be trailing Gingrich in pledged delegates, and also in national polls, as Gingrich benefits from the bandwagon effect of his delegate lead. It will be absolutely imperative that Romney win Florida. Florida has a huge delegate count, and a win there will show that Romney’s presidential bid is still serious. If he loses Florida, Romney’s candidacy is effectively over.
Florida will be a fascinating contest. The northern part of that state strongly resembles Gingrich’s home state of Georgia. It is very much a region of the Deep South, with a strong Evangelical presence. The southern part of the state is dominated by ethnic Cubans and retirees. If Romney can draw the support of those two groups, he can win Florida. That is a big “if”, however, since by then the Gingrich train might be moving with such momentum that it cannot be stopped.
If Romney does win Florida, the race is temporarily up for grabs. Romney would likely win Nevada, where Evangelicals are relatively few, and Mormons a strong presence among the religiously inclined. With two Romney wins in row, the race would be wide open until Super Tuesday. Romney and Gingrich would likely split the contests that occur between Nevada’s caucus and Super Tuesday. Unfortunately for Romney, Super Tuesday favors Gingrich. The Georgian would almost certainly take Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. Only a few of the other states are sure bets for Romney, such as Massachusetts and Vermont. These two states, however, cannot match the delegate total for the lock that Gingrich will have on the other states.
It really does come down to religion in the GOP race. As I have written previously, it is surprising to me that Gingrich would attract strong Evangelical support. Indeed, it appears Evangelicals have been wandering the wilderness trying to identify “their” candidate, and until recently Gingrich was not high on that list. That explains the rapid rise and fall of candidates such as Bachmann, Perry, and Cain. When the preferred candidate falters, Evangelicals move on to someone else. Fortunately for Gingrich, they have run out of other options, assuming someone like Rick Santorum does not rise like a phoenix to take attention away from Gingrich.
I really don’t see much hope for Romney at this stage. Having never risen above 30% in GOP support, the “anyone but Romney” candidate will likely win. At this point in the race, that candidate looks like Newt Gingrich.
Of course, I may be proven embarrassingly wrong by this time next month!