Oh, well, I suppose I ought to say something about yesterday’s primaries and caucuses. What strikes me most about them is: this is just what the designers of a new, more drawn-out calendar wanted.

Remember 2008? There was a seemingly endless “invisible primary” in which a variety of candidates were suggested (most notably Fred Thompson and Rudolph Giuliani) as alternatives who could save the GOP from John McCain. When they failed to catch fire, the only candidates left standing were: John McCain, Mike Huckabee, and Mitt Romney.

By the time of the Florida primary, the first large-scale contest, McCain had already won New Hampshire and South Carolina. Huckabee had won Iowa, but was perceived (correctly) as a candidate with a relatively narrow appeal – mainly to southern evangelical Christians (the only states he won outside of the south were Iowa and Kansas). Romney had won the Nevada and Wyoming caucuses, on the strength of Mormon support and organizational prowess, and was running (in spite of his record) as the movement conservative alternative to McCain. Florida was his chance to prove that he could do more than win peripheral contests where organization mattered more than mass appeal. But he lost Florida. And only a week later came Super Tuesday, with a huge number of delegates in a huge number of states in play. In particular, New York, New Jersey, California and Illinois – all states that were relatively receptive to a candidate positioned as a moderate or “maverick” Republican – all held their contests on Super Tuesday. Romney managed to win a handful of caucuses, and Huckabee managed to win a handful of southern and border states, but none of that mattered. McCain had won the big-delegate contests in “blue” states, and it was game over.

The national GOP, deeply unhappy with this result, pushed hard to line the state parties up behind a more drawn-out calendar. And they got what they wanted. A handful of states broke the rules, and were penalized with a halving of their delegate slates, but mostly the calendar looks like what the national party wanted it to look like. In particular:

  • There are a handful of contests in February before Super Tuesday (the three caucuses – Nevada, Minnesota and Colorado – just completed; the Missouri “just for show” primary just completed; the Maine caucus; the Arizona and Michigan primaries; and the Washington caucus). A handful of contests spaced out over time and covering different parts of the country leave ample time for any number of surviving candidates to make a play for popular support, rather than ride momentum from contests just won.
  • Super Tuesday itself is substantially smaller than in 2008. Fewer than half the number of states are involved, and well fewer than half the delegates are at stake.
  • Moreover, Super Tuesday in 2008 was dominated by large, relatively moderate states. Nearly half the delegates at stake were from the four large moderate states mentioned above, plus Massachusetts, Connecticut and Delaware. (McCain won all these states except for Massachusetts, where Romney had been governor.) This time around, Super Tuesday is dominated by conservative states; the only states that fit the “blue state” profile are Massachuetts and Vermont, who between them have fewer than 15% of the delegates at stake. More than half of the delegates at stake are in Southern or border states: Georgia, Oklahoma, Virginia and Tennessee. Most of the remaining delegates are the spoils of caucuses in conservative Western states: Alaska, Idaho and North Dakota. And then there’s Ohio, a classic general-election “swing” state.

This is the kind of lineup the Democrats picked for the first Super Tuesday in 1988 in order to force their candidates to the right. It didn’t work for them – Jesse Jackson wound up winning the states with the largest African-American electorate, Al Gore wound up winning the border states, and Michael Dukakis wound up winning states like Texas where neither Jackson nor Gore had a clear edge. And it isn’t working exactly that way now – the front-runner is Mitt Romney, who may have run in 2008 as a down-the-line movement conservative, and who has been careful to stay on the “right” side of pretty much every line this time around as well, but who doesn’t seem to be fooling anybody. But it does look pretty much designed to force Romney – or any other candidate without solid backing from the conservative base – to run the gauntlet.

And run the gauntlet he can. The plausible worst-case scenario for Romney looks something like this. He wins Arizona, which is winner-take-all, while Michigan is a split decision, with Romney winning his natural demographic and Santorum winning his natural demographic (and the ultimate winner determined by the degree to which Gingrich proves a factor). Then Santorum wins the Washington caucuses. On Super Tuesday, Gingrich wins Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma. Romney wins Idaho (a strong Mormon state, similar to Nevada), Massachusetts, Vermont and Virginia. Ron Paul wins Alaska, where nobody else bothers to compete, and Rick Santorum wins the North Dakota caucus and, in a three-way squeaker, the Ohio primary.

That sounds pretty terrible for Romney, right? I mean, this is supposed to be a “realistic worst-case” scenario. But it’s a scenario in which both Santorum and Gingrich are well behind him in delegates, and both appear to be basically regional candidates (Gingrich having won only in the South and border states, Santorum having won only in the Midwest and in the Colorado caucus). Romney would still be the only one with a path to the nomination, a path that runs through the “blue” states.

Romney, in this scenario, would still be favored to win the contests in more moderate states. But they won’t come around for a good long time – Maryland on April 3rd, New York, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island on April 24th, California and New Jersey not until June 5th. As a consequence, Romney will owe his nomination even more clearly to these states than McCain did, and will have been badly weakened by the campaign.

There is logic to wanting a more drawn-out primary process, rather than rushing to anoint a front-runner (as, for example, the Democrats did in 2004). The primaries become a proving ground, testing the candidates to see whether they measure up to their own hyped virtues as vote-getters. But, as the Democrats learned in 1984 and 1988, when you have a weak front-runner or no obvious front-runner, all the long campaign does is reveal that weakness (in the first case), and reveal the divisions in the party coalition (in the second case). The GOP is getting some of both this time.

Bottom line: for a long primary process to reveal diamonds in the rough, the diamonds actually have to be there in the rough for the revealing.