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Mitt Romney vs. Newt Gingrich: Why delegate count will be close through April

If Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney are still leading in January, expect a close, three-lap primary race. Gingrich will likely win the first lap. But Romney will likely rebound in the second.

By DCDecoder / December 13, 2011

Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney, left, and Newt Gingrich during the Republican debate on Dec. 10, 2011, in Des Moines, Iowa.

(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

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Assume for a moment the GOP presidential primary comes down to a battle between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. Ron Paul is certainly going to make things interesting and maybe another candidate will catch lightning in a bottle in one state or another. But in a Gingrich-Romney heavyweight bout, the practical realities of the delegate-gathering process may play out like a three-act drama that goes something like this:

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  1. Newt jumps out in front in January with a clutch of early wins, including Florida’s winner-take-all primary. But this isn’t a lethal blow to Romney because of new GOP delegate rules this year (see below).
  2. Mitt Romney’s superior organization and funding brings him back to an even keel with Gingrich during massive Super Tuesday voting in early March.
  3. Both candidates, hoovering up support from former foes who have left the race, enter a final showdown for the nomination in the last weeks of March and early April, before the primaries turn to winner-take-all votes.

So what makes this year’s fight likely to be so protracted? In a nutshell: proportional representation of GOP delegates from early voting states. Before the whole nominating process began, Republicans decided that this year, instead of their typical winner-take-all formula, states holding their primaries before April will award delegates to candidates based on the amount of votes received (although the specifics of said apportionment are up to the states, according to the Republican National Committee’s memo on the subject.)

(Before you dismiss this as political mumbo jumbo, remember that Barack Obama managed to beat Hillary Clinton in 2008 at least in part because his campaign outplayed hers in the sometimes-obscure hunt for delegates.)

(And another parenthetical: The GOP’s decision to try proportional representation has Democratic strategists like Paul Begala licking their chops because they believe it allows the party’s more extreme candidates the opportunity to hang around longer.)

Let’s have this POLITICO op-ed from FairVote set the scene:

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