The short answer: Mr. Gingrich.
Last week, Gingrich told a crowd of South Carolina supporters, “I believe if I win in South Carolina, that in fact I will be the nominee.” That primary (the third election, after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire's primary) is on Jan. 21. And the former House speaker is certainly favored: At this point, he beats Romney in the polls by 20 points in South Carolina.
Could it really be decided so quickly?
Going by the polls and conventional wisdom, Gingrich is likely to win Iowa, while Romney takes New Hampshire.
South Carolina and Florida are next, and Gingrich has a bit of a leg up as a Southerner. Florida, at least, would seem to offer Romney an opportunity – if only because it's an expensive state to advertise in, and Romney has a far deeper campaign war chest. But lately the polls are favoring Gingrich heavily there, too. Recent ones have Gingrich way ahead – by about 15 to 30 points, depending on the poll.
According to Talking Points Memo, "if a person had sat down to write a primary calendar, designed around the goal of making things hard for Romney, they could not do much better than the current one."
After that, Romney gets some breathing room: He has a big advantage in Nevada (which has a large Mormon population and also voted for him in 2008 by a wide margin), and is favored in Michigan, where he has a bit of a home-state advantage and also won in 2008. Colorado is iffier, but voted for him in 2008, and Maine is likely to give him the same sort of advantage New Hampshire does.
Super Tuesday – with 11 states voting – doesn't take place until March 6 this year. Romney is better positioned in terms of his ability to pay for broad advertising. The question is: Will it be too late?
So much of the nomination battle is about timing, and this year, it seems heavily skewed to Gingrich's strengths. Romney needs to survive January – winning big in New Hampshire to avoid charges that he underperformed and doing better in states like Iowa than the polls might indicate now – in order to have a good shot in those February states where he's better positioned.
What's more, Iowa could help winnow the field of his opponents, giving even more momentum to Gingrich as the "anti-Romney" candidate.
On the other hand, the Republican Party has changed its rules this year, and most of the primaries in the early-voting states are proportional, rather than winner-take-all. That means that even with losses, Romney could still be amassing enough delegates to stay a factor – and then move in for the kill on Super Tuesday, when his advantages in money and organization will be a much bigger factor.
A protracted battle is more likely to favor Romney. And if he can survive through Super Tuesday into the winner-take-all states that vote in April, the calendar – with states like New York, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut – is much friendlier to him.
Still, it would be a tough feat for a candidate to lose heavily in all the early states and still go on to win. There are a lot of unknowns going into the primary season – including how much credibility to give to poll numbers versus the campaign fundamentals like organization, leadership, and money – but Romney isn't getting much help from the calendar.