This Republican race for president is looking increasingly like a hybrid of the races of 1976 and 1980. This thing has a long way to go.
In 1976, it was a two-man race. Gerald Ford won eight of the first nine contests, but Ronald Reagan won six of the next ten. Ford then won seven of 12 -- but, as in Michigan this week, several of his wins were nail-biters, with mere four-point wins in Kentucky and Oregon and a one-point squeaker in Tennessee. After each Reagan defeat, the naysayers pronounced him finally vanquished for good, with the establishment Michigan native supposedly firmly in control. (Sound familiar?) Then Reagan would bounce back again, though -- often with the help of crossover votes from conservative Democrats, which he openly welcomed -- and when he won a huge, winner-take-all hoard of 166 delegates in California on June 8 of that year, he entered the summer with, if anything, a narrow delegate lead. Only the power of the White House, with pork and perks to offering wavering delegates, was able to secure President Ford a narrow nomination victory.
In 1980 -- more like this year at the start -- it began as a multi-candidate race, with seven major contestants, plus a never-ending drumbeat from some establishment types for yet another late entrant (in that case, Ford) to make up for the supposed deficiencies of the original filed. Again, this should sound familiar.
But again, just as is happening this year, the contest eventually settled down, for all intents and purposes, into a two-man race: Reagan versus George H.W. Bush, with Ford (like Chris Christie?) still standing in the wings. This has obvious parallels with what really is a two-man battle this year between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.
Granted, a third actual candidate, John Anderson, continued to compete quite hard in selected events through the first 13 states in 1980, but after a while he represented no real threat to win the nomination. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul together are playing that role this year.
Anyway, Bush kept fighting well into May of that year, earning his last primary victory in Michigan (there's that state again!) on May 20.
These historical parallels are appropriate because, for the first time in three decades, party rules (combined with campaign-finance restrictions and opportunities) now actually encourage a lengthy process rather than a quick knock-out. Every pundit this year who rushes to proclaim Romney (or, earlier, Gingrich) the inevitable victor misunderstands the very nature of this race. This is a race in which voters are very engaged, very concerned -- and very willing to change their minds about candidates as the process wears on. Party rules awarding fewer delegates to early-voting states (and thus a greater proportion of delegates awarded late) mean that these changes of mind can have relatively large effects on the ultimate outcome.
The punditry might want a nice, neat narrative, but the voters refuse to provide one. They will continue to refuse. This week we can expect yet another round of "Romney is in the clear" media analysis -- and, as was the case after New Hampshire and after Florida and Nevada, that analysis will be wrong. Romney emerges from Michigan far lower on cash resources than he has ever had, and enters elections in a series of states where he has little or no natural advantages -- and with the stigma not of a solid winner, but merely a hair's-breadth survivor in his own native state.
Here's what is likely to happen going forward. On Saturday, watch as Rick Santorum edges Romney and Paul to win the Washington caucuses and regain a bit of momentum. On Tuesday, Santorum will win Oklahoma easily, will edge Gingrich in Tennessee, will be competitive for the wins in North Dakota and Alaska, will finish second to Gingrich in Georgia, will do pretty well in Idaho, and will be trying to protect a lead in Ohio. Like Reagan did in Texas, Georgia, Indiana, and Nebraska (and later in Arkansas and Idaho) in 1976, Santorum will thus show, again, that he's in it for the long haul, even after suffering losses.
Gingrich, for his part, will indeed win his congressional home state of Georgia, but that will be his last hurrah. He has nowhere else to go. Ron Paul has even less of a path to the nomination.
Then there's Romney. He'll win Virginia, contested only by Paul. He'll win his adult home state of Massachusetts, plus Vermont. And he'll be competitive in Ohio, Idaho, North Dakota, and Alaska.
In short, after Super Tuesday, the two front runners each will have won a significant number of primaries. Romney will enjoy the edge in delegates won, but it will be less of an edge than Ford once owned over Reagan in 1976. Gingrich, if he will finally acknowledge he can't win, could well endorse Santorum and ask his pledged delegates to vote accordingly. If so, it will be this cycle's most significant endorsement yet. And it would mean that Santorum and Romney move forward on a relatively equal playing field -- especially if Santorum follows up with decent showings in following contests in Kansas, Wyoming, the Virgin Islands, or particularly Alabama or Mississippi, which would be ripe for the picking if Gingrich withdraws. Looming in the future will be other Santorum-friendly states such as Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Carolina, West Virginia, Nebraska and Kentucky.
Key battlegrounds, meanwhile, will be Illinois and Louisiana in late March, Wisconsin on April 3, and, tentatively, Texas on May 29. Somehow, Santorum will need to create enough momentum through this process that he makes California and New Jersey on June 5 into competitive events. Conventional wisdom says that both should lean towards Romney, but conventional wisdom is often wrong.
Clearly, Romney is the favorite. Nobody sensible would claim otherwise. But it would be crazy to start planning his coronation. Santorum is likely to dog him all the way into the summer; and the longer his challenge continues, the more Romney's air of inevitability will be fouled. The less he looks like a definite winner, the more he could look like, yes, a loser.
In short, anything could still happen. Because even though Rick Santorum is no Ronald Reagan, Mitt Romney has no power of the Oval Office behind him. The playing field is almost level.