Obviously, conservatives who don’t want to see Mitt Romney as the Republican nominee have good reasons to hope that South Carolina disrupts his coronation (or at least I think so). Even some Romney supporters believe a longer campaign will be good for both his candidacy and the party (Ramesh Ponnuru makes precisely that case here).
If you’ll pardon the Clinton-era pun, this partly depends on what the meaning of “longer” is. Newt Gingrich lags behind in organization, is having trouble getting on some primary ballots, and can be undisciplined. So it stands to reason that the well-funded, methodical Romney should like his odds in a protracted nomination fight. But such a battle would also have its downsides for the former Massachusetts governor.
An early-state sweep would have contained, and maybe eliminated outright, Romney’s Southern problem. Romney trailed Herman Cain and then Gingrich in many Southern states. If he wins South Carolina, Gingrich could go on to beat Romney in many of those primaries. To win the nomination, Romney will then have to amass many delegates in states that aren’t as red. That’s doable, but suboptimal in terms of pleasing the base ahead of a closely contested general election.
An even worse scenario for Romney: his numbers have just risen in part because Republicans have been acclimating — resigning? — themselves to him nomination. But what if the shattering of his inevitability makes those numbers fall again? Then Romney could have a much bigger problem than pleasing disaffected Southern Republicans in the fall.
Of course, much will depend on how the South Carolina results influence Florida. Romney is already favored in Nevada and Michigan, so if Gingrich can’t beat him in Florida the whole conversation becomes moot.