After winning Nevada on Saturday, Mitt Romney is now the clear front-runner in the Republican presidential nomination. With 101 delegates secured, all he needs is 1,043 more.
There's still a long way to go.
Primary contests are notoriously complicated; different states have different rules that change in different election years. Even though winning individual states is important, particularly early on in primary season, the ultimate goal for presidential candidates is to win delegates. Since 1968, a candidate cannot win the nomination of the party without a majority of delegates by the party's nomination convention.
This is why, as Reid Wilson from the National Journal says, "knowledge of the rules of the game makes a big difference."
This year, states that have broken the rules have made headlines.
So far, two states in particular have shown they are either ignorant of intended procedures, or they don't care about the rules enough to follow them. Or they have other purposes.
The Republican National Committee may never look at
Is there a connection between Iowa's decision to 'change' who won their caucus at the last minute and Romney's drubbing in South Carolina? Perception is everything in politics, and context is the first thing to be forgotten during a political campaign. Iowa's actions certainly did not help Romney. However, Iowa's Republican establishment may have lost a great deal of credibility in the process. Appropriately, the head of Iowa's GOP Matt Strawn stepped down shortly after the state's caucus crisis.
The actions taken by state Republicans after Iowa's particularly unusual vote (primary votes this year were counted at a secret location to 'thwart' 'Occupy' protesters), the number of delegates at stake in the nation's first primary are few and far between.
Florida, however, is a different story.
This year, Florida chose to push their primary date up, and lost half of their delegates as their punishment in the process. More importantly however - particularly in a race that still has four nominees after five state contests - is the fact that Florida chose to award the winner of its primary all of its delegates. The party's decision was made more than four months ago in response to the state's punishment at the hands of the RNC. And Lenny Curry, the chairman of the Florida Republican party, made no apologies for the move.
This was also in defiance of the wishes of the Republican National Committee - and a shining example of pure state stubbornness. Political elites wielding excessive influence over electoral procedures -- a glaring problem within American electoral politics -- is nothing new and fairly unremarkable.
Interestingly, the Gingrich campaign asked the Florida Republican party to change their decision to award all of the state's delegates to the winner. Gingrich's request fell on deaf ears however, as many (including Lenny Curry) wondered why he didn't ask for the change before he lost the primary so badly.
Romney's win in the Sunshine state decisively shifted the balance of the nomination race, perhaps dooming the Gingrich campaign in the process. As the Washington Post reported, "if, for some reason, Florida scrapped winner-take-all, we would basically have a neck-and-neck race again." Gingrich knows this, and isn't happy about it.
But even if Florida had an interest in awarding Gingrich a third of its delegates, the change couldn't legally happen until the August Republican convention.
By that time, primary season will be long over. Unless Gingrich wins big on Super Tuesday in March, it won't matter whether or not Florida gives the former speaker the delegates he feels he deserves, as Romney will presumably have locked up the nomination by then.
One candidate stands out in his plan to use the quirks of the system to his advantage. Even though he isn't likely to win the nomination, Ron Paul is very likely to win a sizable number of delegates along the way. His campaign is structured around maximizing his chances to pick up delegates, and this is why he avoided campaigning in Florida completely.
In terms of delegates, Paul came in second in New Hampshire, third in Nevada (with only one delegate less than Gingrich), and would have come in third in Florida had the state not decided to violate another rule designed to at least try and uphold a standard of fairness in the primary process.
With three caucuses occurring tonight, Paul hopes to capitalize on his strong ground support in Minnesota, the state where he stands the best chance for an outright win. He has also raised the most money there. Although the Missouri caucus tonight is considered a "beauty-contest," as it is ultimately up to state Republicans to allot delegates a month from today (another example of America's strange primary system), a win for Paul would change the course of the Republican nomination process.
The race to the convention is always an exciting affair. Usually, there is a clear winner well before the convention occurs. The Democrats cut it close in 2008, but Barack Obama persevered over Hillary Clinton at the last moment and barely eclipsed her delegate count. He of course went on to win the presidency over John McCain, who was the nominee well before the Republican convention.
This year, it's looking like Romney has the win within his reach, but his three remaining opponents have yet to show any signs of backing down. This will likely change after February's primaries and caucuses are over. The Republican national convention will take place in Tampa in August, leaving the nominee with just over two months to campaign against President Obama.
One thing is clear: winning state primaries and winning state delegates are two very different things. You don't need to win the vote outright to gain significant numbers of delegates. And in presidential politics, it's all about the delegates.
Mike Lapointe is a political writer currently based in Orlando, Florida. If you would like to contribute as a citizen journalist to The Huffington Post's coverage of the 2012 elections from where you live, please contact us at www.offthebus.org.
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