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Mitt Romney (left) is the clear frontrunner in the Republican race - but Newt Gingrich (right) has lead the polls in South Carolina. David Goldman/AP
US 2012

Explainer: What happens now in the US Republican primaries?

So we’ve been through Iowa and New Hampshire, with three dropouts. So what’s next on the road to the Road to the White House?

TODAY SEES THE third of the 56 primaries and caucuses which will should formally decide who will face Barack Obama in this November’s US presidential election.

It’s a long road, but already the field has whittled down considerably since the primary season began at the start of this month – with Tea Party favourite Michele Bachmann, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, and Texas governor Rick Perry all opting out in the last few weeks.

The four left in the game – former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Texas congressman Ron Paul, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and former House speaker Newt Gingrich – will have a long journey on their hands if they decide to stay the course.

Here’s our brief guide to who’s who, what’s what, and how someone is going to win this campaign.


Mitt Romney is the clear frontrunner in the campaign, who holds a clear commanding lead in the early stages of the race in terms of delegates secured. This is because of his easy win in New Hampshire, and also because of his win in the Iowa caucuses (to which we’ll return).

Crucially, too, Romney also has the biggest spending power of any candidate – the most recent public figures, from the third quarter of last year, showed Romney as having raised almost double the amount of his nearest challenger.

That challenger, Rick Perry, has since pulled out – meaning Romney is clearly the man with the momentum, and perhaps unfairly so.

That’s because Rick Santorum, it turns out, actually won the Iowa caucus – the margin of defeat announced on the night, of just 8 votes, appears to have been the result of a calculation error which gave Romney 20 more votes than he had actually secured.

In politics, as with most things, it’s easy to pose ‘what if’ questions – but the results show that Santorum failed to capture imaginations in New Hampshire, coming tied for third and failing to win any delegates.

This could have been a wildly different scenario if Santorum had emerged the winner on the night of the Iowan counts – a verdict which could have given him a much more solid platform running into the New Hampshire primary.

Ron Paul, meanwhile, is something of a political curiosity – he has polled well in both of the states so far, and is alongside Romney in having emerged from both states with the support of delegates (the people who will actually vote for the nominee).

Despite this, and having won a commanding 22.4 per cent share of the vote in the two states so far, he is considered a long shot to win the ultimate nomination overall – largely because of how his views are on the fringes of the Republican fold.

A staunch Libertarian, it is more likely that Paul will seek to run in November as a third party candidate – a move which will almost certainly hurt the Republican chances of victory given how it could split the Republican vote.

While opinion polls in South Carolina have given Paul somewhere between 12 and 20 per cent of the vote, he is likely to come third behind Romney and the man making all the progress this week, Newt Gingrich.

Having eliminated a major Romney lead in state-wide opinion polls, Gingrich’s campaign is set really to take off in South Carolina – the nextdoor neighbour to his home state of Georgia – and has been handed a boost by the backing of Rick Perry, who withdrew this week.

Gingrich is best known to many as having been the Speaker in the House of Representatives during the time of Bill Clinton’s potential impeachment – after which it became known that Gingrich himself had a history of infidelity.

In that light, his chances could have been dampened somewhat by an interview given this week by his ex-wife Marianne – who alleges that her marriage to Gingrich had fallen apart when he insisted on having an open marriage.

Those comments have been a curveball to Newt’s campaign, but appear not to have any huge impact on his standing – with the most recent polls putting him neck-and-neck with, and in some cases ahead of, Romney’s steady showing thanks to some masterful and commanding performances in TV debates.

Who gets what

South Carolina is, for the time being, assigning 25 delegates to the Republican national convention in Florida in August. Ordinarily the state gets 50, but it has been stripped of half of those delegates for bringing its ballot forward in a bid to gain more prominence. (A similar dispute occurred with Florida in the Democratic rate in 2008, which resulted in Florida being temporarily stripped of all of its delegates.)

Assuming that the tide does not turn against Gingrich by any great deal, it is almost certain that he will win the primary – and with it, a guaranteed 11 delegates. The remaining 14 will be split among the state’s seven congressional districts, with two delegates for the winner of each.

In the grand scheme of things, the South Carolina primary is not a make-or-break – the 50 delegates up for grabs in the Florida election later this month (which ought to be 99, but Florida has again moved its primary forward) will have a greater bearing in the overall course.

More notably, however, South Carolina is the first ‘open primary’ – where voting is open to all people, including those who are registered voters of other parties.

While New Hampshire was not a ‘closed primary’ – where only registered party voters can vote – it did not allow voters from other parties. That’s not the case in South Carolina – it’s the first primary where everyone can express their preference.

So while it lags behind the public prominence of Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina does have an impact – and the result will certainly cause a sway in the momentum.

A win for Romney will add to his air of invincibility, in spite of his actual loss in Iowa, because he will have claimed victory on the evening of all three ballots – overcoming Gingrich’s masterful response – and cement his lead in the opinion polls in Florida.

A win for Gingrich will give him a surge ahead of Florida, and give him a chance of closing the gap with Romney in the polls. Moreover, it will prove that no matter how big Romney’s lead in any state-wide opinion poll, no lead is unassailable.

A solid showing for either Paul or Santorum (both of whom are scoring in the low teens in the polls) will give each the commitment to stay in the hunt.

So when will it all be wrapped up?

Not for a while. There are 56 different primaries and caucuses (one for each of the 50 states, plus the Northern Mariana Islands, the US Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, Puerto Rico and Washington D.C.), and the last one isn’t until June.

Of course, if Romney happens to win in South Carolina, the whole thing could be much shorter. He’s in the lead in polls in Florida and Nevada – with 78 delegates between them – and a win today could give him such an immediate lead that he could be unassailable.

In total there are 2,285 delegates who will have a vote in the convention, meaning a candidate has to secure the support of 1,144 in order to have the nomination wrapped up.

Given that total – and the fact that there are likely to be four men in the running for a while yet – it’s possible that the process mightn’t be wrapped up until the beginning of June, when California assigns its 172 delegates.

More practically, however, the date of April 3 will loom large for many: six primaries on that date will include Texas, whose 155 delegates could make all the difference in putting someone out of reach.

The road is a long one, and the end is not yet in sight – but the events of today could dictate how long it might take before the finish line comes into view. And the longer the road, the greater the possibility of a puncture.

As polls narrow, Gingrich launches attack on media ahead of Carolina vote

Romney comes under attack at pre-South Carolina Republican debate

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