If GOP front-runner Mitt Romney cannot quickly persuade his rivals and voters that he is the inevitable nominee and that further resistance is futile, he may be in for an expensive and time-consuming slog.
Unlike GOP presidential primary seasons of the past, the one that begins in Iowa Tuesday was actually designed to slow down the emergence of a winner by stretching out the calendar and altering the delegate allocation rules.
Central to the new scheme, adopted by the Republican National Committee in 2010, is the prohibition against winner-take-all contests by early-voting states. Many state parties prefer winner-take-all because the format increases their state's influence in choosing the nominee. What's more, if a state's delegates are given exclusively to the winner rather than distributed proportionally, the thinking goes, candidates are more likely to campaign longer and harder in that state.
With this in mind, RNC members voted to force states that wanted winner-take-all elections to wait until April 1. With two exceptions, states that scheduled their contests for before that date have honored that stricture, leading to a calendar and delegate allocation schedule dramatically different from four years ago.
In 2008, in a span of 33 days — from Iowa on Jan. 3 to Super Tuesday on Feb. 5 — 29 states held contests distributing more than 55 percent of all the delegates in play.
By Feb. 5 of 2012, only six states will have voted, accounting for but 7 percent of all the delegates to be awarded. And it will take from Iowa on Jan. 3 through Louisiana on March 24 before a bare majority of the delegates in play will have been allocated.
More important: Because of that pre-April 1 proportionality rule, it will be all the harder for a front-runner to rack up the kind of dominating delegate lead that Arizona Sen. John McCain held on Feb. 6, 2008.
(And even those two states that broke the early winner-take-all prohibition — Florida and Arizona — could be challenged in a formal contest at the Republican National Convention and forced to re-allocate their delegates proportionally. Party officials believe this possibility becomes more likely if the race is close and the delegate count takes on increased significance. Its effect could be enormous: Imagine if a 79-delegate differential suddenly becomes 10 ... or less.)
So what will the new rules mean for the coming primary season?
Possibly ... nothing. Most nominating contests in recent cycles have settled on a presumed winner relatively quickly. (Think John Kerry in 2004, or George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000.) Many voters don't like to "waste their vote" on someone not likely to win, and therefore take their cue from voters in the previous state. Perhaps even more significant, campaign donors don't like to waste their money on candidates not likely to win.
Yet this phenomenon can also work in reverse to give sudden traction to a candidate who exceeds expectations — meaning one of the non-Romney candidates who has struggled to be taken seriously (Texas Rep. Ron Paul? Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum?) could suddenly be seen as a viable alternative.
And if that happens, a delegate allocation formula designed to keep things close could do so all too well. Could Romney reasonably argue about "inevitability," for example, if he only has a 50- or 60-delegate lead after this year's Super Tuesday on March 6?
Small wonder, then, that the former Massachusetts governor has made a late play for Iowa, which treated him so shabbily four years ago. A win there followed by a win in New Hampshire would give Romney his best — and perhaps his only — opportunity to save his millions to battle President Obama in the autumn, rather than spend much of it against a GOP opponent or two through the spring.
S.V. Dáte is the NPR Washington Desk's congressional editor.