Political experts say that in all likelihood, the early contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina will still retain the same symbolic potency they have in years past, narrowing the field and knocking several candidates from the race.
However, new Republican rules may make the period following the traditional beginning gauntlet states more interesting than they have been previously. And, if the race remains close until the end, this could leave Iowa's 28 non-binded delegates up for grabs this summer.
Either way, the candidate you vote for on Jan. 3 probably will not be exactly where Iowa's delegates go. Want to know why? Read on.
First, some background.
According to numbers from the Republican National Committee, there will be 2,286 delegates up for grabs this election cycle, with a Republican candidate needing 1,144 delegate votes to secure the nomination at the Republican National Convention to be held in August in Tampa.
Here is a good breakdown of how many delegates each state is worth.
In previous years, Republican rules allowed for state winners to win all of the delegates from each state. John McCain, for example, was able to recover from a slow start in 2008 by winning several key states, including wrapping up big Super Tuesday victories on Feb. 5.
"He didn't have to win a majority, he just had to win the most votes," said David Redlawsk, a political science professor at Rutgers University.
This year, however, in an effort by the Republican party to extend the process, a new rule will force states with caucuses and primaries held before April 1 to award their delegates proportionally instead of winner take all. Also, the Super Tuesday that was so critical to McCain's success will be held on March 6, a month later than the last time around.
Timothy Hagle, an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Iowa, said this will mean that finishing in the top three might have a bigger value for Republican candidates than ever before.
"If it's proportional, coming in second, especially a close second, will give them a decent return," Hagle said.
But wait: It gets even more complicated. First, states are allowed discretion about how they interpret proportionality, meaning that, as this Associated Press article explains, proportional delegate shares may differ from state to state.
The rules give states a lot of leeway to define proportional, and some states have been pretty creative. For example, in Ohio, the candidate who gets the most votes in each congressional district wins three delegates. Ohio has 16 congressional districts based on the latest census, so 48 delegates will be awarded this way.
Hagle said another factor that makes the delegate count more interesting is that according to Republican National Committee rules, the states New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida should lose half of their delegates from moving their state after previously being warned not to do so by the party. If that happened, the delegate count from the early states would be even more diluted, which would allow losing candidates with money still in their coffers, i.e. Rick Perry, to hang around longer than usual.
Still, Hagle said he is unsure if these penalties will be enforced, especially since Florida is hosting the convention this year.
To sum it up, if no candidate wins dominantly early, this could open the door for a rival to gain steam or allow for another candidate like GOP heart throb Chris Christie to jump in late in time to get enough delegates to win. Other political writers are working out scenarios for how a brokered convention could occur this fall.
A brokered convention occurs when no candidate wins enough delegates on the first ballot at the national convention.
At this point, another ballot is held, and delegates can vote for whomever they want, including candidates who hadn't even been in the race before the convention. It is called a brokered convention, because different sides are then forced to broker deals to reach a majority.
All of this means that the race will likely not be decided as soon as it has before for Republican candidates. How long it lasts, though, remains to be seen.
What Does This Have to do With Iowa?
Remember when we said that New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida might be penalized for moving their contests up? Well, you may have asked yourself then why Iowa wouldn't Iowa get punished for moving their caucus date, too.
Well, our observant friends, that's because unlike most states, Iowa's delegates are not awarded on the date the state votes. They are actually selected at the state convention in June, completing a process of winnowing out delegates that begins on Jan. 3.
Redlawsk, who used to teach at the University of Iowa and co-authored a book about the state's lead off status, said the Jan. 3 vote for president is essentially a "beauty contest" that has little connection to who the final delegates will give their vote. Iowa's value as a state contest has not, and never really will be, about delegates, he said.
"What's important about Iowa and New Hampshire is not actually what happens, it's a matter of how media focuses based on the results," Redlawsk said. "Its symbolic value is huge."
Redlawsk said Iowa's delegates are nominated at the precinct level, then further sorted at each level at the county and district conventions. Then, at the state convention the delegates from this pool are chosen to represent the state at the National Convention.
Hagle said that delegates are selected for different reasons, some of which have to do with what candidates they profess to support. Still, there is no law or rule binding these delegates to vote for a particular candidate. But since the race is usually decided by June, all of the delegates usually end up voting for the last- standing candidate.
"Usually you already know who the candidate is going to be," Hagle said.
In 2008, for example, Gov. Mike Huckabee won Iowa, but his delegates ended up going to John McCain.
If this doesn't happen, and several candidates are still alive going into the National Convention, Iowa's delegates could be in play again.
Is this likely to happen? Probably not, said Redlawsk, who said a candidate like Mitt Romney is likely to have enough national support to get the nomination. Late entering candidates would have to catch up to the candidates who already have a lead before them.
Besides, he said, brokered conventions don't happen very often because parties don't like the unpredictability and infighting they bring. If it comes to this, this could play a part in the RNC deciding whether it should enforce its own rules on state parties who moved their contests forward.
"I truly do not think this brokered convention is likely," Redlawsk said. "There are lots of reasons the parties don't want a brokered convention."