Guy Benson

It's crunch time in Michigan and Arizona, as voters in those two critical states head to the polls tomorrow.  This year's Republican primary race has felt unusually volatile, a sense that National Journal says is rooted in empirical fact:
 

Since the start 2011, seven different candidates or potential contenders could claim to be the Republican race's front-runner, according to polling from Gallup. The list includes Mike Huckabee, Donald Trump, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum. In at least one Gallup poll, each claimed at least a share of the lead in the GOP race. (Huckabee and Trump are the only two who never officially declared themselves a candidate.)
 
I wrote in October, when Cain's campaign was at its peak and before Gingrich's and Santorum's rise, how the contest had already seen the most upheaval since 1964. That year, four different people - Nelson Rockefeller, Richard Nixon, Henry Cabot Lodge and Barry Goldwater -- were leading the race in at least one poll. A fifth man, William Scranton, surged to within a point of the lead two weeks before the party's convention.  But now, after the volatility of the last four months, even the '64 race seems tame in comparison. The fact of seven front-runners doesn't quite capture all of the movement in the polls: It doesn't include Michele Bachmann's temporary status as the Iowa front-runner or that Gingrich and Santorum both fluctuated between contender and also-ran twice. Or that Romney has oscillated between front-runner and underdog nearly every month for the last six months.
 
Is Romney 'oscillating' back into front-runner mode?  We won't really know until tomorrow's returns are tabulated, but polling trends indicate that may be the case.  For the first time in weeks, Gallup's national tracker puts Romney back in front of Santorum nationally, albeit by a paltry two points.  AP has Santorum up by one, also pointing to Romney momentum.  Then again, all of these numbers are transient in the extreme; we've seen that actual electoral results have fueled many of the massive swings in the nationwide numbers, so the outcomes in Michigan and Arizona will uproot the temporary status quo all over again.  Romney, who over the weekend garnered the endorsement of Arizona Gov. Jan "Pointy" Brewer, appears to be pulling away in the Grand Canyon State.  The two most recent polls in Arizona peg the former governor's lead in the mid-teens.  But even a commanding Romney victory out west would be overshadowed by a loss in Michigan, the candidate's home turf.  Polling out of that state is more complex.  Romney has pushed slightly back ahead in several recent surveys, although some still show Santorum leading.   I spoke to a source close to the Romney campaign over the weekend and was told RomneyWorld is feeling very upbeat about Arizona, and have tempered confidence about Michigan.  Grain of salt: I heard similar things just ahead of the Colorado, and we recall how that turned out, didn't we?  Also, if Team Romney is feeling so secure, why are they privately telling donors to brace for a lengthy campaign?
 
Whether Mitt Romney wins or loses the Michigan and Arizona primaries on Tuesday, his advisers are warning donors and other supporters to prepare for a longer, more bruising and more expensive fight for the Republican presidential nomination that may not be settled until at least May. That is prompting a new round of intensified fund-raising by his financial team, which had hoped by this point to be collecting money for a general election match with President Obama. The campaign is increasingly trying to quell anxiety among Republican leaders, while intently focusing on the mechanics of accumulating delegates needed to secure the nomination.
 
It's simple math, really.  With the party's new proportional delegates nominating system, it's much harder for a frontrunner (especially one as weak as Romney) to sew things up quickly.  Losing rivals can still collect handfuls of delegates here and there, making it easier to justify staying in the race.  Whether that reality is a feature or a bug of the revamped process is a major topic of conversation in Republican circles, and will likely be addressed at an upcoming RNC conference. Parting thoughts: (1) Will last week's shaky debate kill Santorum's chances for an upset?  (2) If Romney manages to lose one or both of these states -- Michigan especially -- does "all hell break loose," and if so, is Santorum in the driver's seat heading into Super Tuesday next week? (3) "No more debates."
 

UPDATE - The latest stats from PPP show a dominant Romney lead in Arizona, and a small edge in Michigan.  Romney stands to benefit from strong early voting advantages in both states --  a product of his superior organization.

Guy Benson

Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Senior Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson.

Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography