2012 GOP Primary, Caucus Timeline and Dates: the Road to the Nomination

The presidential primary voting process is long and complex. Starting in 1972, the Iowa caucuses have been the traditional kick-off to the primary season. Many candidates have seen their hopes crushed with a poor showing, while others shrugged off an Iowa loss without missing a beat.

Four years ago, John McCain placed fourth but stormed back to take the GOP nomination. On the other side of the aisle, Bill Clinton lost both Iowa and New Hampshire in 1992 en route to the presidency. Mitt Romney's narrow victory in Iowa may propel him to the nomination, but only if he can successfully navigate the rest of the contests. Rick Santorum hopes his impressive showing will translate to the financial support he needs to keep competing, while the remaining candidates have to hope the leaders falter.

The following timeline outlines the Republican field's next stops, through Super Tuesday in March:

January 10: New Hampshire Primary. This first in the nation primary is the bookend to Iowa. For 2012, Mitt Romney holds a commanding lead over the rest of the field.

January 21: South Carolina Primary. The first primary in the south, this contest is arguably the most important one on the Republican calendar. Since 1980, the GOP candidate that won in South Carolina eventually won the nomination.

January 31: Florida Primary. This election is being held in violation of Republican National Committee rules, a decision that will cost the state half of its delegates to the nominating convention. Both political parties try to maintain a tight hold on the primary process, and states that flaunt their rules risk penalties. That hasn't stopped some states from "jumping" the primary schedule in an attempt to have more influence on the process.

February 4: Nevada Caucus.

February 4: Maine Caucus. Maine allows local caucuses over a seven-day period.

February 7: Colorado Caucus. This contest, like Florida's, is also being held in violation of RNC rules. But because caucuses don't actually award delegates (that happens later, when the caucus delegates get together to vote again in April), the RNC is not expected to penalize the state.

February 7: Minnesota Caucus.

February 7: Missouri Primary. This contest is non-binding. Convention delegates aren't officially chosen until March 17, via caucus.

February 28: Michigan Primary.

February 28: Arizona Primary. This is the third contest being held in violation of RNC rules. Only four states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada) are allowed to hold contests before March 6. No consequences have been announced yet.

March 3: Washington Caucus.

March 6: Super Tuesday. Eleven states (Alaska, Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, Wyoming) hold contests on this day, making it the richest prize on the electoral primary calendar. In Wyoming, the Republican caucuses take place over four days beginning on this day. At this point in the process, the lower tier candidates are usually knocked out, and a clear front runner, if not presumptive nominee, emerges. This year may prove different, as there are fewer contests scheduled for Super Tuesday this election cycle than in years past. Almost twice as many went to the polls in 2008.

Note: For the Democrats, some of these contests are moot, as President Barack Obama is running unopposed in many states. One example is Virginia, where write-in candidates are not allowed, and Barack Obama is the only candidate on the ballot. The election has already been canceled, and all convention delegates awarded to the president.