Before South Carolina turned the world upside down, it was assumed by everyone that Mitt Romney would be the Republican nominee in 2012. It seems shocking now, but just six days ago, “Mitt Romney to be Republican Presidential Nominee in 2012” was trading at $9.20 on Intrade. For the 0.01% of you who haven’t heard of Intrade before, this means that prediction-market investors thought there was a 92% chance Mitt Romney would become President Obama’s challenger. Then, of course, Gingrich went full-bore on the offensive and scored one of the most shocking turnarounds in recent memory, winning a true landslide in South Carolina and racing to a large lead in Florida, the next contest to be decided.
So, what can we expect in this post-South Carolina world? What does the path to victory look like for each of the remaining candidates?
First, let’s establish what the calendar looks like for the upcoming segment of the campaign:
January 26 – CNN Debate at University of North Florida
January 31 – Florida Primary (50 delegates)
February 4 – Nevada Caucuses (34 delegates); Maine Caucuses (24 delegates)
February 7 – Colorado Caucuses (36 delegates); Minnesota Caucuses (40 delegates)
February 22 – CNN Debate at Mesa Arts Center, Mesa, Arizona
February 28 – Arizona Primary (29 delegates); Michigan Primary (30 delegates).
March 1 – CNN Debate at Location TBD, Georgia
March 3 – Washington Caucuses (43 delegates)
March 5 – NBC Debate at Reagan Library, Simi, California
March 6 – Super Tuesday (466 delegates)
The first thing to note is that there are only 752 delegates at stake from now through Super Tuesday, with Super Tuesday itself claiming only 466. While this is a significant chunk to be sure these represent only 32.9% of the total delegates in play, a far cry from the 52% of delegates Super Tuesday alone decided for Democrats in 2008. Given this reality and the proportional delegate allotment system the Republicans have instituted this cycle, it is nearly certain that no candidate will come out of Super Tuesday with an insurmountable delegate advantage.
However, party nominating elections are not won by delegate counts alone; they are decided by media narratives and their spawn, contribution dollars. If a candidate runs out of money with no prospect of raising more their candidacy is over, no matter their delegate count. Of course this is different in the post-Citizens-United world, in which a down-and-out candidate can just find one wealthy backer to keep himself afloat. But the basic rules still apply: donors are looking to back winning horses and if it appears you can’t win, you’re finished. That race – the perceptions game, the contributions game – could very well be decided on or even before Super Tuesday. So with that in mind, let’s analyze what the candidates need to do to set themselves up for Super Tuesday and beyond.
First, there is the still-frontrunner Mitt Romney. Despite the stunning reversal of fortune he experienced in South Carolina and is experiencing in Florida, Mitt still has the money, still has the institutional support (although this may be starting to waver), still has the best electability, and still has the best hair. All the reasons that political analysts thought a South Carolina victory would mean sure victory for Romney are still there, and should Sheldon Adelson ever choose to jettison Gingrich, his main rival would be penniless. However, Romney should move to squash this Gingrich revival as quickly as possible: a prolonged nomination fight – particularly with a character as toxic as Newt Gingrich – might just destroy his general election viability. I was pleased to see Romney go after Gingrich the way he did in the debate last night; it was the first time I had seen anything resembling “life” out of Romney and it signals that his campaign realizes how important not allowing Gingrich to linger is.
The first time Gingrich rose up, Romney crushed him with a huge Super PAC buy in Iowa that successfully reminded everyone of just why they disliked Newt so much in the first place. Romney should attempt a similar assault in Florida to try and take back the state and prevent Gingrich from building any lasting momentum off the South Carolina win. If Romney can successfully cast that as a bachelor party before the wedding, (credit to Nate Silver) in line with previous spasms in Republican mood, he might wrap up the nomination in January after all.
Newt Gingrich, of course, must devote all of his attention to holding Florida. Though his “actual” campaign claims to have raised over $1 million since the victory in South Carolina, Gingrich’s had been absolutely starved for funds to that point and was persisting only on the strength of Gingrich’s media skills and Sheldon Adelson’s largesse. It stands to reason that Adelson will not fund the national campaign that the run-up to Super Tuesday demands by himself. It must also be noted that the pace of debates slows down considerably very soon – there are none between January 26 and February 22. That means for that period, Gingrich will not have the weekly two hours of free media nor the news hooks provided by the debates. Thus Gingrich desperately needs to sustain his fundraising and build a broad base of donors and to get them, he needs to build on his South Carolina success and prove he has real staying power. This means a decently-sized win in Florida. If he can do that and keep things going by battling Romney in the pre-Super Tuesday contests (the Colorado and Missouri caucuses on February 7th and Arizona primary on February 28th look like his best shots for wins), he will be in good shape to wage, and perhaps win, a protracted nomination fight.
If Romney stages a comeback in Florida, though, I fear it may be over for Gingrich. That Adelson is doling out his money in what seems to be a $5 million per state allowance (rather than just giving Gingrich a big lump sum) suggests that he’s not sold on Gingrich’s viability and that future gifts are dependent on performance. The same must be said for the Gingrich’s newfound fundraising spurt. If Gingrich fails to perform in Florida, those sources of money will dry up and he’ll likely be done. Given the attitude of the GOP establishment toward him, there is next to no possibility of someone giving him a third shot.
As I noted in my last post, Rick Santorum‘s new strategy appears to be to wait for Gingrich to fall and then stand as the True Conservative, a.k.a. “Not Romney.” I find this strategy flawed in part because it relies on the probably-debunked “Anybody But Romney” theory, but mostly because Santorum doesn’t appear to have the time or money to play a waiting game like that. As much as the Santorum campaign would like us to believe that their candidate has staying power, $170,000 is just not enough to compete with the big boys moving forward. And looking ahead at the calendar, where do we see opportunity for Santorum? His polling is very weak in Florida and his extreme social conservatism doesn’t figure to play well in Nevada or Maine. If a Gingrich collapse is to occur in time to benefit Santorum, it must happen in time for Santorum to capitalize in Colorado and Minnesota, both of which Santorum must win. There does seem to be fertile ground in those states for Santorum: both states are known to have strong social conservative streaks and both states have better-than-average unemployment numbers, which may give social issues a chance to shine. If it doesn’t happen for Santorum in those caucuses, however, I seriously doubt his campaign will make it to the February 28th states.
Lastly, we have the enigmatic Ron Paul. The good news is that Jesse Benton, Paul’s campaign manager, claims the Texas representative has $2 million on hand and an additional $100,000 coming in every day, thanks to the unusual enthusiasm (some say “cult-ish devotion”) of Paul’s supporters. News also came in yesterday that a pro-Ron Paul Super PAC is making a $1.4 million ad buy in Florida. I have to question the prudence of such an ad buy, given that Paul has consistently polled in the single digits in that state and has repeatedly said he’s abandoning the state to focus resources on caucus states where he has a better chance at accumulating delegates. That said, the buy proves that there is real money willing to back Paul, suggesting that he will be able to continue his campaign into Super Tuesday and beyond.
Unfortunately, I’m afraid financing is about the only thing the Paul campaign has going for it. Much unlike the rest of the Republican field, which has zigged and zagged in every conceivable direction, Paul’s national polling numbers have been remarkably stable, showing a remarkably smooth progression from 6% at the beginning of the contest to about 14% today, good for a consistent 4th place. In my estimation, there are too many variables working against Paul for him to have a legitimate shot of capturing the nomination: he is too old; his foreign policy is at odds with a half-century or more of Republican dogma; his positions on social issues like drug legalization and economic issues like Social Security or the Federal Reserve are too radical for either political party; he has virtually no institutional Republican support; and he has a wide variety of atmospheric problems, most of which stem from his age.
All of these factors play into the nearly universally-held idea among the mainstream media that he is unelectable, which in turn limits the quantity and quality of the coverage he receives, which further damages his actual, already slim, chances at election. Paul missed his best opportunity to change this narrative when he failed to hold his brief lead in Iowa and missed his next best opportunity when he failed to make a race of it in New Hampshire’s open primary. Paul’s articulated strategy is to play delegate accumulation in caucus and open-primary states with proportional allocation, but if he wants any chance at actually becoming the Republican nominee, he needs wins. In my view, if Paul does not win in Nevada – an open caucus state that should be better ideologically disposed to Paul than average – whatever very slim chance he now has of winning will be extinguished.