Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Reading the Palmetto Leaves

Iowa and New Hampshire will be virtually meaningless in determining the Republican nominee for President in 2008.


Hopefully David Yepsen will be able to stop breathing into a paper bag long enough to join the Union Leader in kicking my ass. But its true.

Consider where we are right now. Huckabee has gone from also-ran to contender, but hasn't made the sale. McCain is moving to the left to grab New Hampshire independents. Fred has yet to catch fire, but the potential exists for him to do well if he would ever And Rudy still has a national lead and is praying for Feb. 5th to come around ASAP. Meanwhile, Romney is Romney, being the safe, cautious pick that everyone accepts, but no one loves. He is in danger of being the Steve Forbes (2000 edition) of this cycle: the candidate who has all of the right positions to unite the social and economic conservatives, but whose flip-flopping and slightly off-putting personality have hindered his progress.

Iowa looks to be two separate races. There is the race between Huckabee and Romney for the top spot, with Huck holding a consistent lead. And there is the race for third, which Fred will probably win. If the race generally holds to form, Huckabee will beat Romney by 3 to 7 points, with Fred at about 12-15% and everyone else in single digits. The post-race spin will revolve around whether Huck beat Mitt by enough. If the margin is more than 5, Huckabee probably gets the winners spin. Less than 5 and Romney will be hailed as the winner for getting it so close (cf. Bill Clinton in New Hampshire in 1992).

New Hampshire will be similar. McCain and Romney will battle it out for the top spot, with another race forming for third place. McCain needs to win it or come in a very close second or his campaign is toast. If he can't revive the 2000 Granite State magic, he has no chance of being the nominee. Meanwhile, it will be up to Huckabee to prove that he can win over more than just evangelicals while Fred needs to keep his momentum going. Rudy needs a third-place finish to give him any kind of momentum before Feb. 5th. His national lead is only good if his campaign gets some oxygen before then.

Lets assume that Huckabee beats Romney by 5 to 7 points in Iowa (with Fred at 15 and the rest in single digits) and McCain and Romney have a photo finish in New Hampshire, with Huckabee third and Rudy fourth, both well back of McCain and Mitt. What do we know? Huckabee isn't a flash in the pan, but he hasn't shown the ability to pivot and expand his reach. McCain can still win over the independents, but hasn't proven he can win over the rank-and-file. Romney is the only candidate to post top-two finishes in both states, but hasn't been able to close the deal. Fred is still searching for the lightning to get his campaign going and Rudy still hasn't shown an ability to actually be competitive in an actual primary.

How is that any different from what we know right now?

South Carolina is where any of them can win the nomination. That is its history -- South Carolina selects the Republican nominee. It was Bush's firewall against McCain in 2000. It is where Bob Dole recovered from losing the NH primary to Pitchfork Pat Buchanan. It is where George Bush the Elder showed that Buchanan would not be a threat after his performance in NH in 1992. And the Elder took over the 50% of the vote there in 1988, using his comeback win in NH and the SC blowout to ensure the nomination. He knocked Bob Dole off balance with the NH and drove a stake through his chances in SC. Reagan beat back the Thurmond-endorsed front-runner John Connally in 1980 in SC. There is a reason that the Palmetto State is so early in the process -- Lee Atwater put it there to serve as a market correction. SC takes in the results of IA and NH and sorts them out.

If Romney wins South Carolina, it's over. He will have shown the ability to win over Christian conservatives and with his strong showings in IA and NH, combined with his money, he will cruise. If McCain wins, it shows that 2000 was ancient history and he can win over the base. Without a follow-up victory, New Hampshire success won't mean a thing for McCain. If Huckabee wins there, he will have shown that his persona works in places other than Iowa, where they like their politics nice. South Carolina is not for the faint of heart. If Fred does well, it shows that his campaign has staying power. And if Rudy can get a top-3 finish here, not only does it show that he might be acceptable to the base, but it gives him some much needed momentum for Feb. 5.

With the notable exception of Romney, most candidates are either very strong in Iowa (Huck, Fred) or New Hampshire (McCain). They might be well served by taking resources out of the other state and pouring them into South Carolina -- they need to show that they can win elsewhere. There are only five days between Iowa and New Hampshire, which might not be enough time for Iowa momentum to really translate into votes. But there are 11 days between New Hampshire and South Carolina, which is more than enough time for the Palmetto State GOP to take everything in.

In the end, I think Romney is the nominee. He seems to be everyone's second choice, which isn't a bad place to be. He is almost always in the top 2 of any early primary state and South Carolina might be where the GOP base looks at the rest of its choices and decides to firewall for Romney.

The one way that Romney could get knocked off is in a Gephardt-Dean mudsling. South Carolina will be desperation time for every candidate, with the possible exception of National Strategy Man. With Romney as the putative front-runner, Fred or McCain or even Rudy might direct all of their fire on Romney, figuring that if they can knock him off, the path to the nomination is much clearer. In that environment, I don't see Romney just taking it. His campaign strikes me as one that would not only return fire, but would completely ignore proportional response.

Lets also not forget that Romney might be the least-liked candidate in the race, among the other candidates. McCain has said nice things about all of the candidates except Mitt. And I don't think he is alone in this. Could McCain or Fred or Rudy -- who seem to have a bit of a mutual admiration society and non-aggression pact amongst themselves -- decide that, with their campaign flailing, they will go kamikaze and take down Romney in the process? It might be the only way to keep Romney from getting the nomination.

Could this all change? Definitely. There are rumblings out of Iowa that Fred might be poised for a surge circa John Edwards in 2004. A week in politics IS an eternity. But with the notable exception of Huckabee, this race has been playing out to form. Absent someone catching the political lightning or an unexpected event turning the race upside down, I don't see that changing.