Back in September I provided my take on how the Democratic presidential candidates could snare their party's nomination. Much has changed since I wrote that original analysis, so an updated one is warranted. However, in this post I wish to address the Republicans.
The 7-10 is not a partisan blog. However, I've tended to focus a bit more on the Democratic race simply because it has been much easier to figure out. On the Republican side of the ledger, there is overwhelming evidence that the laws of political physics have been suspended or thrown out altogether. (I wrote more about that confusion over the summer.)
But after taking all the debate performances, polling, momentum, potential scandals, and gaffes into consideration, here is where I believe the Republican candidates stand in their quest for the GOP nomination with their chances of winning in parentheses:
Rudy Giuliani (30%)
Rudy Giuliani has had a particularly tough November. The Judith Nathan and Bernie Kerik scandals are not going away and other candidates are gathering so much momentum that it threatens to knock Giuliani out of the race before he even wins a state.
One of the biggest problems for Giuliani now is that Hillary Clinton has faltered. How are Clinton's political fortunes related to Giuliani's viability? Well, I speculated back in September that Giuliani was at risk because one of the main pillars of his campaign was his ability to defeat Clinton:
"Ironically, another major problem for Giuliani is one of the selling points of his candidacy--Hillary Clinton. Again, Giuliani has said repeatedly that he is the one Republican who can defeat her. But what happens if Clinton somehow stumbles and is no longer a shoo-in for the Democratic nomination? The Republicans won't need a Hillary-slayer if she doesn't even become the nominee! So then one of the pillars of his candidacy would be moot. Even though Republicans may look with glee at [Clinton's scandals and missteps], I can't help but wonder if bad news for Clinton is also bad news for Giuliani. Whether Giuliani likes it or not, Democratic voters get their crack at Clinton before he does. [And should Clinton falter,] this would open up the door for Romney, Thompson, McCain, or Huckabee--all of whom are more in tune with the party base than Giuliani is."In light of Obama's ascension and the negative, petty stories surrounding Clinton's campaign as of late, Clinton is looking less and less inevitable. Republicans are paying close attention to Clinton's trajectory and if they conclude that she won't be the nominee, then they will feel more comfortable nominating someone they actually agree with on the issues, rather than simply nominating someone they think can beat their nemesis.
Giuliani had been relying on skipping the early voting states for the sake of Florida, which would propel him into Super Tuesday. However, this strategy is looking increasingly perilous not just because of Clinton's problems, but also because of Huckabee's and Romney's strength. Romney in particular is a serious threat to Giuliani because he has deeper pockets and a more impressive resume. Romney could also plausibly win Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, and South Carolina. Should that happen, he would have incredible momentum that might be a bit too powerful for Giuliani to overcome. Basically, the national frontrunner risks being overtaken by the early state frontrunner. (Of course, Mike Huckabee has thrown a major wrench into this discussion of who the early state frontrunner is, but Romney is still the more viable candidate based on his campaign apparatus and appeal outside of the evangelical community.)
For Giuliani to win the nomination, he'll need Huckabee to block Romney in Iowa and McCain to block Romney in New Hampshire. Two losses by Romney in those two states should effectively end his campaign before he enters the friendlier confines of Michigan, where his father had served as governor. Also, should Romney lose both states, the media will focus more on Huckabee's and McCain's rise while ignoring Giuliani's possible third or fourth place showings in both states. If the race for the conservative alternative to Giuliani drags on, that will work to Giuliani's advantage. His name recognition should then be enough to carry him to victory in Florida and in the Super Tuesday states because there won't be a clear rival. The lack of a consensus conservative candidate would leave the nonconservative Giuliani as the beneficiary.
Mitt Romney (25%)
The Romney campaign is in a major state of panic right now. After investing so much time and money into Iowa and South Carolina, some second tier guy from Arkansas comes out of nowhere and overtakes him in the polls in just a few short weeks. Mike Huckabee's meteoric rise is not a good development for Romney because he significantly complicates his early state strategy, which is the opposite of Giuliani's megastate strategy.
Huckabee's rise illustrates the discomfort that evangelical Christians have with Romney. It's not fair, but it is real. Romney is saying all the right things that social conservatives want to hear, but it is obvious from the shifting polls that his support was soft. This soft support results from three factors, listed in no particular order: 1) evangelical Christians' reluctance to support a Mormon candidate, 2) a perceived lack of credibility resulting from Romney's flip-flopping on social conservative issues, and 3) his sterile demeanor and perceived lack of warmth which hinder his ability to connect with voters on the campaign trail. Mike Huckabee trumps Romney on all three of these issues, which explains why he is gaining ground at Romney's expense.
Romney does have one thing going for him, however: the perception of him as being more than just a social conservative candidate. With Huckabee, there's still a sense that he is just "the evangelicals' candidate." However, Romney is seen as a social conservative and a fiscal conservative. Romney should take advantage of Huckabee's perceived one-dimensionality and stress how he is more electable than Huckabee is. Even though Iowa has a large number of social conservatives, Romney should try and make a play for fiscal conservatives' and moderates' support. It is unlikely that Romney can win the majority of evangelicals' support in Iowa at this late stage, so he should just try to hold Huckabee's margins down on that front while he runs up the score among other types of Republican voters. Romney could stop Huckabee with a victory in Iowa because a victory there would lead to an easy victory in New Hampshire. Two consecutive victories would be hard for Huckabee to stop even in the Bible Belt state of South Carolina because of all the favorable press Romney would receive. South Carolina's evangelicals may prefer Huckabee to Romney, but the electability gap would send these voters to the somewhat acceptable Romney.
If Romney emerges as the alternative to Giuliani, he would have an advantage in that he is comparatively more scandal-free. Social conservatives and gun owners who have reservations about Giuliani would then likely gravitate to Romney, especially if it looks like the Democratic nominee will be someone other than Hillary Clinton. Romney's camp should find solace in the fact that he is more viable than Huckabee and only needs to stop him once.
Mike Huckabee (20%)
I predicted as early as May that Huckabee would be public enemy #1 for Romney. And in August I warned that Huckabee was an underrated candidate. It now looks like voters, the punditry, and the media have finally discovered the former Arkansas governor and he is peaking at just the right time.
A second tier candidate no more, Huckabee now has a realistic chance of winning the Iowa caucuses. Much to the chagrin of Romney, Huckabee has become the social conservative that evangelicals had been looking for. This candidate was supposed to be Fred Thompson, but he undewhelmed voters on the campaign trail and has not shaken the perception that he is not taking this campaign seriously. Huckabee has filled this void and has become the "none of the above" Republican who also appeals to evangelicals who felt their concerns were not being addressed by the other candidates.
Huckabee's immediate threat is Romney. While Romney can knock out Huckabee with an Iowa victory, Huckabee cannot do the same to Romney because Huckabee has no chance of winning New Hampshire, where social conservatism is far less prevalent. So here's the Huckabee calculus:
1. If Huckabee loses Iowa to Romney, he is finished.
2. If Huckabee wins Iowa and Romney wins New Hampshire, South Carolina will be the tiebreaker state that permanently eliminates one of these candidates.
3. If Huckabee wins Iowa and John McCain wins New Hampshire, Romney is finished. South Carolina will then eliminate the loser of the Huckabee vs. McCain battle. The winner will go on to become the alternative to Giuliani.
Huckabee would be particularly difficult for Giuliani to defeat because Huckabee could also credibly claim that he beat "the Clinton machine" in Arkansas. However, Huckabee would overwhelm Giuliani among social conservatives and voters who are turned off from Giuliani's scandalous past, marital history, and divisive rhetoric. Huckabee is also a better fit for Republicans on abortion and guns. Both have served as executives, but the edge would go to Huckabee because being a governor entails more responsibility than being a mayor. Giuliani would have to be careful talking up New York's size while diminishing Arkansas because rural and Southern voters may rebel against him. Both candidates also have legal controversies to deal with, such as Huckabee's pardons and Giuliani's police details for his mistress and Bernie Kerik. Thus, these weapons will be rendered useless because invoking them would create blowback. And talk about "strict constructionist" judges won't have much resonance when they are pitted against a candidate who is more credible on conservative issues.
Huckabee has been successful in getting the media to pay attention to him. Now it's time for his second act. Huckabee should now focus on inviting new voters into his camp. Evangelicals are already sold on his candidacy. But his appeal among other voters remains suspect. He now needs to demonstrate his competence on economic and foreign policy issues to prove that he is not just a one-dimensional candidate.
John McCain (15%)
Not much has been said about McCain as of late. However, he has silently been picking up important endorsements in New Hampshire. He also picked up an endorsement from Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman. McCain is benefiting from the dogfight between Giuliani, Romney, and Huckabee. As they tear each other down, McCain looks more and more presidential. And Huckabee's rise doesn't adversely impact McCain because both candidates draw from two different bases with minimal overlap.
McCain has written off Iowa, so his campaign all comes down to New Hampshire. But he needs a bit of help. Should Huckabee defeat Romney in Iowa, that would weaken Romney in New Hampshire. This would make it easier for McCain to emerge from New Hampshire victorious because Huckabee is not a threat to him there. Also, McCain will need someone other than Barack Obama to win Iowa because if Obama wins Iowa, New Hampshire independents be more inclined to vote in the Democratic primary than in the Republican one, thus sapping McCain of the independent votes he needs.
If Romney wins Iowa, it will be difficult for McCain to stop his momentum in New Hampshire, which neighbors Massachusetts where Romney served as governor. This is not to say that McCain can't beat Romney, but it would be far easier to do so if Huckabee takes care of Romney in Iowa first. So for now, McCain and Huckabee are allies. If Huckabee makes it to South Carolina, South Carolina will be the do or die state for both candidates. McCain could potentially do well in South Carolina, a state that has a large military population, and in Michigan, whose primary he won in 2000. Should the last two Republicans standing be McCain and Giuliani, Giuliani will be in serious trouble because McCain is much tougher and much more credible on national security than Giuliani is. And despite his warts, McCain is also closer to the Republican base on abortion, gun rights, and social issues in general.
For now, consider McCain a sleeper candidate.
Fred Thompson (8%)
The biggest problem for Fred Thompson is that the image no longer trumps the candidate. He has made several mistakes on the campaign trail and has generally been an unimpressive candidate since his much anticipated entry this fall. (You can read more here, here, and here.) Mike Huckabee has planted his flag on what was supposed to be Thompson's political territory. And because of Romney's organizational strength and deep pockets and McCain's silent ascension, Thompson is now seen as Plan C or D for anti-Giuliani Republicans. He needs these candidates to falter and/or cancel each other out, thus prompting Republicans to give Thompson a second look.
To win, Thompson needs Huckabee, Romney, and McCain to all enter South Carolina wounded. Here is the Thompson calculus:
1. Thompson's enemies are Romney, Huckabee, and McCain.
2. If Romney wins Iowa, Huckabee and McCain are finished. South Carolina will come down to Romney vs. Thompson, a battle Thompson could win because he has been a consistent conservative and has the right geography. Evangelical support will be interesting to watch because Bible Belt South Carolinians will have to choose between the Mormon Romney and the non-churchgoing Thompson.
3. If Huckabee wins Iowa and Romney wins New Hampshire, McCain is finished. South Carolina will become a three-way contest between Thompson, Huckabee, and Romney. Huckabee would likely have the edge in this contest because the Confederate flag flap may have fatally injured Romney and Thompson. While both candidates gave answers to this question that pleased most Americans, South Carolinians are none too pleased because of the significance of the Confederate flag in their lives.
4. If Huckabee wins Iowa and McCain wins New Hampshire, Romney is finished. McCain would take Romney's place in the three-way battle in South Carolina. This would be a difficult battle to handicap because the evangelical vote would go to Huckabee, the military vote would go to McCain, and anti-McCain and anti-tax voters would go to Thompson. South Carolinians punished McCain in 2000 and the anti-tax wing here is quite strong. These anti-tax voters may look at Huckabee's record with suspicion. Thompson may emerge as the hybrid candidate who embodies the best of his rivals.
5. If Thompson loses South Carolina, he is finished.
6. If Thompson wins South Carolina, he will be well positioned in Florida, another Southern state. However, Thompson's biggest problem is that he really doesn't have a political base anymore. McCain is the defense wing candidate. Romney is the business wing candidate. Giuliani is the moderate wing candidate. And Huckabee is the religious wing candidate. For Thompson to win, he will need the other candidates to cannibalize each other first and then for Giuliani to be seen as unacceptable to Republicans because of his "New York values."
Ron Paul (1.5%)
Ron Paul remains difficult to quantify. He is no longer the gadfly candidate in the field who was the target of much consternation and ridicule. His fundraising and creative politicking have caused his rivals to take notice and respect his candidacy.
But what will his fundraising and dedication among his supporters mean? And is his support really higher than what the polls suggest? The true gauge of his support will be ascertained from the New Hampshire primary results. New Hampshire, a state with strong independent and libertarian streaks, may provide Paul with a show of support that surprises everyone. But can this lead to an actual nomination?
My thinking is that there are a lot of voters who are committed to other candidates who like Ron Paul, but fear that he is not viable. This is the same type of thinking that likely typifies supporters of candidates like Duncan Hunter, Chris Dodd, and Joe Biden. If Paul beats Thompson, McCain, Romney, Huckabee, or Giuliani in any state, that will serve as enough validation for these voters to switch allegiances and support Paul.
I do not expect Paul to drop his candidacy even after another candidate appears to be the inevitable nominee. If the GOP race comes down to Paul vs. some other candidate, perhaps Paul's purity on taxes and the Constitution would put him over the top. But would the Republican Party really give Paul the nomination at their party convention?
None of the above (.5%)
The political schizophrenia among Republican voters this year has never been seen before. Normally Republicans rush to crown their party's heir apparent. This is the consensus candidate who has worked his way up the party ranks. It happened with Nixon, Reagan, the elder Bush, Dole, and the current Bush. Because Cheney is not running and the leading candidates all have a serious deficiency, Republicans have been particularly fickle with whom to support. That candidate was John McCain before it was Fred Thompson before it was Mitt Romney before it was Mike Huckabee, all while Rudy Giuliani has remained at or near the top of all national GOP polls.
What will happen if Huckabee wins Iowa, McCain wins New Hampshire, Thompson wins South Carolina, Romney wins Michigan, Giuliani wins Florida, the Super Tuesday states break evenly, and Ron Paul wins 10-15% of the vote everywhere? What will happen if no single candidate emerges with a majority of delegates? What will happen at the GOP national convention next summer? Will the party nominate someone who is not even a current candidate? Could that someone be Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour? Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue? Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice? Indiana Senator Richard Lugar? This scenario is not likely, but it would be a dream for political junkies everywhere if it were to materialize. And while this is unlikely, given how many other unlikely scenarios have actually come to fruition in the GOP race so far this year, maybe a brokered convention is a more realistic possibility than we may think.
Only 18 more days before Iowa...