Friday, December 30, 2011

Why Isn't Anyone Attacking Mitt Romney?

Voting in Iowa begins in less than 100 hours. In the latest Iowa polls, Mitt Romney has crept into the lead, albeit a slight one. As of this entry, Romney leads in six out of the last six Iowa polls. Although Romney has placed first in the occasional Iowa poll this year, the last time Romney consistently held the lead in Iowa was...never. Mike Huckabee held the lead until he declared he wasn't running, after which Michele Bachmann entered the race and took the lead, followed by a seemingly endless procession of Anti-Romneys.

Today, the polls in Iowa are close enough that it's possible for any number of candidates to pull out a win: Romney, Ron Paul, the fading Newt Gingrich, and the rising Rick Santorum. On Wednesday, Elephant Watcher wrote that Santorum was well-positioned to make his long-awaited surge, but that he was running out of time. A few more weeks and Santorum might skyrocket in the polls by gathering together the Evangelical voters like Huckabee did in 2008. New polls were released late Wednesday showing the movement occur: Santorum broke the 10% barrier for the first time and moved into third place with about 15%. This was what Santorum was waiting for all along, but it would have been much more helpful if it happened even a week ago. It's a race against the clock--but Santorum could squeak out a win with a percentage in the 20s, as opposed to Huckabee's 34% win in 2008.

Still, Romney is in the lead, and is the only candidate not being attacked at the moment. Paul is being attacked by Gingrich and others; Gingrich is still receiving some flak from leftover attack ads aimed against him; Bachmann is being called on to drop out early; even late-bloomer Santorum has already been hit by some new attack ads from Rick Perry's campaign. Why is Romney getting a pass?

The answer is that the Anti-Romney candidates are looking past Iowa toward South Carolina now. Even if Romney won Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney has been weak in South Carolina. That's the battleground to determine who gets to play the role of the chief Anti-Romney. While a Romney win in both Iowa and New Hampshire would be devastating to the rest of the candidates, they believe it's survivable--but only the top-ranking Anti-Romneys will survive it. There's still going to be room, because many voters don't want Romney, but those voters will coalesce around one or two Anti-Romneys at most.

By this point, Bachmann and Perry have written off a win in Iowa as impossible. Gingrich is probably getting that sense, too. If they can't win Iowa, their mission is to make sure they don't get beaten by other Anti-Romneys. Perry will be hurt more by losing to Santorum or Paul than by losing to Romney. Few of Perry's voters see Romney as an alternative, but if Santorum beats Perry, they might jump ship because they find Santorum acceptable.

Elephant Watcher believes that if multiple Anti-Romneys are close in Iowa's results, as opposed to one Anti-Romney getting a big win, we could see a similar situation develop in South Carolina. If that happens, the Anti-Romneys will still be fighting amongst themselves to determine who gets to be the alternative to Romney. This would infuriate many Tea Partiers, who will demand to know why Romney isn't being vetted. Meanwhile, Romney would keep his establishment/moderate constituency to himself, left in relative peace. After South Carolina, though, all the guns will be aimed in his direction.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Did Florida's Move Ruin Rick Santorum's Chances?

At the beginning of October, Florida's Republican Party made a decision that altered the timeline of the entire primary season. Originally, the voting was to begin in early February at the Iowa Caucus. But Florida moved its own date to January 31st. Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina responded by moving up to January so they could be first. As a result, the primary season was cut short by a full month. At the time, cutting the remaining calendar from four months to three months may not have seemed like a big deal. Today, with Iowa's social conservatives divided, we can see the effect it had.

When a candidate is considered a contender--when he's polling high enough and competitive enough to be taken seriously--it's relatively easy for voters to coalesce around him. This season, we witnessed candidates like Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich skyrocket in the polls once they reached that threshold.

The trouble is that it takes a long time to reach that threshold when you're starting from near-zero in the polls. As we discussed a few days ago, even as skilled a debater as Mike Huckabee took a couple months to cultivate his following enough to reach contender status in 2007. This is because going from 0% to 15% is a slow feedback loop: People watch the poll results and gradually become more likely to support a low-poller whom they like as he goes up in the polls. Given the fact that new polls are only released once every few days at best (at worst, once every few weeks), and the fact that it takes awhile for a candidate's rise to filter into the media, it can be an arduous process. The good news is that once it's done, the payoff is big.

This brings us to Rick Santorum. He is only just now approaching the threshold. He's not quite there yet, polling at about 10%. That's even worse than it looks, as Santorum tends to be fifth or sixth due to Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry polling at about 11 or 12%.

Unfortunately for Santorum, Iowa wasted nearly three months by flirting with the disastrous candidacy of Cain and the ill-fitting candidacy of Gingrich. Iowans have even paid attention to Ron Paul. Now, with the bottom of the barrel fully scraped, it's Santorum's turn. Given a few more weeks, he might be the next candidate to skyrocket. But voting takes place next Tuesday. Santorum would probably give anything for another month to be added to the pre-Iowa season. His only hope is to do better than expected. Even losing in Iowa, placing above Gingrich would give him some ammunition for a desperate attempt to become the Anti-Romney in South Carolina.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The 2012 Republican Primary: Phase Four

Back in May, Elephant Watcher broke down the long primary season into four phases. In Phase One, most of the potential candidates made the decision of whether to enter the race, and if so, they got their operations up and running. During the summer, Phase Two, the field took shape and the candidates plotted out their campaign strategies. Then, in Phase Three, the candidates participated in numerous debates, where they were put to the test for the first time. Some candidates, like Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, succeeded. Others, like Rick Perry, fell far short of expectations. And most, like Jon Huntsman and Michele Bachmann, couldn't gain any traction.

Now, as the Christmas season comes to a close, Phase Four has begun. Before, voters in Iowa and New Hampshire were the only ones watching. From this point forward, the rest of the country will start tuning in. Whatever the result of the Iowa Caucus, it will make headlines. Then it will be New Hampshire, then South Carolina, then Florida.

Phase Three narrowed the field to just a few candidates who have a decent chance of winning early states. The polls show Romney, Gingrich, and Ron Paul within striking distance in Iowa. In New Hampshire, Romney is alone at the top. South Carolina will be influenced by the results of the previous two states: If Gingrich wins Iowa, he probably wins in South Carolina; if Gingrich fails in Iowa, he may still win South Carolina but it will be closer. Florida will be decisive if Romney wins there, otherwise Romney will be preparing for a long campaign against Gingrich.

If the minor candidates fail to win any of the first three states, they will start dropping out. An Iowa-centric candidate like Rick Santorum may even drop out after failing to win the first contest. Huntsman may drop out after losing New Hampshire. Some, like Paul and perhaps Bachmann, are running to make a point, and will stay in until the bitter end.

The debates were critical in Phase Three, and they will still be important in Phase Four. There will be one or two debates held before each of the contests after Iowa. With candidates dropping out and debate sponsors setting stricter requirements for participation, the leading candidates will have many opportunities for one-on-one arguments. The two frontrunners today, Romney and Gingrich, are both skilled debaters. Now we'll find out how good they are at getting votes.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Iowa Remains Divided

The Iowa Caucus is imminent: Voting takes place in less than two weeks. Iowans have had plenty of time to rally around a single candidate. They could have united behind the overall Republican frontrunner, Mitt Romney. If they found Romney unacceptable, they could have united behind a single Anti-Romney, selecting the one they felt was the strongest of the remaining candidates. In 2008, Iowans did precisely that, and they gave Mike Huckabee a big win over Romney. This time, Iowa is divided.

A group of influential Evangelical leaders met in Iowa in an attempt to decide which candidate they would unite behind; they ultimately did not endorse a single candidate. The picture was different four years ago when Huckabee was the obvious choice. Back then, Romney had been leading the polls in Iowa for months--then Huckabee went from a low-polling candidate (like Rick Santorum has been this year) to a mid-level candidate in October. Once Huckabee was a realistic choice, his numbers exploded in the "Huckaboom," launching him past Romney by the end of November. It became a two-man race in Iowa, and Huckabee's lead expanded to double-digits in some polls by mid-December.

In mid-December 2007, Romney unleashed a torrent of attack ads against Huckabee--much as he did against Newt Gingrich in mid-December 2011. Huckabee's numbers dipped, and Romney retook a slight lead in some polls by the end of December. But unlike Gingrich, Huckabee never fell too far, staying around 30%. He recovered, the polls favored him again, and he won Iowa 34% to Romney's 25%.

This time around, Gingrich looked to become the Anti-Romney, but his poll numbers fell from an average of 30 to an average of 15, placing him behind both Romney and Ron Paul. Conservative, mostly Evangelical Anti-Romney forces in Iowa have gravitated to a number of other candidates: Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum are all polling around 10 points each. If the voters supporting those three plus Gingrich concentrated around one candidate, as they did with Huckabee in 2008, Romney would be finished in Iowa.

Why the disunity? As with the Republican field in general, each of the Anti-Romney candidates is flawed. And each one appeals to a different segment of the Evangelical Anti-Romney bloc. For those who care little about electability, Bachmann is a pure policy conservative. For those who demand an established, well-funded, experienced candidate, Perry is the obvious choice. For those spooked by electability concerns and bad debate performances from the previous two, Santorum makes sense. For those who think Santorum just can't win because he's a low-polling nobody, Gingrich is the one with the best chance of out-polling Romney. But Gingrich is ill-suited to play the role of an Evangelical conservative, aside from the fact that his name is not Mitt Romney.

What if Huckabee had run for president again this year? Probably all four of those groups would have lined up behind him, and winning Iowa would have been a breeze. But Huckabee didn't run, so Iowa is divided. Ordinarily, low-polling candidates will lose all support at the very end, as voters strategically coalesce. This year, however, the four Anti-Romneys are each polling just high enough to survive.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Newt Gingrich Falls in the Polls

About one month ago, Newt Gingrich started taking the lead in the national, Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida polls. He reached his peak around December 10-12th. At that time, Gingrich's opponents--particularly Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, and Rick Perry--poured millions of dollars into attack ads against him, mostly in Iowa. When Gingrich was at his height, he was averaging a lead of 10-15 points in the national polls, about 20 points in South Carolina, and most importantly, a lead of 10-15 points in Iowa.

The attacks against Gingrich were very effective, and it didn't take them very long to have an impact. Let's have a look at the most recent polls and see how Gingrich's lead today compares to what he had less than two weeks ago (with G +01 representing a one-point lead, etc.):

National Primary Polls
G +04 12/22 Gallup -- Gingrich 26, Romney 22, Paul 13, Perry 8
G +00 12/18 CNN -- Romney 28, Gingrich 28, Paul 14, Bachmann 8
G +13 12/18 PPP (D) -- Gingrich 35, Romney 22, Paul 11, Bachmann 7
G +00 12/18 ABC/WashPo -- Romney 30, Gingrich 30, Paul 15, Bachmann 7
G +00 12/18 CBS News -- Romney 20, Gingrich 20, Paul 10, Bachmann 6

Iowa Caucus
G -03 12/20 WeAskAmerica -- Paul 19, Romney 18, Gingrich 16, Bachmann 15
G -02 12/19 ARG -- Paul 21, Romney 20, Gingrich 19, Perry 9
G -08 12/19 Rasmussen -- Romney 25, Paul 20, Gingrich 17, Santorum 10
G -03 12/18 ISU/Gazette -- Paul 28, Gingrich 25, Romney 18, Perry 11
G -09 12/18 PPP (D) -- Paul 23, Romney 20, Gingrich 14, Perry 10
G -09 12/18 Insider Adv -- Paul 24, Romney 18, Perry 16, Gingrich 13

South Carolina
G +17 12/19 Clemson -- Gingrich 38, Romney 21, Paul 10, Bachmann 5
G +12 12/18 Insider Adv -- Gingrich 31, Romney 19, Bachmann 8, Paul 7

The polls reveal a dramatic shift. Even in the national polls, which shouldn't be moved too much by attack ads in Iowa, have Gingrich down. He isn't behind, but he only has a lead in 2 of 5 polls. Putting aside the PPP outlier, Gingrich has only the slightest edge, rather than a 10-15 point lead. There are only two South Carolina polls, and while Gingrich is strong there, he is down a bit from his 20-point lead.

The biggest difference, of course, is in Iowa. Gingrich had enjoyed a 10-15 point lead in Iowa. Now, in the six most recent polls, he is leading in none of them. He's in third place or worse in 5 of 6. In half of them, he's down by more than 5 points. Worst of all, Romney is beating him in 5 of 6.

It's not all due to attack ads. As Elephant Watcher correctly predicted back in October, Gingrich became the next flavor of the month after Herman Cain fell, but was doomed once the Tea Party discovered he wasn't as conservative as they assumed. In addition, Romney has enjoyed an avalanche of endorsements from Republican officeholders, while virtually everyone who ever worked for Gingrich has been against Gingrich.

Given the up-and-down pattern of the primary season, it would be tempting to write off Gingrich now that he's past his peak. But Gingrich, unlike previous flavors of the month, has intelligence and rhetorical skill. He remains strong in South Carolina. Even supposing Romney wins in both Iowa and New Hampshire, Gingrich could pull out a win in South Carolina and play the role of the Anti-Romney for awhile. The odds would be against his winning the nomination, however.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What If Ron Paul Wins the Iowa Caucus?

For nearly the entire primary season, Ron Paul has hovered around 10% in most national primary polls and early state polls. In the last few days, Paul has moved up to first place in some Iowa Caucus polls. The shift is sudden and dramatic, as Paul has not been a contender anywhere until now. From the beginning, Elephant Watcher has rated Paul to be the weakest of the Republican field. Ron Paul's odds of winning the nomination have never risen above 0%. Why are Paul's numbers rising in Iowa now, and what happens if Paul wins there?

Paul, like Mitt Romney, ran for president in 2008. Paul was largely ignored then, and he failed to win even a single state. Paul was considered a "kook" and was savagely attacked for blaming the 9/11 attacks on American foreign policy. However, Paul managed to raise a lot of money thanks to his enthusiastic libertarian base. Paul's views on American foreign policy also likely made him attractive to foreign contributors, though accepting such contributions would be illegal under U.S. law.

This time around, Paul's foreign policy views have not hurt him as much. Many Republican voters view the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as either concluded, irrelevant, or unwise. Not only do they consider the economy to be more important, they are more receptive to candidates who wish to avoid future wars. A sizable contingent would rather take a pass on the issue of Iranian nukes.

As for Paul's rise in Iowa, it follows a familiar pattern. Paul is another Anti-Romney, has not been vetted, and is one of only three candidates to be able to spend a lot of money in the state (Romney and Rick Perry being the other two). One might object to the characterization of Paul as an "unvetted" candidate given the fact that he already ran in 2008 and has been used as a punching bag in both primary seasons. However, Paul is unique in that he has only been attacked on his foreign policy views. Paul's long history of unconventional, racist, and bizarre statements and beliefs has been entirely unexplored by the media and the other candidates, because no one thought he could win anything.

If Paul were to win Iowa, the beneficiary would be Mitt Romney. The Republican primary voters would panic, fearing the strange and unelectable Paul would guarantee Barack Obama's reelection. They would rally behind Romney in New Hampshire. Newt Gingrich and the other Iowa candidates would be crushed by losing both Iowa and New Hampshire, but one of them might still win South Carolina, where Paul remains weak. The Anti-Romney would not be in nearly as strong a position as he would have been, had he won in both Iowa and South Carolina.

The biggest loser would the Iowa Caucus. The Republican establishment was already perturbed by Michele Bachmann's strong numbers in the state during the summer. The establishment has suggested that Iowa may lose its privileged status as the first voting state if Iowa allows a fringe candidate to win. In reality, the perception of Iowa as an unruly state is unfair: As we saw in our review of the past winners of the Iowa Caucus, fringe candidates have not won there. Since the modern primary system began in 1980, the winners of Iowa have been Bush 41, Bob Dole (twice), Bush 43, and Mike Huckabee.

Paul's inherent weaknesses make a Paul win in Iowa unlikely, regardless of the current poll numbers. Should Paul manage to win in Iowa, however, it would be a black mark from which the state's reputation would not easily recover.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Why Do Candidates Keep Crashing?

The 2012 Republican presidential primary season has been a rollercoaster, with seemingly each month bringing a new candidate to the top of the polls--only to crash a few weeks later. First, in April, it was Donald Trump. During the summer, Michele Bachmann experienced a brief moment in the sun (though only in Iowa). Rick Perry topped the polls in August and found his way back down by the end of September. Herman Cain rose in his place, but by the end of November he was a spent force. In the meantime, Newt Gingrich rose to heights not even reached by Perry, only to find his lead rapidly diminishing in mid-December.

Presidential primaries often feature ups and downs, and comeback stories are not infrequent. But the phenomenon is unusually pronounced this season. What's the reason? There are two basic factors at work: The field's lack of an "acceptable" nominee, and the way voters react to new candidates.

First we will consider the way Republican primary voters tend to greet candidates with whom they are not very familiar. Voters seem to make positive assumptions about their candidates. Simply by virtue of a candidate's presence on the stage, voters assume that the candidate--barring evidence to the contrary--is a "legitimate" one. A proper Republican candidate is both conservative and electable, and voters presume that anyone on the stage possesses both qualities.

In fact, it seems that voters are very optimistic in their assumptions. While virtually all Republican officeholders have taken a few positions that aren't conservative, voters have an "innocent until proven guilty" approach: The candidate has never strayed from conservatism. It's up to the media and the other candidates to prove otherwise. Similarly, a candidate is presumed electable.

The reality is far different. Trump was neither conservative nor electable, Bachmann was unelectable, Perry had holes in his conservatism and proved more incapable in debates than anyone could have imagined, Cain was so unelectable that he had to quit, and Gingrich is vulnerable on both attributes. Once each of these candidates got high enough in the polls, the media and other candidates illuminated the voters.

By contrast, Mitt Romney's numbers have been remarkably steady over the course of the primary. That's because voters already got to know him during the 2008 primary. If there's something you don't like about Romney, you probably knew about it before the 2012 primary began--you didn't hear about it for the first time this year in a negative ad.

The second factor has to do with the current crop of candidates. As Elephant Watcher observed at the beginning of the primary season, there is a void in the field: No single candidate is capable of both exciting the Tea Party wing and pleasing the establishment wing of the Republican Party. Chris Christie was capable of doing both, but he declined to run. Mitch Daniels and Tim Pawlenty were capable of at least being acceptable to both wings of the Party, but Daniels declined to run and Pawlenty quit prematurely.

The result is that there is no "acceptable" candidate in the field. This means each time a frontrunner came under attack, the voters could learn something that made the candidate unacceptable, and the candidate's poll numbers took a nosedive. If there was a broadly acceptable candidate, he would have survived the vetting process and remained in the lead. This season, that couldn't occur.

Once a candidate wins enough state contests and clinches the nomination, Republicans are likely to put aside their doubts and rally around the candidate. But that won't happen while it's still time for the voters to shop.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Newt Gingrich's Intrade Odds Crash

Only a few days ago, we are able to report that Newt Gingrich had nearly tied Mitt Romney on the Intrade market on the 2012 Republican nomination. At that time, Gingrich was less than eight points behind. Gingrich's Intrade odds have now crashed, and he is currently 50 points behind Romney, a staggering reversal. Romney leads Gingrich 62.7% to 12.6%. That's the biggest lead Romney has held over Gingrich since Gingrich's rise in mid-November.

Why such a huge shift, and why was it so sudden? It was not the result of Gingrich's performance at the December 15th primary debate; most reviews of Gingrich's performance were positive. The majority of the crash actually took place a day or two before the debate. Nor was it the result of a steep drop in the polls: Gingrich is still leading in every recent national poll, every South Carolina poll, every Florida poll, and virtually every Iowa poll.

However, the extent of Gingrich's average lead in the polls has declined. Intrade investors are skittish, having seen Rick Perry and Herman Cain rapidly rise and fall in the polls. Perhaps the investors understand that Gingrich's poll numbers are built on a flawed candidate, and they were looking for signs that the Gingrich bubble was past its peak.

Was there ample evidence that Gingrich is past his prime? Intrade investors apparently placed a lot of faith in just two Iowa polls. An Iowa poll from Public Policy Polling (D) this week had Gingrich only one point ahead of Ron Paul. The next day, a Rasmussen poll of Iowa had Romney in the lead over Gingrich, 23-20. Drudge Report prominently displayed the results of both polls, and the Intrade market had a big reaction. If subsequent polling doesn't reinforce those two (which are currently outliers; the rest of the recent Iowa polls have Gingrich ahead by 10-15 points), the market may shift back to a lesser degree.

Among the minor candidates, only Paul and Jon Huntsman post numbers above 5%: They are at 7.8% and 7.1%, respectively. It seems that Paul and Huntsman's numbers are unaffected by the sudden increase in Romney's chance to win; the markets apparently serve as places for fans of Paul and Huntsman to lose some money.

The Iowa intrade market shifted accordingly. Romney leads at 33%, with Paul at 31.2% and Gingrich at 20.1%. The near tie for Romney and Paul reflects investors' lack of certainty over whether the PPP or Rasmussen poll was more accurate. Either way, they clearly discount the rest of the Iowa polls.

In New Hampshire, Romney is still at 75%. In South Carolina, where Gingrich was a big favorite just days ago, Romney leads 38% to 30%. This is interesting because polling has Gingrich an average of twenty(!) points ahead of Romney, though the polls are not as recent. Presumably Intrade investors think Romney has a good chance of sewing up the nomination with wins in Iowa and New Hampshire.

In the Florida market, Romney leads Gingrich 50% to 30%. As with South Carolina, polls have Gingrich ahead an average of about 18 points, but the polls are about two weeks old. Overall, it's plain to see that the effect of establishment attacks and TV ads against Gingrich have had a big impact on the way people view the race, most polls notwithstanding.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Who Won the Republican Debate on December 15th?

Tonight's debate had no especially memorable soundbites or gaffes. The candidates largely avoided attacking each other, with the exception of some extended duels between Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich, and when various candidates criticized Ron Paul's foreign policy. Gingrich did well on many occasions, but he took heat from Bachmann on the millions Gingrich made from Freddie Mac.

Mitt Romney changed his strategy for the debate: He chose not to go on the offensive against Gingrich. Instead, Romney directed his energy toward bolstering his economic credentials and attacking Barack Obama. Apparently Romney is pleased by the effect his negative ads have had against Gingrich, so rather than taking on Gingrich during debates (where Gingrich is strong), Romney focused on building himself up.

Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, and Jon Huntsman were irrelevant during the debate. Surprisingly, Perry didn't attack Romney or Gingrich. Bachmann, on the other hand, was on the attack constantly. She gained plenty of airtime by going one-on-one against Gingrich on both Freddie Mac and partial-birth abortion. Gingrich didn't bleed when he was bitten, but his answers on Freddie Mac were unconvincing. Bachmann probably scored more points by attacking Paul after Paul emphasized his lack of concern over Iranian nuclear weapons.

What was the result? Gingrich and Romney both did well; Gingrich had some difficulty handling Bachmann's attacks but also threw plenty of red meat to the base. There was no clear winner. However, the bigger picture is that the debates have been Gingrich's turf, while Romney's advantage has been with TV ads, campaign infrastructure, and establishment support, all of which have hurt Gingrich. Therefore, one might say that Gingrich needs to be a clear winner in the debates in order to keep up with Romney--especially if Romney is not hurt during a debate. As for the minor candidates, Paul's remarks on foreign policy may hurt him, and Bachmann might siphon a few votes from Gingrich.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Final Pre-Iowa Debate Tomorrow on Fox News

Fox News will host a Republican presidential primary debate Thursday at 9:00pm Eastern. This is the last primary debate scheduled prior to the Iowa Caucus. Although the minor candidates no longer have sufficient time to change their fates, the debate could have a big impact on the two-man race between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

As Gingrich demonstrated during the debate on December 10th, he is much more skilled at deflecting attacks than previous poll-frontrunners like Rick Perry and Herman Cain. Romney, who was the target of attacks through the summer (and even September/October, when he wasn't leading the polls), is the only other candidate who has shown equal skill in the debates.

Consequently, Gingrich is much less likely to be hurt in the debate than the season's earlier Anti-Romneys. On the other hand, even a skilled and disciplined debater can stumble, as did Romney with his memorable $10,000 bet gaffe earlier this month. If enough candidates throw enough attacks at Gingrich, it's possible that he could make a mistake. If he does, the media narrative will be that Gingrich is finally falling back to earth. This would go hand-in-hand with some more recent polling showing Gingrich's numbers declining slightly. That's what Romney will have to hope for tomorrow. But he must take care to avoid making any gaffes of his own.

The minor candidates have mostly concentrated on attacking Gingrich, as the poll numbers dictate they should. The exception is Perry, who remains almost as fixated on attacking Romney as he was back in September, when it still made sense. The debate is a good opportunity for Tea Party candidates to criticize Gingrich for not being conservative enough. Gingrich's success thus far has been based on voters assuming Gingrich has perfect conservative credentials. Perry was in a similar situation in September, before the debates made people more familiar with Perry's immigration policy and the HPV vaccine issue.

The wildcard is Gingrich's own strategy. Gingrich had promised to be "relentlessly positive," but he has shown a tendency toward going negative whenever Romney offends him. If and when Romney attacks Gingrich, it could trigger an extended exchange of insults. Or, if Gingrich fears being booed, he might return to his positive approach.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Romney and Gingrich Almost Tied on Intrade

In the wake of the December 10th Republican primary debate, Newt Gingrich has almost tied Mitt Romney on the Intrade market on the 2012 Republican nomination. Gingrich has been slowly but steadily gaining, all at the expense of Romney, who has been just as slowly shedding points.

The current Intrade odds have Romney leading Gingrich by 43.5% to 36.0%. That 7.5% gap is only half as big as Romney's lead was the last time we checked, just over a week ago. About two weeks ago, Romney was leading by 36 points. Clearly, Intrade investors are becoming more willing to believe Gingrich's poll numbers are real (unlike Herman Cain's). The most recent drop also reflects the media narrative of the December 10th debate: Romney made a memorable gaffe with his $10,000 bet and Gingrich emerged unscathed. The narrative was essentially what Elephant Watcher predicted in the debate recap.

Nevertheless, despite all of the polls, Romney remains in the lead on Intrade. If Romney is unable to do any damage to Gingrich during the final pre-Iowa debate this week, we can expect that to change--Gingrich would likely tie Romney or surpass him if he does well.

Meanwhile, only two minor candidates register 3% or higher on the Intrade market: Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul. Huntsman, who was not invited to the December debates and who is inexplicably favored by Intrade investors (perhaps reflecting the establishment bias often found on Intrade), is still at 6.0%. Ron Paul, whose enthusiastic internet fans are willing to put down money for the cause, is at 7.6%.

In the Iowa Caucus Intrade market, Gingrich is well ahead of Romney, 55% to 11%. Paul has been climbing there as well, up to 24.8%. This is interesting because Paul's recent poll numbers in Iowa, though improved from his usual 10%, are equal or lesser to Romney's. Why such a difference in their Intrade odds, then? It's likely a result of the prevailing wisdom that the Iowa Caucus rewards candidates with enthusiasm on their side.

In New Hampshire, Romney remains a big favorite at 70%. Gingrich is similarly favored in South Carolina, at 70%. In the Florida market, Gingrich's edge has shrunk to 49% over Romney's 35%. The investors may believe that by the time Florida rolls around, something could arise that derails Gingrich's campaign.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

More Candidates Drop to Zero

For a minor candidate--one who is not close to leading in any state--time is the most precious resource. A minor candidate needs time in order to try something, anything, to change the dynamic of the race. The Iowa Caucus is only a few weeks away. Time has almost run out. As a result, the game is now over for most of the minor candidates.

Though many of the candidates will stick around--some, like Ron Paul, all the way until the convention--the field has been winnowed down to Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. After last night's debate, the odds of each Republican's winning the nomination have been recalculated. Two more candidates, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman, have fallen to zero percent. Here are the recent changes:

Huntsman -2% -- As Huntsman learned at last night's debate, the barrier to entry for the debates goes up as voting day draws closer. Huntsman's numbers were not high enough to give him access to the debate, and you can't win without appearing at debates. Huntsman was focused on taking down Romney to create an opening in New Hampshire, but he's out of time.

Perry -2% -- The debates have not been kind to Rick Perry. He was already on life support after the first several took their toll, and he has done nothing to revive himself. With many Tea Partiers flocking to Gingrich and the rest either skeptical of Perry's conservatism or electability, Perry has been squeezed out. He lost his two-front war on both fronts.

Santorum -1% -- Santorum needs to hope that eventually the conservative Evangelicals in Iowa lose faith in Gingrich. If they do, they only have one more candidate to try out: Santorum. Gingrich's fall will need to happen quickly.

Romney -2% -- Romney's inherent attributes as a candidate make him stronger than Gingrich and more likely to win a protracted war. Unlike Gingrich, Romney's "negatives" are already priced in: Voters already know what they don't like about Romney, so he's unlikely to fall. But the burden is on Romney to take Gingrich down before voters go to the polls. Each day that passes without a successful attack on Gingrich is a day Romney can't afford to waste.

Gingrich +7% -- Gingrich's situation is the opposite of Romney's. As the leader in the polls, Gingrich wants time to fly as quickly as possible. So far he has not been damaged, and he can see Iowa on the horizon.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Who Won the Republican Debate on December 10th?

If Newt Gingrich's rivals hoped to crush him during tonight's debate, they did not succeed. Gingrich was finally criticized and challenged during this debate, and he repelled the attacks ably. In some one-on-one exchanges, Mitt Romney had the edge over Gingrich. If the race becomes an extended two-man fight between the two, Romney may have the advantage in one-on-one debates. For now, however, the debates are clearly not going to destroy Gingrich's momentum.

Michele Bachmann likely benefited from extra air time, as she always seemed to be in the middle of an attack against another candidate. Bachmann took over Herman Cain's role as the representative of the Tea Party.

The biggest loser of the night was Jon Huntsman, who was not even invited to the debate. Earlier this year, we answered the question of how they decide who gets invited to debates. The invitations are based on poll numbers, and Huntsman didn't meet the new threshold. After all these months, Huntsman has not been able to get his poll numbers high enough to remain on stage--even Rick Santorum is polling better. It's impossible for a candidate to compete under those conditions, so Huntsman is finished.

As for specifics, one moment that will probably get some media attention was when Rick Perry challenged Romney on the issue of Romneycare. Although one might expect all the candidates to team up against Gingrich--who is heavily favored in the polls--Perry acted as though it were the middle of September, attacking Romney. During a dispute about what Romney wrote about the individual mandate in his book, Romney challenged Perry by asking if he would bet $10,000 on it. Perry hesitated, and Romney claimed victory. Since one of Romney's vulnerabilities is being seen as too wealthy and out of touch with regular Americans, it was a definite gaffe.

Romney performed better in his exchanges with Gingrich; Romney managed to criticize Gingrich and some of Gingrich's odd ideas (like a lunar base) without appearing negative. In response, Gingrich went negative against Romney and was booed by the audience. Perhaps the best illustration of the contrast between the two men was the issue of Gingrich's controversial remark about the Palestinians being "an invented people." Romney emphasized that he was the more sober candidate, while Gingrich claimed to be someone who would tell the truth even if it "caused some confusion."

The debate moderators decided to ask each of the candidates about marital fidelity. Obviously this was aimed at Gingrich's multiple affairs and failed marriages. The other candidates emphasized the importance of faithfulness. Gingrich's turn came last, and he gave a good answer about finding redemption for his past mistakes.

The media's conclusion is likely to be that Gingrich's rivals failed to deliver a "knock-out punch" against Gingrich. Clearly, Gingrich's opponents will need to find another way to tear his candidacy down if they intend to defeat him.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Primary Debate Tomorrow on ABC

ABC will host December's first primary debate tomorrow at 9:00pm Eastern. After tomorrow's debate, there is only one more scheduled prior to the Iowa Caucus on January 3rd. That means the stakes are high for the candidates who still have a chance of winning the nomination, namely Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

It has been a few weeks since the last primary debate, and the field has changed considerably. Herman Cain dropped out of the race, and Gingrich has rocketed to the top of every poll outside of New Hampshire. The pressure is on Romney to do something to stop Gingrich. As for the minor candidates, they will be hoping to capitalize on Gingrich's fall in Iowa, should it occur.

For the past few months, there has been a strange dynamic in the race, because there was no clear frontrunner. Normally one candidate is in the lead, with everyone else attacking him. But because Rick Perry fell in September, and because no one quite believed Cain's lead in the polls was real, the candidates weren't focused on attacking one person. That's changed. Gingrich is ahead in the polls by a big margin. That means it's time for everyone else to try and bring him down.

Romney's campaign began attacking Gingrich this week, and the debate moderator will probably ask Romney if he's willing to do it in person. Recall that during the summer, Tim Pawlenty had criticized Romney in some interviews but was unwilling to repeat the insults during a debate. Pawlenty appeared weak. Now Romney will face the same challenge. He must prepare himself to engage Gingrich during the debate without appearing too hostile or mean-spirited.

Unfortunately for Romney, he's in a poor position to do the attacking. It's important to undermine Gingrich's conservative credentials, but Romney's own conservative credentials are in question. It's much easier for Perry, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, or even Ron Paul to do the job. If they hope to win Iowa, they will cooperate. But the only person Romney can rely on is himself, and he will be prompted to do some of the dirty work personally.

The other difficulty is that Romney's main argument is about electability. It's not possible for any candidate to make that argument convincingly, because saying "I'm electable" will always sound too self-serving to be believed. Instead, a candidate must present himself as electable and demonstrate why the other candidate is not electable. Again, doing so without appearing hostile or mean-spirited is not an easy task, especially if the audience likes Gingrich.

As for Gingrich, his best bet is to answer any substatantive attacks made against him while gently chastening his attacker for being negative. Gingrich publicly said that his strategy for dealing with Romney's criticism is to "kill him with kindness." That's not a bad idea if you're the frontrunner. With Gingrich's lead in the polls, he can afford to be magnanimous, and he will be rewarded for it.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Who Will Win the South Carolina Primary?

About five months ago, during the July doldrums of the primary season, we considered different scenarios to answer the question who will win the South Carolina primary. Since then, the race changed with the departure of Chris Christie and Tim Pawlenty. The absence of these candidates eliminates the "united party" scenario and the "electable Tea Partier" scenario. More recently, the collapse of Rick Perry and Herman Cain (and the collapse of Michele Bachmann in Iowa) also make the "unelectable Anti-Romney" scenario much less likely.

This leaves two scenarios, reflecting the two-man race we now see in the polls: Either Mitt Romney secures his frontrunner status with wins in Iowa and New Hampshire and goes on to win South Carolina, or a "moderately electable" Newt Gingrich wins Iowa and goes to South Carolina to break the tie (after Romney wins New Hampshire).

The following is the race as it stands in the most recent South Carolina polls:

South Carolina Primary
12/04 Winthrop -- Gingrich 38, Romney 22, Perry 9, Cain 7
11/28 ARG -- Gingrich 33, Romney 22, Cain 10, Paul 8
11/28 Insider Adv -- Gingrich 38, Romney 15, Cain 13, Paul 7
11/21 Polling Co. (R) -- Gingrich 31, Cain 17, Romney 16

Unfortunately, unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, there has been little polling in South Carolina. Even more unfortunately, there have been no polls taken there since Cain dropped out of the race. We can assume that Gingrich will get a chunk of the departing Cain votes, but it's also possible that a Tea Partier could pick up some of the votes.

None of the pollsters listed above has a sterling reputation. But it's clear that Gingrich enjoys a substantial starting advantage over Romney. Gingrich is--for now--perceived as more conservative than Romney, and Gingrich hails from the South. More importantly, South Carolina is influenced by the winners of Iowa and New Hampshire. For the moment, Gingrich is doing better than Romney in Iowa. For Romney to win South Carolina, there must either be a tremendous crash in Gingrich's campaign, or Romney must win Iowa.

Gingrich's campaign is untested, and it could crash. One should never assume such a crash unless the candidate is perceived as highly unelectable (like Cain or Bachmann). Unless or until the race changes dramatically, it's likely that Gingrich will prevail in South Carolina.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Intrade Odds: Newt Gingrich Narrows the Gap

It has been barely a week since we last looked at the Intrade market on the 2012 Republican nomination, but much has changed. The influence of the recent poll numbers with Newt Gingrich in the lead can be seen clearly now. Mitt Romney is still leading on the Intrade market, but it's much closer than before.

Romney has 46.0%, while Gingrich is at 31.1%. No other candidate is in the double-digits, making this effectively a two-man race--just as we saw with Rick Perry and Romney back in September. The gap between Romney and Gingrich shrank dramatically in the last week. When we last checked, Romney was ahead by 36 points. Now he's ahead by just 15 points. Over half of the lead was lost. This is the first time Romney has dipped below 50% since he began dominating Perry at the end of September.

Of the minor candidates, Ron Paul is at 6.4% and Jon Huntsman is at 8.0%. No other candidate has broken the 5% mark. Huntsman's odds presumably rose as a result of a perceived improvement in his last debate, but is otherwise inexplicable: Huntsman currently fails to get even third place in a single poll--even in New Hampshire, the only state where he's running.

The Intrade markets for individual state contests has also changed markedly. Gingrich is now the clear favorite in Iowa, with 58.3% to Romney's 14.6%. Exuberant Paul investors have given him 21.0%, which puts him in second. In New Hampshire, Romney continues to dominate at 70%. Similarly, Gingrich now dominates in South Carolina at 68% to Romney's 22%.

There's been a shift in the Florida market, where Gingrich now leads Romney 60% to 35%. But if one were to take the state markets at face value, Gingrich should be the overall frontrunner to win, rather than Romney. On the other hand, Intrade investors may foresee a drawn-out campaign where Romney's superior infrastructure trumps Gingrich's wins in the early states.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Herman Cain Quits the Race

Herman Cain announced today that he has decided to quit the race. As Elephant Watcher predicted several days ago, the most recent allegations against Cain doomed his campaign once and for all. It's one thing to deny an accusation, or even two accusations. But at some point, it becomes a case of "everyone is lying except me." Even Cain's supporters could no longer continue, and Cain's family likely encouraged him to withdraw from the race.

Though many have declined to run, Cain is only the second candidate to quit the Republican primary (the other being Tim Pawlenty, who inexplicably dropped out in August after finishing third in the Iowa straw poll). The Campaign Status page has been updated accordingly. The field has now been narrowed to seven candidates.

Newt Gingrich is the chief beneficiary of Cain's withdrawal. Although Cain's decline in the polls already helped Gingrich, who received most of Cain's former supporters, actually dropping out has an impact of its own. Even a candidate who's dead in the water can still receive 5-10% of the vote. With Cain's departure, even those votes will need to go elsewhere. It's also possible that Rick Santorum could benefit from the most hardcore Tea Partiers--those who see Gingrich as too much of a RINO.

When put into historical perspective, the destruction of Cain will be regarded as a victory for the primary process. Cain was given ample opportunity to display his best qualities, but his weaknesses were also vetted. Voters had the ability to learn about Cain and discover why he should never be a general election candidate. It's always best to learn that before a candidate becomes a nominee, rather than afterward.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

2012 Republican Primary in Review: November 2011

Each month, Elephant Watcher recaps the activity that occurred in the Republican primary during the previous month. Follow these links to read earlier recaps: May, June, July, August, September, October.

The month of November saw the decline of Herman Cain, the rise of Newt Gingrich to the lead in the polls, and the annihilation of Rick Perry.

As the month began, the story dominating the political headlines was the Cain sexual harassment scandal. Though Republican voters were highly resistant to believing that Cain was guilty, Cain became vulnerable, and some of his supporters began switching over to the Gingrich camp. At the same time, Cain proved incapable of discussing foreign policy issues. To make matters worse, two of the three debates (on November 12th and 22nd) were focused entirely on foreign policy. Cain's numbers eroded.

Perry was already weak when November began. Cain had taken over the Tea Party segment of the Republican Party. But Perry absolutely finished himself off at the November 9th Republican debate, where he made an extraordinary gaffe by forgetting his own three-point list. Perry didn't quit the race, but he may as well have.

As the month wore on, the Tea Party segment of the Party and the Anti-Romney contingent increasingly gravitated toward Gingrich. They did not take a closer look at any of the other candidates; they all failed to gain traction. Mitt Romney retained his stronghold in New Hampshire, according to the polls. But as soon as Cain fell in Iowa and South Carolina, Gingrich picked up the slack in those states. The debates assisted Gingrich, who was as comfortable discussing foreign policy as Cain was uncomfortable. Gingrich's rise occurred even more rapidly than Cain's had during October.

At the close of the month, new allegations surfaced about Cain having a long-term affair with a woman who was willing to speak publicly about it. Cain did not drop out of the race, but admitted he was considering it. Cain's supporters--already buckling--then broke. Cain's numbers appeared ready to collapse as precipitously as Perry's had. All indications were that Cain's supporters would flock to Gingrich as the last remaining alternative to Romney.

But as November came to a close, the situation was not as bright for Gingrich or as dire for Romney as the polls made it appear. Gingrich remained completely unvetted, having not been attacked by his competitors or examined by the media. A month remained before the Iowa Caucus for Gingrich to fall under the weight of his personal and political baggage. Romney, having already been vetted (multiple times), remained secure in New Hampshire and the favorite to win the nomination. Elephant Watcher calculates that Romney's odds of winning the Republican nomination are currently 70%.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

New Allegations Doom Herman Cain

A month after the original allegations of sexual harassment surfaced, Herman Cain appeared to be surviving, if not weathering the storm. His support was on a gradual decline--a decline which may have been more a result of Cain's foreign policy gaffes than his scandals. Though some of Cain's support was shifting to Newt Gingrich, Cain still polled at substantial numbers, particularly in Iowa and South Carolina. He might not have been able to win those states, but he could at least split some of the potential support for Gingrich and play a role as an Anti-Romney.

Now it appears Cain's campaign is in ruins. A woman came forward claiming a 13-year affair with Cain. She was able to produce some evidence of a personal connection to Cain, which Cain did not deny. Cain did deny that the affair took place. Unfortunately for Cain, this was one denial too many. Only the most fanatic Cain supporters will continue to believe that he is a serviceable general election candidate.

Early reporting suggests that Cain is considering whether or not to drop out of the race. Even if he does not quit, the fact that he considered it will also be counted against him. Herman Cain's odds of winning the nomination are now 0%, according to Elephant Watcher's most recent recalculation. Though Cain was at one point leading all of the national polls (and Iowa and South Carolina polls), Elephant Watcher never gave Cain more than a 5% chance of winning the nomination. Cain was weighed down too heavily by his inherent weaknesses as a candidate. Now those weaknesses have doomed his campaign.

Ironically, the person likely to benefit most from Cain's demise is Gingrich, who admitted to having affairs during both his first and second marriages: The Cain supporters who already left Cain largely went to Gingrich, and Mitt Romney obviously prefers to split his opponents' vote as many ways as possible. Cain's further drop is critical because it will push his numbers below the threshold at which his support will disappear entirely. Voters tend to abandon a candidate if his vote is not above, say, 10%, so that they may coalesce around their second choice.

Gingrich continues to be weighted down by issues of his own. Though he has inherited Cain's lead in the polls, and while he is better suited to win New Hampshire votes than Cain was, Gingrich is completely unvetted. No candidate has yet attacked Gingrich. For Gingrich's odds to rise with his poll numbers, he must first demonstrate that he is capable of surviving the same level of scrutiny that destroyed Cain.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Newt Gingrich Continues Rise on Intrade; Romney Falls

A few weeks ago, we took a look at the Intrade market on the 2012 Republican nomination. Since then, another debate was held and much buzz about Newt Gingrich's candidacy has buzzed. How has this affected the Intrade investors' perceptions of the race?

It's clear: Newt Gingrich's odds have risen at the expense of Mitt Romney's. Romney has finally fallen from his peak at about 70% and now stands at 57.0%. This is the first time Romney's odds have moved downward since the rise of Rick Perry in August. The Intrade investors never bought into the Herman Cain mania that swept the primary for about a month. But they're taking Gingrich more seriously.

Gingrich has risen to 21.1%, up from about 14% two weeks ago. A few weeks before that, Gingrich was in the low single-digits. It's worth noting that despite Gingrich's lead in the national polls, the Intrade market still has Gingrich a nearly 3:1 underdog in the race. Thus, they're following the polls, but they're taking them with a grain of salt. But unlike Cain, they think Gingrich has a real chance to win.

Meanwhile, the rest of the field is in the low single-digits. Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman each rose from 3-something percent to about 5.5%, apparently reflecting what investors perceived as good debate performances. No other candidate has climbed beyond 3%.

Where is Gingrich getting his strength in the early states? The Intrade market on the Iowa Caucus has Gingrich ahead of Romney, 35% to 25%. New Hampshire is still overwhelmingly Romney territory with 77%; Gingrich is at 12%. South Carolina has Gingrich and Romney nearly tied at 35%, but Florida has Romney the favorite at 50% to 24%.

Overall, the investors believe Iowa is a close race, with the edge going to Gingrich. New Hampshire is Romney's firewall, making him the only candidate guaranteed to win one of the early primaries. They have South Carolina at a push, perhaps hedging because there's been little polling there. Florida, which is sort of a tie-breaker, leans toward Romney as the overall odds for the nomination do.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Is Mitt Romney Electable?

For quite some time, Mitt Romney has generally been perceived as the most electable candidate in the Republican field. Although there were several potential candidates who were perceived as electable (e.g. Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie), they left the race or chose not to enter. Of the remaining candidates, only Jon Huntsman joins Romney in the "highly electable" category. But since Huntsman is in Romney's shadow in New Hampshire, Romney is essentially in a category all his own.

But is this analysis correct? Or has the conventional wisdom overestimated Romney's electability?

Earlier this month, we considered whether Newt Gingrich is electable. In the match-up polls conducted so far, Gingrich trailed Barack Obama badly. Of all the candidates, Romney has done the best in the match-up polls, and he is the only one to get close to Obama.

The following are all of the Romney vs. Obama match-up polls conducted during November:

Romney vs. Obama
11/22 Romney 38, Obama 44 (-06) -- Rasmussen
11/20 Romney 44, Obama 45 (-01) -- Quinnipiac
11/15 Romney 44, Obama 42 (+02) -- Fox News
11/14 Romney 47, Obama 49 (-02) -- Pew Research
11/13 Romney 51, Obama 47 (+04) -- CNN
11/10 Romney 42, Obama 43 (-01) -- Rasmussen
11/10 Romney 44, Obama 48 (-04) -- McClatchy/Marist
11/09 Romney 43, Obama 49 (-06) -- Politico/GWU
11/05 Romney 43, Obama 49 (-06) -- NBC/WSJ
11/03 Romney 47, Obama 46 (+01) -- ABC/Wash Post
11/03 Romney 44, Obama 43 (+01) -- Reuters/Ipsos
11/02 Romney 41, Obama 42 (-01) -- Rasmussen

While Gingrich had averaged about ten points behind Obama, Romney averages about a point and a half behind Obama. Since the general election will not take place for nearly a year, it's also worth looking at the previous months for more data. Consider the following summary how the match-up polls fared since June of this year, when both Gingrich and Romney were in the race. Romney was polled more frequently than Gingrich and did much better against Obama:

In 18 match-up polls, Gingrich was tied or won in 0 of them (00%). Gingrich pulled within 5 points of Obama in 2 of the polls (11%). In 59 match-up polls, Romney was tied or won in 21 of them (36%). Romney pulled within 5 points of Obama in 48 of the polls (81%).

As a further illustration, consider the polling done in New Hampshire by the University of New Hampshire about a week ago. For the state of New Hampshire only, Romney beat Obama by 3 points. In the same poll, Gingrich lost to Obama by 12 points.

What about the effects of a general election campaign? Were Romney to win the Republican nomination, his approval would improve dramatically. After the primary, the winner always enjoys a "rally around the candidate" effect. Romney would also be able to introduce himself to the American public at large; so far he's only campaigned heavily in New Hampshire. Judging by his performance this time around (which is considerably better than his run four years ago), Romney's numbers would improve further. This would put Romney comfortably ahead of Obama.

Romney would also lose support as a result of negative campaigning against him. Unlike Gingrich, however, most of Romney's "negatives" are already priced in, as voters are familiar with the "flip-flopper" attack against him. What are not priced in yet are the attacks against his tenure at Bain Capital, where Obama will claim Romney fired people; unknown is the effect of Obama's allies playing "the Mormon card."

Where does that leave us? The net effect would still leave Romney ahead. Unlike Gingrich, Romney would have one final trump card to play: Marco Rubio is almost certainly going to be Romney's VP nominee. For reasons which will be explored when the primary is over, Rubio would uniquely boost the numbers of the presidential ticket.

Thus, the conventional wisdom proves to be correct in this case: Romney would be by far the most formidable challenge to Obama in the general election. If Romney wins the nomination, it will be in large measure because voters recognize this fact.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Newt Gingrich Takes the Lead in National Primary Polls

Although national primary polls do not reflect the actual state of the race like early state primary polls do (the outcomes of early contests influence later ones, candidates are not campaigning in the later states, voters in the later states are not paying close attention yet, etc.), they can be useful to look at occasionally. Candidates do pay attention to the national primary polls and sometimes develop their strategies based upon them. For instance, if they see a frontrunner developing in the national polls, they may begin to attack him. The media also like to look at national polls and may create narratives based on them.

For an example of the latter, note that the "Herman Cain is falling" narrative reflects the national polls much more than the polls in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida, where Cain has still shown strength of late. Granted, there has not been sufficient polling in South Carolina and Florida over the past few weeks, so any new developments may be caught in the national polls first.

The following are the most recent polls taken nationally for the Republican primary:

National Primary Polls
11/20 Gingrich 24, Romney 20, Cain 17, Perry 11 (CNN)
11/20 Gingrich 26, Romney 22, Cain 14, Perry 06 (Quinnipiac)
11/17 Gingrich 22, Romney 21, Cain 16, Paul 09 (Gallup/USA Today)
11/15 Gingrich 23, Romney 22, Cain 15, Paul 08 (Fox News)
11/14 Romney 23, Cain 22, Gingrich 16, Perry 08 (Pew Research)
11/13 Romney 24, Gingrich 22, Cain 14, Perry 12 (CNN)
11/13 Gingrich 28, Cain 25, Romney 18, Perry 06 (PPP (D))

The first thing that the reader should notice is that Newt Gingrich has taken the lead. The second thing he should notice is that Gingrich is only slightly ahead of Mitt Romney. Romney is within the margin of error in some of the polls, and indeed is in first place in some of the polls taken a week ago.

Next, the polls clearly show Cain in third place, several points behind Romney and Gingrich. This leaves the impression that Cain is a spent force, doomed to decline. But Cain's strength is frontloaded in Iowa and South Carolina. Unless or until Cain falls even further, Cain remains a factor. Specifically, he's splitting the Anti-Romney vote with Gingrich.

Over the next few weeks, Elephant Watcher will be paying close attention to whether Cain falls into oblivion. If not, it could represent the Tea Party purists finding fault with Gingrich. Like Romney, Gingrich's conservatism may be called into question. The voters who don't care about electability may hold onto Cain. Those who simply want an Anti-Romney will show less resistance and will jump easily from Cain to Gingrich.

It should be noted that Gingrich's strength is overestimated in the national primary polls because he has not been attacked or vetted yet. Once he comes under the scrutiny of the media and the other candidates, his numbers are likely to fall. In mid-October, we explained some of Newt Gingrich's vulnerabilities. Voters have not taken these into account yet. By contrast, voters have already taken Cain and Romney's weaknesses into account. When a candidate reaches proper frontrunner status (as Romney, Perry, and Cain did earlier this year), all of his opponents will attack him during the debates. Only Romney managed to survive the vetting process, and now it will be Gingrich's turn.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Who Won the Republican Debate on November 22nd?

Tonight's debate was a split decision: Newt Gingrich decisively won the first half, and Mitt Romney just as decisively won the second half.

The debate focused on national security and foreign policy. That's favorable turf for candidates like Romney and (especially) Gingrich, and unfavorable turf for Herman Cain. Cain did not make any big gaffes, but he often seemed on the verge of doing so. By contrast, Gingrich was right at home, particularly during the first half of the debate. Gingrich opened the debate by blasting Ron Paul, who said that terrorism should be treated as a criminal matter because it worked in the case of Timothy McVeigh. To great applause, Gingrich countered that McVeigh's terrorist attack succeeded, and that he would rather stop the attacks from occurring in the first place.

Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum all avoided major gaffes as well. But they seemed to be increasingly irrelevant to the conversation. Months ago, Perry would have been lucky to have delivered an unremarkable performance, because at least it wouldn't have been a bad one. But now, so deep in the hole he made for himself, such a performance won't do. Perry is lost.

During the first half of the debate, Romney couldn't match Gingrich. At one point, Romney and Jon Huntsman argued about the level of troops in Afghanistan. It was a draw, but arguing with a low-polling candidate is only useful if you obliterate him. By engaging with Huntsman, Romney only raised Huntsman's profile. Overall, Huntsman did well, but his long-awaited improvement in debate has come too late. Huntsman just doesn't have enough time left to build up steam.

During the second half of the debate, the dynamic seemed to shift. Romney gave stronger answers, and Gingrich, though he still did well, began to show signs of vulnerability. When asked about illegal immigration, Gingrich gave an answer that suggested making illegal immigrants "legal" under certain circumstances, such as if they had lived in America for a long time, were members of a church, or had ties to their local community. Bachmann seemed perplexed by Gingrich's apparently (and suddenly) soft stance on illegal immigration.

At that point, Romney jumped into the fray. He emphasized his support for legal immigration, particularly for highly-skilled and highly-educated immigrants, such as those who earn advanced engineering degrees in the United States. Romney then suggested that it was important to halt illegal immigration by not creating "magnets" for it. When the moderator asked if that was what Gingrich was doing, Romney avoided addressing the specifics of Gingrich's plan and said that any widescale plan to make illegal immigrants "legal" would amount to amnesty, and it would be a step in the wrong direction. Gingrich did not appear to know how to defend himself.

It was the only time in the debate in which Gingrich and Romney tangled. It was not a heated exchange by any means, but it has the potential to harm Gingrich. Time will tell whether Bachmann, Romney, and other candidates call Gingrich's stance on illegal immigration into question. Recall that Perry's perceived softness on illegal immigration helped doom his candidacy.

Aside from that issue, Gingrich performed well, and he is likely to further bleed support from Cain. The question is whether the Tea Party will accept Gingrich after taking a closer look at his platform.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Republican Primary Debate on CNN Tuesday

The debates keep on coming. CNN will host a debate tomorrow at 8:00pm Eastern. The debate is being advertised as focused on "foreign policy and national security," which is interesting because the previous debate was solely about foreign policy. Judging by that last debate, most of the candidates differ little on foreign policy. On the other hand, the "national security" hook may bring in the subject of illegal immigration, a topic that ignited sparks during the September debates.

The key change that has taken place since the last debate is the shift in perceptions of Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich. The media narrative is that of an ascendant Gingrich and a declining Cain. Unfortunately for Cain, if the debate does focus on national security and foreign policy, it will not be a great opportunity for him. Cain has tended to make gaffes on foreign policy that reveal his lack of basic knowledge about the topic. Meanwhile, Gingrich can speak intelligently on any subject.

Since the candidates disagree so little on foreign policy and national security, and since the candidates' vulnerabilities are on other matters, it will be tricky for low-polling candidates to go on the attack. Last time, they really didn't do it at all. For people like Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Rick Perry, it's necessary to do damage to the frontrunners to shake things up. Otherwise, they'll simply drift peaceably toward failure.

The one big event that every political observer would like to see is a proper debate between frontrunners Gingrich and Mitt Romney. Gingrich has always avoided tangling with his opponents. No one has ever had reason to attack him before, since he was nowhere in the polls. With the exception of the Perry boom in early September, Romney has never felt threatened enough to go on the offensive. After watching so many candidates self-destruct, Romney is probably even less inclined to attack anyone. Thus, we might have an odd dynamic where Romney and Gingrich are spliting the electorate but remaining passive. That's basically what we saw with Romney and Cain: Romney waited Cain out.

For candidates eager to score some easy points, Ron Paul is an ever-ready punching bag. Paul's opponents may have a contest to see who can show the most righteous indignation when Paul blames America for its foreign policy woes.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Is Newt Gingrich Electable?

In the Elephant Watcher profiles of the Republican candidates, each candidate's perceived electability has been ranked on a scale of 1 to 3. Those rated with a "1" are considered by most voters to be unelectable--virtually incapable of winning a general election. Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Ron Paul are in that category. Those rated a "3" are generally considered electable, with a decent chance of winning a general election. Several candidates in that category either declined to run or withdrew, leaving only Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney. Finally, there are the candidates who fall somewhere in between.

Newt Gingrich is not a totally implausible candidate, having been a Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives; he also possess rhetorical skill and policy knowledge. But he also possesses considerable political and personal baggage, and few outside the Republican Party actually have a favorable opinion of the man.

Then there are the poll numbers. The following are the last two months' worth of match-up polls pitting Gingrich against Barack Obama. It's not pretty:

Gingrich vs. Obama
11/15 Gingrich 41, Obama 46 (-05) -- Fox News
11/13 Gingrich 45, Obama 53 (-08) -- CNN
11/14 Gingrich 42, Obama 54 (-12) -- Pew Research
11/13 Gingrich 43, Obama 49 (-06) -- PPP (D)
11/12 Gingrich 38, Obama 50 (-12) -- Rasmussen
11/10 Gingrich 45, Obama 47 (-02) -- McClatchy/Marist
11/04 Gingrich 38, Obama 44 (-06) -- Rasmussen
10/31 Gingrich 37, Obama 52 (-15) -- Quinnipiac
10/13 Gingrich 34, Obama 49 (-15) -- Rasmussen
10/10 Gingrich 39, Obama 50 (-11) -- PPP (D)

In all ten polls, Gingrich trails Obama. In half of these, he trails Obama by more than ten points. In only one does Gingrich manage to get less than 5 points behind Obama. In half the polls, Obama reaches the critical 50% level; Gingrich fails to even break 40% in half. On average, Gingrich is about 10 points behind.

Do these polls mean anything? There are a few things to consider. First, like any national poll, they suffer from the fact that only a slice of the electorate is paying any attention to the Republican primary. Gingrich's numbers have improved where he has campaigned. His debate performances have improved viewers' opinions of him. Thus, by the time election day 2012 rolls around, Gingrich's numbers would improve considerably. Moreover, when a candidate actually wins the nomination of his party, his numbers increase. Being a winner and having your party coalesce around you will add several points.

But there is also bad news. Although it's true that Gingrich's "positives" are not all priced into those numbers, there are also a lot of "negatives" that haven't been priced in yet. Gingrich has not been vetted either by his opponents in the primary or his opponents on the left. Once Gingrich has absorbed all the damage from the Republican primary and the general election, his numbers will go down.

Where does that leave us, with Gingrich's numbers likely to go both up and down? There would probably be a net benefit, which is to say that Gingrich is unlikely to lose to Obama by 10 points. One might estimate that Gingrich would start from behind by, say, 5 points. He would need to use every ounce of his skill to defeat Obama. In other words, Gingrich could win or he could lose. In a future post, we will examine the electability of Romney, who has the highest perceived electability of any of the candidates. If Gingrich is to win the nomination, he must show the voters that he has something valuable enough that they're willing to risk a greater chance of Obama's reelection, to see Gingrich--rather than Romney--in the White House.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Did Mad Magazine Accidentally Predict Newt Gingrich's Unlikely Future?

Now for something completely different.

Newt Gingrich's recent rise in the polls defied the expectations of most political observers, who declared Gingrich's candidacy dead in the water after its rocky start in May. In July, Elephant Watcher correctly predicted that Gingrich's poll numbers would stay down in the summer and then rise during the autumn of 2011. However, Elephant Watcher also predicted that Gingrich's numbers will then fall when he comes under scrutiny.

Still, the fact that Gingrich is now considered among the frontrunners is a remarkable turnaround. Such unlikely transformations reflect the unpredictable nature of the political world. As an illustration, consider the following cartoon from Mad Magazine. Mad is a long-running humor magazine founded in the 1950s. One of its recurring features was to draw a tombstone for a celebrity, with the odds of various causes of death included. Each "death" scenario is intended to poke fun at some aspect of the celebrity's persona.

Here is Gingrich's tombstone, from the August 1998 issue of Mad:

The three unlikeliest events, with odds of millions or billions to one, are ironic in hindsight. In the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the artist jokes that Gingrich's interns would never sleep with him (unlike the ostensibly charming and attractive Bill Clinton). Unbeknownst to the general public, Gingrich was in fact carrying on his own affair with a Congressional staffer at the time (she is currently married to Gingrich).

The cartoon also references the ethics charges pending against Gingrich. In fact, Gingrich was exonerated. Eighty-four ethics charges were filed against Gingrich, eighty-three of which were later dropped. The remaining charge involved running a college course out of a tax-exempt organization; this would have violated tax law if the course were deemed a political purpose. The IRS later ruled that there was no violation.

Finally, the cartoon jokes about Gingrich's fall from grace in the Republican Party, with heavy odds against his ever winning the Republican nomination for president in the future. Gingrich is still a long-shot, but one never knows...

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Myth of Mitt Romney's 25-Point Ceiling

Although most political analysts (and polled Americans) agree that Mitt Romney will win the Republican nomination, it's increasingly become the conventional wisdom that Romney suffers from a ceiling of 25% of the Republican electorate. The idea is that Romney has been unable to break out in the national primary polls, and has consistently polled at or below 25%. Meanwhile, the other 75% has been desperately looking for an Anti-Romney and won't support Romney under any circumstances.

It's true that the national primary polls have consistently put Romney in the low-to-mid 20s, with Romney rarely polling above 25%. But is there any truth to the idea that there is a uniquely anti-Romney ceiling of 25% that prevents him from getting votes from the other three-quarters of Republicans? Not really. The concept is flawed for a number of reasons.

Perhaps the most important flaw in the 25% ceiling is that Romney regularly polls well above 25% in early state primary polls. As we've discussed at length in the past, polls in the early states are far more important than national primary polls: The voters in early states pay attention sooner, the candidates actually campaign there, and the results of the early state contests influence the electorate in the later states.

The New Hampshire primary polls always have Romney far above the 25% ceiling. Romney tends to poll about 40% in New Hampshire, regardless of the pollster, and across a long period of time. Indeed, Romney rarely gets below 35% in any of these polls. No other candidate has gotten such high numbers in any state.

The counterargument is that New Hampshire is unique. But there are only a few states in which the candidates are actually competing: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, and Nevada. For the most part, the candidates are currently focusing on just Iowa and New Hampshire. To suggest that New Hampshire doesn't count is effectively tossing out half the field for little or no reason. More likely, the reason that Romney does so well in New Hampshire is not that New Hampshire is so unique, but because it's the only state in which Romney has really campaigned.

The Florida primary polls have also repeatedly given Romney above 25%, particularly in October. There's been little polling in Nevada, but Romney likely gets more than his "ceiling" in that state as well.

The second big flaw in the theory is the fact that the other candidates have failed to break 25% in the national primary polls. Only Rick Perry, who enjoyed a brief honeymoon in September, managed to break 25% in the polls for awhile. If none of the other candidates can break 25%, why would Romney be the one who suffers from a ceiling? Wouldn't all of the other candidates have the same Anti-Candidate problem with 75% of the electorate?

The third problem with the ceiling theory is that it doesn't account for how difficult it is to poll more than 25% of the electorate in a multi-candidate race--especially when you throw in a large percentage of undecided voters who don't select any of the candidates. If, say, 20% of those polled are undecided, one needs to get 3/8 of the remainder to poll at a mere 30%. It's not easy to get 3/8 when there are eight candidates in the race. Getting that high essentially means you win, unless it's a two-man race.

After the first few primaries, the field will be whittled down to two or three (or perhaps one) candidates. Voters will then coalesce around the survivors and push them above 25%. The Anti-Romney vote will coalesce, but so will the Anti-Anti-Romney vote. (Which is to say, for example, if Newt Gingrich won Iowa, the Anti-Gingrich vote would coalesce around Romney in the same way that the Anti-Romney vote coalesces around Gingrich.)

Having debunked the myth of the 25% ceiling, it's also worth pointing out a historical trend: As voting day approaches, voters tend to move toward a more electable choice, even if the candidate is less exciting. Viewing the current field, the only candidate in the running who's considered very electable is Mitt Romney. His current numbers in New Hampshire guarantee him victory there, and the "strategic shift" will likely boost his numbers in Iowa, as well.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Intrade Odds: Newt Gingrich Up, Rick Perry Down

We last examined the Intrade market on the 2012 Republican nomination shortly before the two mid-November debates. In today's update, we'll see how the debates have altered the Intrade market's perception of the race.

As far as the frontrunner is concerned, the debates had no impact. Mitt Romney dominated the field before, and his numbers are unchanged. Romney stands atop the field at 69.6%. By contrast, the lesser candidates have been shuffled. The big change is that Rick Perry, who has been on a decline since he first participated in a debate in September, has finally been ground into dust. Before the debates, he stood at 40%. After the September debates, he dropped to 20%. He slid down to 10% as it became clear he would not recover in October. Now, after Perry's gaffe at the November 9th debate, he has lost nearly all of his support. Perry is currently trading at 3.7%.

Newt Gingrich rose at Perry's expense. He now stands at 14.3%. Just a month ago, he was in the low single-digits; now he's in second place, albeit a very distant second. Herman Cain has slid to 4.0%. That's not much of a drop considering the sexual harassment scandal, but Intrade has always been very skeptical of unconventional candidates like Cain. Still, it's interesting to see that Perry is now behind both Gingrich and Cain. Also in the mire of the three percent range are Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman, at 3.2% and 3.1%. Michele Bachmann has long since been pronounced dead, and she trades at 1.0%. Rick Santorum--who may be okay on paper--is nowhere in the polls, so he is at 0.4%.

The Iowa Caucus market has changed more dramatically. While Romney is still at about 40%, Gingrich is now in second at 21%. Cain has fallen to 15.2%, and Perry is at 7.5%. This reflects the fact that the Intrade market believes someone has to have a chance of beating Romney in Iowa. If it's not Cain or Perry anymore, and if it's not Bachmann or Santorum, that leaves Gingrich. This is despite the fact that Gingrich has not done well in Iowa polls (aside from an outlier or two).

The New Hampshire market still says Romney has it in the bag. South Carolina has behaved like Iowa, with Gingrich picking up Cain and Perry's slack. The Florida Intrade market is still traded too little to be efficient, but Romney has catapulted to 65% there. The Nevada market looks like the New Hampshire one, with Romney dominating.