Thursday, January 12, 2012

South Carolina Scenarios

In the wake of a first place win (or tie) in Iowa, Mitt Romney vaulted to the top of the polls in South Carolina. It was the first time South Carolina had been polled since December 19th, when Newt Gingrich was still falling from his mid-December highs in the polls. The South Carolina polls had shown big leads for Gingrich for about a month, beginning in late November. Prior to that, Herman Cain was the leader in most South Carolina polls, benefiting from Rick Perry's decline in September. Romney only enjoyed a lead in South Carolina during the summer months, after Mike Huckabee announced he was out of the race, and before Perry announced he was in.

Romney's early-January leads in South Carolina polls contribute to the impression that he is an unstoppable frontrunner. The Intrade market even had Romney as a big favorite to win the South Carolina Primary. But is this realistic? What might unfold in the coming days?

Let's consider the range of possibilities. Romney's preferred scenario, naturally, would be to win South Carolina. He would also like Gingrich and Rick Santorum to finish very close together, as they did in New Hampshire. Maintaining a split between his two main rivals would continue to be very useful in Florida. If Romney were to win South Carolina and Florida by anything approaching convincing margins, the competition would essentially be over.

Polling in South Carolina suggests this could happen:

South Carolina Primary
01/11 Insider Adv -- Romney 23, Gingrich 21, Santorum 14, Paul 13
01/09 WeAskAmerica -- Romney 26, Gingrich 21, Santorum 13, Paul 8
01/07 PPP (D) -- Romney 30, Gingrich 23, Santorum 19, Paul 9
01/05 CNN/Time -- Romney 37, Santorum 19, Gingrich 18, Paul 12
01/05 ARG -- Romney 31, Santorum 24, Gingrich 24, Paul 9
01/05 Rasmussen -- Romney 27, Santorum 24, Gingrich 18, Paul 11

The numbers are good for Romney. The earlier polls in this group even show Gingrich and Santorum running close together. And Romney has broken through his mythical 25% ceiling. (Just days ago, it was still popular for pundits to believe in the ceiling; see the Elephant Watcher post from two months ago debunking the myth of Romney's 25-point ceiling.)

All that aside, a reality check is in order. Of the early primary states, South Carolina is the most inhospitable territory for Romney. In 2008, Romney got 25% in Iowa, about 30% in New Hampshire, 30% in Florida...and just 15% in South Carolina, a fourth-place finish. Granted, Romney had devoted fewer resources in South Carolina. Granted also that in 2008, Romney had just lost in Iowa and New Hampshire, as opposed to winning those two states this time around. But in 2008, Romney got twice his South Carolina vote share in Florida, and that was after three losses.

What this means is that if Romney does win, it is likely to be close. Under the circumstances, that would be a big accomplishment. However, the alternative scenario South Carolina presents is also a likely one, and it would unfold something like this:

Romney's worst-case scenario is that by the middle of next week, new polling makes it clear that Gingrich and Santorum are no longer close in South Carolina. Instead, Gingrich--though he may still have trouble out-polling Romney--is definitely out-polling Santorum. In response, in the days just before voting begins, South Carolina's Anti-Romney voters shift from Rick Perry and Santorum over to Gingrich, whom they are now convinced is the most likely candidate to beat Romney in that state. (The two debates next week may facilitate this.) The Anti-Romney voting having coalesced, Gingrich beats Romney and declares himself "the comeback kid" (or Gingrich's preferred version, "the comeback grandparent"). Pundits give Gingrich credit, and say variations of "the voters don't want this thing to be over yet, they're not sold on Romney," etc. Santorum's numbers slip, and Gingrich goes into Florida with a more convincing argument that he is the sole Anti-Romney. Indeed, it's arguably worse for Romney to come in second place than in third, because then Gingrich has even more clearly beaten Santorum.

Everything is up to the polling. For that scenario to occur, Gingrich must get a substantial lead over Santorum in South Carolina polls over the next several days.