Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Romney Wins Arizona and Michigan

Mitt Romney had an outstanding night on Tuesday, winning the primaries in both Arizona and Michigan. In Arizona, Romney was expected to win; his competitors essentially ceded the state to him and didn't compete there. Romney won Arizona by a wide margin, 22 points. Though less attention was paid to Arizona given Romney's inevitable win, it's a valuable state in delegate math: Arizona is one of the few winner-take-all states prior to April. The big story was Michigan, where Romney prevailed in his bitterly-fought contest with Rick Santorum. Santorum had nearly a double-digit lead in Michigan polls coming off his three-state sweep in early February, but Romney came back to defeat Santorum by 3 points.

The following are the current vote tallies:

Arizona Primary (64% reporting)
Romney -- 48%
Santorum -- 26%
Gingrich -- 16%
Paul -- 8%

Michigan Primary (89% reporting)
Romney -- 41%
Santorum -- 38%
Paul -- 12%
Gingrich -- 7%

What's the significance of Romney's wins in these two states? Strategically, Romney demonstrated that he was unassailable in his own region (the West) and able to take a state from Santorum's region (the Midwest). But Michigan is considered one of Romney's home states, so Santorum will argue that other Midwestern states--like Ohio--will be a different story.

Although Romney's home state advantage in Michigan is probably overstated (Romney is variously described as having Michigan, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, or Utah as his "home state"), it's true that Michigan was more favorable terrain than other Midwestern states will be. But a more important factor suggests that the campaign could get easier for Romney: Santorum is still, for the most part, unvetted. In particular, Santorum's electability has not been called into question--Romney's campaign focused instead on attacking Santorum's conservatism. And the media's scrutiny of Santorum will only increase. Thus far, Santorum has enjoyed the benefit of the doubt. Nationally speaking, Santorum will never have it this good again.

In terms of media perception, Romney will be portrayed as having achieved a comeback. Santorum's enduring strength will be called into question. It was important for Santorum to get the win, even if he will get a share of the delegates anyway. Perhaps that's why Santorum made the risky gamble of encouraging Democrats to vote for him in Michigan. In doing so, Santorum drew more attention to the effort among some Democrats to vote for Santorum in order to sabotage the Republican primary. The Democrats' scheme gave Santorum some extra votes, but it could backfire badly: It plants the seed in the minds of Republican voters that voting for Santorum will help Barack Obama. That hurts Santorum's electability argument, and by asking for Democrats' votes, Santorum hurt his own conservative credentials as well.

Going forward, Newt Gingrich's support in the South is the wildcard. If Santorum had won Michigan, it would have reinforced the idea that Santorum is the man who can beat Romney. That would have helped Santorum in the South, where he could persuade pro-Gingrich voters to stop splitting the vote and join the Santorum bandwagon. Now, Gingrich will be able to make the case that Santorum shouldn't be the chief Anti-Romney. Recall that after Gingrich's losses in Florida and Nevada, Santorum was able to flip the Anti-Romney vote in his favor. Will Gingrich be able to do the same? Probably not, but he may retain enough strength to win Georgia on Super Tuesday and eat into Santorum's support in other Southern states.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Arizona and Michigan Vote Tomorrow

Arizona and Michigan will hold their primaries tomorrow. These will be the first major contests since Rick Santorum won three states on February 7th and began his long-awaited surge in the polls. Arizona has largely been ignored by the media, as Mitt Romney is expected to win there easily. Michigan, on the other hand, has gotten a lot of attention. If Romney loses to Santorum, it will be viewed as a big loss; if he wins, it will be viewed as a comeback--until the contests on the following "Super Tuesday" overshadow everything. Either result is possible, as the polls in Michigan show an extremely close race. The following are the most recent polls conducted in Arizona and Michigan:

Arizona Primary
02/26 WeAskAmerica -- Romney 43, Santorum 27, Gingrich 21, Paul 10
02/26 PPP (D) -- Romney 43, Santorum 26, Gingrich 18, Paul 11
02/24 ARG -- Romney 39, Santorum 35, Gingrich 11, Paul 9
02/23 Rasmussen -- Romney 42, Santorum 29, Gingrich 16, Paul 8

Judging by these numbers, Romney will indeed win Arizona as easily as had been expected. The Mormon vote is not quite as big a factor in Arizona as it was in Nevada, but Western states continue to be a Romney stronghold. It's a decent recovery for Romney after his loss in Colorado on February 7th. However, Newt Gingrich still has a healthy amount of support in these polls. Some number of Gingrich supporters should make a strategic defection to Santorum on voting day, so Romney's margin of victory may be smaller than the polls anticipate.

Michigan Primary
02/26 Rasmussen -- Romney 38, Santorum 36, Paul 11, Gingrich 10
02/26 PPP (D) -- Romney 39, Santorum 37, Paul 13, Gingrich 9
02/26 Mitchell -- Santorum 37, Romney 35, Gingrich 9, Paul 8
02/26 WeAskAmerica -- Romney 37, Santorum 33, Paul 18, Gingrich 13
02/26 ARG -- Santorum 36, Romney 35, Paul 15, Gingrich 8
02/23 Rasmussen -- Romney 40, Santorum 34, Paul 10, Gingrich 9
02/23 Mitchell -- Romney 36, Santorum 33, Paul 12, Gingrich 9
02/23 Baydoun -- Romney 39, Santorum 31, Gingrich 9, Paul 9

Romney leads in all but two of the most recent Michigan polls. But his margins are -2, -1, +2, +2, and +4 in the February 26th polls. Moreover, according to the two polling firms that conducted surveys on both February 23rd and February 26th, Romney's margin shrank by 4 and 5 points. The defection of voters from Gingrich to Santorum, extra enthusiasm for Santorum, and a last-minute shift of momentum to Santorum are all possibilities. Thus, despite Romney's small edge in the polls, the race is simply too close to call. Whoever the winner is, the race will be very close.

There's good news to be found for both Santorum and Romney. First, for Santorum: He's secured his position as the chief Anti-Romney. Gingrich still has support, which means that further defections are possible. If Santorum beats Romney in Michigan, this should accelerate. Michigan was his first head-to-head battle against Romney, and despite Romney's money/infrastructure advantage, Santorum is extremely competitive or winning in Michigan. On top of that, Michigan is more pro-Romney than other Midwestern states. Winning there or coming close means Santorum should be favored throughout the Midwest--most importantly in Ohio.

Now the good news for Romney: Strategically, he is well-positioned. His numbers in Arizona and Michigan suggest he is competitive in the Midwest (Santorum's region), while Santorum is uncompetitive in the West and Northeast (Romney's regions). If Romney wins Michigan, Gingrich may get a boost in the South, having proven that Santorum is unable to beat Romney--just as Santorum got a boost after Gingrich failed to win in Florida. Going forward, Santorum is likely to become weaker, because thus far he has benefited from not being vetted. Santorum's electability weakness due to his extreme social conservatism will be more widely known in the future than it is now. If Santorum wins Michigan, there will be a greater incentive for this information to be made known by the media, Republican establishment, and Romney's campaign. A similar phenomenon took place after Gingrich won South Carolina.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Rick Santorum Declines on Intrade

About two weeks ago, Rick Santorum had risen to 18% on the Intrade market for the Republican nomination. It was the highest Santorum reached. Since then, he has lost almost two-thirds of that, dropping to 7%. Much of that decline occurred in the last several days. Intrade investors were not impressed by his performance at the February 22nd debate, and they smelled weakness in the latest polls coming out of Michigan and Arizona.

Intrade investors are now increasingly confident that Mitt Romney will win the nomination. Aside from a brief period of post-South Carolina panic, Romney has been trading at 70% or more for a long time; Santorum's decline has brought Romney back up to 79.7%.

Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are still well behind, trading at 3.2% and 3.1%, respectively. Those four men are the only candidates in the race, but there are now two more individuals getting a small piece of the Intrade action. Chris Christie and Jeb Bush are each trading in the single-digits. Christie is at 1%, and Bush is actually managing to pull in 2.7 percent--almost as high as Paul and Gingrich. Are Christie and Bush planning to get in the race? No. But their numbers reflect the possibility of a contested or brokered convention, a scenario in which none of the current candidates gets a majority of the delegates and a total meltdown ensues.

Meanwhile, the Intrade markets for state contests are much more favorable for Romney than they were two weeks ago. Romney is given a 95% chance of winning Arizona and a 76.7% chance of winning Michigan. Intrade investors were always skeptical of the earlier polls showing Santorum way up in Michigan, but he had gotten as high as 60% to win when the Santorum surge was cresting.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Ohio: Midwestern Rematch

In our preview of the upcoming Michigan Primary, we described Michigan as a somewhat neutral battleground for Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. After Michigan votes on February 28th, the next big contest will be held on March 6th. But March 6th is "Super Tuesday," the day when a total of ten different states will vote (AK, GA, ID, MA, ND, OH, OK, TN, VT, VA). The media will have difficulty covering and analyzing Super Tuesday because so many different states vote, and because the states are so different. Some of the states will be heavily biased toward a candidate (e.g. Newt Gingrich and Romney's home states, Georgia and Massachusetts). Others will have a significant bias, and others will have a slight bias. Which states are important to watch?

Most of the attention will focus on the state of Ohio. It's a populous state, and it's an important swing state in general elections. More significantly, Ohio is a Midwestern state, located in the battleground region for the 2012 Republican primary. The fight between Romney and Santorum will be decided in large part by what happens in the Midwest. The South is infertile territory for Romney, while the Northeast and West are less receptive to Santorum. The Midwest has a natural pro-Santorum bias, but isn't anti-Romney like the South, so both candidates will be contesting states in the Midwest.

Santorum's objective is to crush Gingrich in the South and crush Romney in the Midwest, hoping that big enough margins of victory in those two regions will be enough to put him over the top. Romney's objective is to sweep the Northeast and West while taking enough victories and delegates in the Midwest to accumulate a delegate majority. (Gingrich and Ron Paul currently have no path to victory.)

Arguably, Romney has the easier route: Santorum will be contested in the South by Gingrich and in the Midwest by Romney. Romney won't have as much competition in the Northeast or West. Those regions are also overrepresented in the "winner-take-all" portion of the primary season. In the Midwest, Santorum needs big wins, while Romney can afford some losses there. For Santorum, that's the bad news about having to fight on one's own turf. The good news is that a lot of the news coverage will be focused there, in a region where Santorum is on favorable ground. Meanwhile, Santorum really needs to hope that Gingrich drops out or evaporates in the South, because he can't afford to fight in two regions simultaneously.

Regardless of who wins Michigan, Ohio will be viewed as a rematch. Ohio should begin with a substantial bias in Santorum's favor--his home state of Pennsylvania is next door. Michigan was more of a neutral battleground because Romney could counter the regional bias with his own home state roots there. Polling currently suggests good news for Romney in Michigan, but even if he wins, he'll be starting out behind in Ohio.

While Ohio may have a natural affinity for Santorum, time is against him. The height of the Santorum surge--the "honeymoon" period during which voters assumed Santorum had no weaknesses--is past. Santorum has already lost quite a bit of ground since mid-February, but voters are still only just beginning to learn about Santorum's vulnerabilities. The Republican debate on February 22nd was a preview of the attacks against Santorum's conservative record. As we explained in our discussion of electability and conservatism, attacks against Santorum's electability will be more potent than those against his conservatism. Electability attacks have not yet begun.

Romney's campaign has chosen not to focus on electability, instead undermining Santorum's conservative credentials. If Santorum wins Michigan, or if it's too close for comfort, that is likely to change. Romney would become desperate, and things will get uglier. However, the media environment will become more toxic for Santorum over time, regardless of how well he does in Michigan. The same phenomenon occurred after Gingrich won South Carolina; liberal media and the Republican establishment united to make devastating attacks against Gingrich from which he never recovered. Santorum can expect to face a similar challenge leading up to Ohio and beyond.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Romney vs. Santorum, Part 3

In parts 1 and 2, we demonstrated the way in which Republican primary voters tend to weigh electability and conservatism to determine their vote between two candidates. How will this play out in the voters' decision between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum? It will probably be similar to the dynamics exhibited in the Romney/Perry and Romney/Gingrich duels. In other words, it will be some variation of Santorum being the more conservative candidate and Romney being the more electable one.

As with Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich, when Santorum first got a lot of attention in February, voters gave him the benefit of the doubt and assumed he had no weaknesses. Santorum surged and defeated Romney in Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado. His numbers rose nationally, and Santorum began out-polling Romney in Michigan by a large margin. Here's how the voters saw things:

Romney vs. Santorum
Romney and Santorum are equally electable.
Santorum is much more conservative than Romney.
Result: Santorum wins.

The voters' views of both attributes should be unsurprising. While Romney was known as a "Massachusetts moderate" and "flip-flopper," Santorum's conservatism had not been vetted. On the electability measure, Santorum again benefited from a lack of vetting, while Romney had also just come off a damaging gaffe in which he suggested he didn't care about the poor. Romney's electability took a hit for the second time this season (the other being when voters worried he had something to hide in his tax returns). If anything, some voters probably thought Santorum was more electable than Romney.

But, as with other surging candidates, Santorum's rise has prompted more media scrutiny. Romney's attack machine has directed its fire toward Santorum, rightly assuming Gingrich is no longer a real threat. In Michigan, Romney's attack ads have primarily been directed at making voters question Santorum's conservatism.

Will voters buy the idea that Romney is more conservative than Santorum? No. But it's not necessary: Romney only needs to close the gap. Even before Perry's debate gaffes made voters view him as unelectable, Perry was hurt when his conservatism was questioned. Making him appear only somewhat more conservative than Romney did a lot of damage, because it undermined the whole point of the Perry candidacy, which was to be very conservative.

As with Perry, attacks against Santorum's conservatism will be effective, because voters are unaware of Santorum's weaknesses on that attribute. At the debate on February 22nd, Santorum's imperfections were exploited. But at the end of the day, voters will still view Santorum as being at least somewhat more conservative than Romney. Santorum simply appears more genuine.

The battle between Romney and Santorum will come down to electability. Having closed the gap on conservatism, voters will prefer Romney if they believe he is more electable than Santorum. Perry's drop in perceived electability occurred when he self-destructed in the debates. Romney's attacks against Gingrich, in which he painted Gingrich as a flake with ethics problems, were also devastating.

But Romney has not yet rolled out similar attacks against Santorum's electability. Instead, the only electability issues raised against Santorum thus far have come from the media, which have highlighted Santorum's extreme social views, such as opposition to contraception. It's a tricky matter, because Romney does not want to attack Santorum from the left. When Gingrich and Perry attacked Romney from the left by criticizing Bain Capital, it backfired. Still, Romney is currently relying on the media to do some of the work for him. It's never a good idea for a candidate to rely too much on the media.

Prior to the February 22nd debate, Romney and Santorum were roughly tied in Michigan polls. Here's where they stood before the debate:

Romney vs. Santorum
Romney is marginally more electable than Santorum.
Santorum is somewhat more conservative than Romney.
Result: Inconclusive.

If Romney is able to drag Santorum's perceived conservatism down close to his own level (he'll never drag him all the way down) then Romney will have a slight edge. If Santorum's electability comes into question--particularly if he seems too extreme on religious/social issues--then Romney will have a big advantage.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Who Won the Republican Debate on February 22nd?

Going into tonight's debate, Rick Santorum had the most to lose. As we have discussed before, Santorum's surge this month was similar to the other surges that took place this primary season: It was based on voters giving a new candidate the benefit of the doubt and assuming he was a perfect conservative. Thus, Santorum's goal was to protect his image of being an unblemished Tea Partier. But Santorum took a lot of hits during the debate. For the first time, he was cross-examined by his opponents. Santorum lost the debate because the attacks used against him were new to most voters, and they will do damage. By contrast, Mitt Romney took few hits, and those he received were old news, so they will have little impact. Romney won the debate.

That's not to say Santorum did a terrible job. He was not eviscerated by Romney the way Newt Gingrich was in the pre-Florida debate. Santorum appeared intelligent, sincere, and passionate. He was capable of going head-to-head with Romney. Santorum also had the good fortune of not being painted as a religious extremist by the moderator. But Santorum was repeatedly forced into the position of defending or excusing un-conservative actions he took as a senator. All of this will be news to the Tea Partiers watching the debate. Meanwhile, Santorum was not able to break any new ground against Romney.

Romney and Gingrich both did well in the debate. Gingrich chose to return to his old pattern of being positive and not going on the attack against other candidates. Gingrich's answers were good, but since he is no longer in the running, any strength he has simply benefits Romney by undermining Santorum. Romney spent most of his time bolstering his own conservative credentials by reciting specific actions he took as governor of Massachusetts and attacking Barack Obama.

Ron Paul decided to make himself relevant in the debate by repeatedly attacking Santorum for not being conservative enough. Paul concentrated all of his fire on Santorum. Much of the time, Santorum defended himself well, but he still took some damage. That's the problem with being on the defensive.

There were no extraordinary gaffes or stand-out moments in the debate. The crowd was clearly pro-Romney; they applauded and cheered Romney's responses and at one point even booed Santorum, when Santorum was making an excuse for having voted for an appropriations bill that included funding for Planned Parenthood. The most memorable moments of the debate, such as that one, tended to involve Santorum being forced into a corner. Santorum felt compelled to defend his earmarks as senator. As senator he also supported "No Child Left Behind" and had to admit that it was a mistake. Worse, he said that he only did it because he had to "go along" with the team. Romney criticized Santorum for supporting Arlen Specter, a "RINO" senator who voted for Obamacare; Santorum defended Specter at length.

Santorum did not appear unelectable, but at times it appeared that he was running to the left of Romney. Since Santorum's entire candidacy is based on being the conservative alternative to Romney (i.e. being to the right of Romney and Gingrich), it was a bad night for Santorum.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Final? Primary Debate Tomorrow

Tomorrow evening may be one of the last debates to be held during this primary season. CNN will host the debate at 8:00pm Eastern. The debate schedule for March has not been finalized, and it's unclear whether there will even be an additional debate prior to Super Tuesday (March 6th).

The last debate was held just before the Florida Primary, and much has changed since then. Newt Gingrich's campaign is in shambles, and Mitt Romney's campaign is facing a serious challenge from Rick Santorum. The debate will be an important opportunity for each of the candidates--particularly those who lack financial resources--to make a good impression before Michigan and Arizona vote on February 28th.

For the first time, Santorum is considered a legitimate contender. In previous debates, no one considered him a threat, and he did not get attacked by any of his competitors. Instead, Santorum was the one always on the attack. In one debate last month, Santorum resembled a prosecutor, repeatedly challenging the conservative credentials of his opponents while receiving no attacks in return. Tomorrow will be different, as each candidate has ample incentive to finally put Santorum on the defensive.

As with the debates before Florida, Romney has been humbled by recent losses and must show that he can win a debate against the man who beat him. Romney should treat Santorum the way he treated Gingrich in the pre-Florida debates. Judging by what we have seen, Santorum is probably better in one-on-one exchanges than Gingrich. But unlike the rest, Santorum has not yet been challenged. He is not used to playing defense. That's the one advantage Romney has: His attacks against Santorum will be new, and Santorum does not have experience in taking hits during the debates.

Gingrich also needs to attack Santorum, as they are competing for identical voters. Gingrich may hate Romney more, but Santorum is the bigger threat by far. If Santorum's plan to take the South is successful, Gingrich will have nothing left. To stand any chance of winning the nomination, Gingrich must demonstrate why he--not Santorum--deserves to be the conservative alternative to Romney. However, as we have seen in many previous debates, just because a strategy is optimal doesn't mean a candidate will use it. If Gingrich allows his personal hatred to take over, he may spend more of his time focusing on Romney.

As for Romney, he will still face criticism from his opponents, especially Santorum. Santorum won points last time by attacking Romneycare. As far back as September, Elephant Watcher wrote about the candidates' inability to effectively attack Romneycare with specifics. It wasn't until mid-January that Santorum became the first candidate to do so. Romney will need to be prepared to defend Romneycare all over again, from top to bottom. He will also probably be questioned about his gaffe back in January about not caring about poor people, and he'll need a good answer.

Tomorrow is Santorum's chance to prove himself. Not only will he be challenged for the first time by his opponents, he will also face scrutiny from the debate moderators. The moderators will ask Santorum some difficult questions about his vulnerabilities, particularly his extreme social views (e.g. opposition to contraception). The media will attempt to paint Santorum as a religious fundamentalist. They attempted to do the same thing to Mike Huckabee in 2008, and Huckabee was able to respond very effectively. Santorum is no Huckabee, but he must appear reasonable and in control.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Romney vs. Santorum, Part 2

How will Republican voters weigh the factors of electability and conservatism when deciding whether to nominate Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum? First, we should consider some basics, which should be fairly obvious. The following scenarios form the framework in any two-man race in a Republican primary. Voters make the decision between Candidate A vs. Candidate B; we'll use Romney as Candidate A and Santorum as Candidate B, but they are interchangeable:

Scenario 1
Romney is more electable than Santorum.
Romney is more conservative than Santorum.
Result: Romney wins.

Scenario 2
Romney is more electable than Santorum.
Romney and Santorum are equally conservative.
Result: Romney wins.

Scenario 3
Romney and Santorum are equally electable.
Romney is more conservative than Santorum.
Result: Romney wins.

Scenario 4
Romney is more electable than Santorum.
Santorum is more conservative than Romney.
Result: ?

Note that each scenario has a mirror image made by swapping the names (e.g. the reverse of Scenario 1 is that Santorum is more electable and more conservative, and Santorum wins). Interestingly, the winner in almost every scenario is easy to predict, except for the scenario in which Candidate A is superior on one attribute and Candidate B is superior on the other. As we've said before, history suggests that Republican voters prize electability over conservatism. But the result is not guaranteed as it is in the other scenarios.

To help us determine how the Romney vs. Santorum dynamic will play out, recall the two previous duels that occurred during this election season: Romney vs. Rick Perry and Romney vs. Newt Gingrich. We'll start with Romney and Perry, who were considered the two frontrunners back in August and September of 2011.

The duel between Romney and Perry went through two phases. That's because electability and conservatism are based on voters' perceptions, which can change. As we discussed back in December, candidates repeatedly crashed this season because voters (wrongly) assumed that each new candidate was perfectly electable and conservative--they were unaware of the candidates' weaknesses. When Perry first came on the scene in August, voters assumed he was a perfect conservative, and assumed he was fairly electable, though they may have initially had some concerns about nominating another Texas governor. The voters' thought process went as follows:

Romney vs. Perry
Romney and Perry are equally electable--or fairly close.
Perry is much more conservative than Romney.
Result: Perry wins.

In consequence, Perry skyrocketed in the polls. It wouldn't be the last time Romney was overtaken in the polls by a newcomer. Shortly after Perry entered the race, Elephant Watcher predicted Perry's electability and conservatism would both come under attack. In September, this "two-front war" indeed occurred, weakening Perry. Perry wasn't as conservative as voters hoped, and his debate performances proved he was not nearly as electable as they assumed. By October, voters perceived the race this way:

Romney vs. Perry
Romney is much more electable than Perry.
Perry is somewhat more conservative than Romney.
Result: Romney wins.

Perry took a nosedive in the polls, and Romney was back on top. His frontrunner status in the polls wouldn't last very long. After Herman Cain caught fire and went down in flames in October/November, Gingrich was the next to challenge Romney. As before, Gingrich's duel with Romney went through two phases as voters discovered Gingrich's weaknesses. In the beginning, they assumed Gingrich didn't really have any:

Romney vs. Gingrich
Romney and Gingrich are equally electable--or fairly close.
Gingrich is much more conservative than Romney.
Result: Gingrich wins.

Gingrich took big leads in national polls and polls of every state but New Hampshire. By early December, he was the man to beat. Back in October, Elephant Watcher predicted Gingrich would suffer the same kind of two-front war that Perry had, with attacks against both his electability and conservatism. And Gingrich was even more susceptible to a critique of his conservatism than Perry had been. The attacks against Gingrich were focused in Iowa, where voters had a dramatic change of heart:

Romney vs. Gingrich
Romney is much more electable than Gingrich.
Romney and Gingrich are equally conservative--or fairly close.
Result: Romney wins.

As predicted, Gingrich's numbers tanked. Gingrich finished poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire. But because voters in South Carolina, Florida, and later states were not as tuned in--and because their states were not as heavily campaigned in--Gingrich still got the benefit of the doubt. And prior to South Carolina, questions looming over Romney's unreleased tax returns raised questions about Romney's electability. Here's how the South Carolinians viewed the situation when they went to the polls in mid-January:

Romney vs. Gingrich
Gingrich is more electable than Romney.
Gingrich is much more conservative than Romney.
Result: Gingrich wins.

As one might expect, Gingrich defeated Romney in South Carolina by a wide margin. Romney's campaign decided that in Florida, they needed to recreate what had happened in Iowa. Romney's tax returns were released and demonstrated that he had no skeletons in his closet. Attack ads against Gingrich and more anti-Gingrich coverage from conservative media outlets recreated the "two-front war" against Gingrich's electability and conservatism. Here's what Floridians were thinking when they went to the polls at the end of January:

Romney vs. Gingrich
Romney is much more electable than Gingrich.
Romney and Gingrich are equally conservative--or fairly close.
Result: Romney wins.

Using this method of analysis, we can see that the behavior of voters in this primary season was not strange or erratic as it may have appeared on the surface. How does this analysis apply to the current duel between Romney and Santorum? We will discuss that in Part 3.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Romney vs. Santorum, Part 1

In September 2011, the Republican presidential primary looked like a two-man race between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. In December 2011 and January 2012, it looked like a two-man race between Romney and Newt Gingrich. Now it's become a race between Romney and Rick Santorum. How will voters decide between the two candidates? What will the candidates need to do in order to win this battle?

Every Republican presidential primary is different, but winning the primary always comes down to two different factors: Electability and conservatism. Republicans want a candidate who will win, and one who will govern as a conservative after he wins. In theory, it's that simple. If one candidate can claim to be the most conservative and the most electable among the field, he will win the nomination. But most of the time, one candidate doesn't possess more electability and conservatism than all the rest of the candidates, so the voters must weigh the two factors.

Which do voters care about more, electability or conservatism? History suggests the answer is electability. Republicans often nominate a candidate who is viewed as a "RINO," but rarely one who is viewed as too extreme or inexperienced to be elected. But more than that, electability is seen as a baseline qualification. It's not a virtue; it's a requirement. And it shouldn't be too difficult to be considered electable: All it requires is a decent amount of high-level government experience, not being viewed as an extremist politically, and not coming across as a strange, scandalous, or stupid person.

But of the nine Republicans who ran for president this cycle (Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Huntsman, Paul, Pawlenty, Perry, Romney, Santorum), there was an unusually large number who lacked the basic qualification of electability. Bachmann, Cain, and Paul were considered extremely unelectable. Gingrich and, increasingly as time went on, Perry also fell into the camp. Huntsman, Pawlenty, and Romney all seemed to be electable. Santorum was left somewhere in between.

Of the three who were considered obviously electable, Huntsman and Romney had questionable conservatism. That left Tim Pawlenty as the only candidate in the field who was both very conservative and electable--and he quit the race back in August 2011. It's no wonder Republicans have long felt that their field this year is weak. They are in disbelief that the Party could not produce even one candidate who met their basic requirements, let alone inspire them.

Now that the field has been narrowed to a duel between Romney and Santorum, voters will need to determine the conservatism and electability of each one, and determine how to weigh the factors. How will they go about doing this? We will discuss that process in Part 2.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Michigan: Santorum's Florida?

It's still nearly two weeks until the next major contests in the Republican presidential primary: Michigan and Arizona will vote on February 28th. Less attention has been paid to Arizona, which is considered an easier state for Mitt Romney to win; the other candidates aren't devoting many resources to that state. Instead, the focus has been on Michigan, a state which Rick Santorum intends to win. Romney, too, desperately wants to win Michigan. The contest will be important because it will be the first time that Romney and Santorum have directly vied for a state since Santorum's wins on February 7th.

Michigan's importance is even greater if one considers it to be a neutral battleground between the two candidates, much the same way that Florida was a neutral battleground for Romney and Newt Gingrich back in January. There's a difference, however. Florida did not lean toward one candidate or another. Michigan, on the other hand, does lean toward Romney--but it also leans toward Santorum. Romney won Michigan in 2008, it's a left-leaning state, and Romney has ties there (Romney was born in Michigan, and his father was a popular governor there in years past).

Meanwhile, it's a Midwestern state, so it may naturally favor Santorum, who has shown strength in the region. Also, the pro-Romney bent of the state may be diminished by Romney's outspoken opposition to the "auto bailout" of General Motors and Chrysler. Santorum also opposed the bailout, but that fact is less known.

Arguably, the state's biases cancel each other out, leaving both Romney and Santorum a real chance to win. Here are the latest polls:

Michigan Primary
02/14 Mitchell -- Santorum 34, Romney 25, Paul 11, Gingrich 5
02/13 Rasmussen -- Santorum 35, Romney 32, Paul 13, Gingrich 11
02/12 ARG -- Santorum 33, Romney 27, Gingrich 21, Paul 12
02/12 PPP (D) -- Santorum 39, Romney 24, Paul 12, Gingrich 11

One thing is clear: Santorum is currently in the lead. As expected, his surge--based in large part on his status as the only candidate who hasn't been vetted yet--has boosted his numbers beyond Romney for the time being. The extent of Santorum's lead varies wildly: PPP has him up by 15, while Rasmussen gives him a lead of 3 points. Gingrich's numbers are also all over the board, ranging from 5 to 21 points.

The difference may be due to the fact that it's difficult for pollsters to set up the infrastructure to poll just one state. They had less time to do it, since the importance of Michigan wasn't apparent from the beginning of the presidential race--unlike New Hampshire or Florida, which were clearly going to make news.

The stakes are high. Romney and Santorum are both under extreme pressure to win Michigan. There is one debate scheduled prior to the contest, on February 22nd. As with Gingrich's surge following South Carolina, the burden is on Romney to use his resources to vet his opponent and change the trajectory of the race. If Romney fails to derail Santorum, Santorum's odds of winning the nomination will increase considerably.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Santorum Rises on Intrade; Romney Still Dominates

When we last examined the Intrade market for the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney was poised to win Florida. He was near 90% on Intrade, and his nearest rival was in the low single-digits. Since then, Romney won Florida and Nevada by huge margins--but was derailed by Rick Santorum's three-state win on February 7th.

Romney still dominates the Intrade market, standing at 73.5%, nearly triple the rest of his competitors combined. But Santorum has risen to 16%. Prior to his win last Tuesday, Santorum was trading at less than 2%. Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are trading at 3% and 2.3%, respectively. Once it became clear Gingrich was going to lose Florida, he cratered. He continues to be mired in the low single-digits. The question is, how high will Santorum go?

The Intrade markets on individual states reveal a fog of confusion about the future of the race. Intrade's investors are unsure of whether Santorum will be able to pull out more wins in the Midwest--wins he'll absolutely need if Romney is to be stopped.

Of the three contests taking place prior to Super Tuesday (Arizona, Michigan, and Washington), Intrade is confident Romney will win Arizona (80%) and Washington (65%). But in the all-important state of Michigan, the market is split: Santorum is at 55% and Romney is at 45%. This market has been going back and forth between the two competitors. The same is true of Super Tuesday's biggest state, Ohio, where Romney is trading at 50% and Santorum at 55% (these are sell orders, which is why they sometimes add to over 100%).

Lack of regular polling of Michigan and Ohio explains why Intrade is so cautious about taking a stand on those important states. Michigan is one of Romney's "home states," and Ohio is an expensive place to campaign, but Intrade gives Romney no edge. Tuesday's contests in Minnesota and Missouri showed Santorum strong and Romney weak in the Midwest. Intrade has adopted a wait-and-see approach.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Mitt Romney Wins Maine Caucus

Mitt Romney won the Maine Caucus on Saturday, narrowly edging out Ron Paul. While Romney beat Paul by 3 points among the reporting precincts, so few people vote in the Maine Caucus that it amounted to less than 200 votes. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich placed far behind. The Republican Party of Maine officially declared Romney the winner, even though some precincts have yet to report; some of these precincts may be participating in the caucus outside of the February 4-11th timeframe. Even if, as in Iowa, a later tally gave the victory to Romney's opponent, Romney is the beneficiary of the result here. Since there are no delegates to be won in the non-binding caucus, all of the benefit comes from positive media.

Maine Caucus (84% reporting)
Romney -- 39%
Paul -- 36%
Santorum -- 18%
Gingrich -- 6%

What will Maine's impact be, and what do the results reveal? Overall, little. There are some things to be gleaned, but they point in opposing directions, for a small net impact. Romney won, blunting the "Romney's campaign is falling" narrative. That is balanced by the fact that he won by a small amount. But that, in turn, is balanced by the fact that his nearest competitor was Paul, rather than Santorum, whom he trounced by 20 points. That's good news for Romney, especially since it reinforces the notion that Romney holds an advantage over Santorum in the Northeast. On the other hand, Santorum still has time to rise from his surge; however, Santorum has not been vetted yet. Santorum also takes away good news, since he beat Gingrich, the competing Anti-Romney, by a substantial margin. This, too, is balanced somewhat by the fact that it took place in a Northeastern state where Gingrich was not expected to do well.

As one can tell from the description in the preceding paragraph, the circumstances make for a muddled analysis rather than providing one clear lesson. If Santorum had won, or if Gingrich had beaten Santorum, things would have been interesting.

The first real battle between Santorum and Romney will take place in Michigan, which holds its primary on February 28th. One debate will take place prior to that primary, on February 22nd. Until then, the extent of Santorum's strength won't be fully clear.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Maine Caucus Finishes Tomorrow

Tomorrow, voters in Maine will finish voting in the Maine Caucus. As with the other contests this week, the Maine Caucus will be non-binding, so no delegates will be awarded. Very little attention has been paid to this contest--even less than to the states that voted on Tuesday--so there is no polling data whatsoever. The Intrade market currently gives Mitt Romney a 69% chance of winning--and gives Ron Paul a 30% chance. The only reporting on Maine has been that none of the candidates have been spending their resources on Maine, except for Paul. Paul's campaign believes he is stronger in caucus states, and lacking competition in Maine, hopes to pull out a win.

By its nature, Maine is a pro-Romney state: It is a Northeastern state and voted for Romney back in 2008. However, as we saw in Minnesota and Colorado earlier this week, that doesn't mean it's a lock for Romney. Since the Romney campaign is in "delegate mode" and concerned only with racking up delegates, it makes sense that they would skip the state. But because Maine will be the last state to vote prior to the important contests on February 28th (in Arizona and Michigan), it may contribute to or blunt certain media narratives.

The media is uncertain whether Rick Santorum's sweep of three states on Tuesday was a fluke, or whether Romney is going down in flames. It's also unclear whether Newt Gingrich's campaign is completely collapsing, with all of its support going over to Santorum. Maine may provide some hints, even though no one beside Paul is attempting to compete there.

If Romney loses the state, there will be some rumblings about his weakness. If he wins, it will be treated as a signal of his strength in the Northeast. If Paul wins the state, Maine may be written off as meaningless. Attention will also be paid to Santorum's and Gingrich's numbers. If Santorum does poorly, the media will begin grasping onto the idea that the regions are split among candidates (Romney in the Northeast/West, Gingrich in the South, Santorum in the Midwest). If Santorum does well, particularly if he does much better than Gingrich, it will be viewed as a sign of his emerging status as chief Anti-Romney.

It's not unrealistic to think Santorum could do better than expected. When other candidates surged during this primary season, they surged across the country at once. Santorum has not been vetted yet, and certainly hasn't been attacked in negative campaigning in Maine, so voters will assume for now that he has no real weaknesses.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Paths to the Republican Nomination

After performing miserably in four consecutive contests (NH, SC, FL, and NV), Rick Santorum made an incredible comeback on Tuesday, winning three states at once. Prior to this, Newt Gingrich seemed to be the only candidate capable of scoring a big victory against Mitt Romney. With Santorum back in the race, it's worth taking a look at the different paths the candidates could take toward winning the nomination.

Ron Paul. Though it's disappointing news to his enthusiastic fanbase, Ron Paul has no path to the nomination and never will. Paul wins respect for his consistency, but few can imagine him as a serious contender for the presidency. He is far more frequently described as a "kook" or "nut" than as "presidential." Paul will be lucky to win a state at all, much less the nomination. Even if a catastrophe occurred, resulting in the death of the three other contenders, the Republican establishment would see to it that someone else is nominated at the convention.

Newt Gingrich. Gingrich's path to the nomination, if unlikely, had been apparent: He could secure his role as the chief Anti-Romney, win the Southern states, and hope that he could win enough neutral battleground states to offset Romney's advantage in the Northeast, West, and "blue" states. Losing Florida by 14 points was a serious setback for Gingrich. Seeing Santorum win three states last Tuesday was ruinous. Gingrich no longer has a clear path to the nomination.

It is possible that Gingrich could get ahead of Santorum again. It would require Gingrich to do very well in the next few debates (and probably require Santorum to do badly at them). Gingrich would also need to hope Romney's attack machine cuts Santorum down to size. But even if Gingrich eventually manages to wrest the Anti-Romney vote back from Santorum, it will be too late. Gingrich needs every delegate he can get, and he can't afford to spend the next few weeks splitting the Anti-Romney vote while fighting his way back on top.

Mitt Romney. Though alarming, Romney's losses in CO, MN, and MO on Tuesday do not change his basic equation. Romney's campaign is the only one (besides Paul's) that managed to get on the ballot with a full slate of delegates in every state. For the time being, he is the only candidate with the organization and money to compete for delegates everywhere in the country. The "winner-take-all" phase of the primary is heavily stacked in his favor, with many states in the Northeast and West and few in the South. As long as Romney continues to perform well in his best regions, gobble up as many delegates as he can in the South, and use his money advantage to strongly compete in the battleground states, he is the favorite to win.

Assuming Romney is able to "vet" Santorum with the kind of negative ads that destroyed Gingrich in Iowa and Florida, Santorum's resurgence will be to Romney's benefit. Obviously Romney would prefer to compete against Gingrich than Santorum. But if both of his competitors are robust without being too strong, they'll split the Anti-Romney vote. Moreover, at some point Santorum and Gingrich will need to bow to the reality that they are competing with each other for the same voters. It's tempting for Anti-Romney voters to wish for a truce between Gingrich and Santorum, but it simply makes too much sense for Gingrich and Santorum to attack each other instead. There's a reason why Gingrich was demanding that Santorum drop out of the race, and it wasn't ideological disagreement.

Rick Santorum. Despite his disadvantages, Santorum now has a clear path to the nomination. It's not an easy one, and those disadvantages (lack of money/organization, failure to fully qualify on ballots in several states, having yet to be vetted, etc.) are more likely to sink him than not. Still, he has a path. Santorum is in a race against time. He must do well enough against Gingrich in the next several contests to push him out of the way and fully capture the Anti-Romney vote before Super Tuesday. Santorum can win if he is able to dominate the South and the Midwest, while performing decently in Romney's strongholds of the Northeast and West.

The challenge for Santorum is that he must squeeze Gingrich out of the race and take all the Southern delegates for himself. The South is the most anti-Romney region, as well as being the most pro-Gingrich. In a two-man race, this would not matter: Without Gingrich in the running, Gingrich voters would happily go over to Santorum instead of Romney. In a three-man race, it's different. Santorum is faced with the task of getting pro-Gingrich voters in the South to abandon Gingrich and join him. To do that, he needs to beat Gingrich enough to make Gingrich's candidacy look like it's over, and in a hurry.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Santorum Sweeps CO, MN, and MO

Rick Santorum won a clean sweep of the three states holding contests on Tuesday, winning Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri. Although no delegates were awarded (CO and MN were non-binding caucuses, and MO's actual contest is in March), it's almost beside the point: Santorum needed something dramatic to get him ahead of Newt Gingrich and back into the race, and he got it. Reporting suggests that Gingrich had skipped these states to focus on the Southern contests later down the road, and that Mitt Romney--with campaign in full "delegate mode"--largely ignored these contests to focus on Arizona and Michigan, which will be held at the end of the month. Meanwhile, Santorum had skipped Florida and Nevada to focus on Tuesday's states. But the results reveal more than just the campaigns' different strategies:

Colorado Caucus (100% reporting)
Santorum -- 40%
Romney -- 35%
Gingrich -- 13%
Paul -- 12%

Minnesota Caucus (95% reporting)
Santorum -- 45%
Paul -- 27%
Romney -- 17%
Gingrich -- 11%

Missouri Primary (100% reporting)
Santorum -- 55%
Romney -- 25%
Paul -- 12%
Gingrich -- [not on ballot]

The strength of Santorum's wins, particularly in Minnesota and Missouri, reveal three things. First, it shows weakness on Romney's part. While he may have skipped these contests, he ought to have done better considering the momentum he built up from his early wins and Santorum's early losses. Romney also has reason to be concerned about his relative strength compared to Santorum in the Midwest (IA, MN, MO). Romney's failure in Minnesota makes it especially clear, considering he won that state in 2008 after having lost big in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida.

The second thing the results reveal is the weakness of Gingrich as chief Anti-Romney. If Tuesday was a bad night for Romney, it was fatal for Gingrich. The voters in these states seem to have taken Santorum's central campaign argument to heart: Gingrich won't beat Romney, so another alternative is needed. Even without having won delegates, the perception of the race will shift, causing Gingrich supporters to jump on the Santorum bandwagon. Santorum's numbers will surge.

The third item revealed in Tuesday's results is that Santorum is unvetted. He has not been subject to any media scrutiny or negative ads by the other candidates. The race has returned to its old pattern, with yet another Anti-Romney surging. Back in December, we explored the question of why candidates kept surging and crashing. The answer is that voters assume each new candidate is both highly conservative and highly electable. But because no candidate in the field possesses both those qualities, their numbers crash once the candidate's weaknesses are revealed. Santorum's late surge in Iowa was blunted, and he was never considered a threat. He is the last candidate to have a surge--and crash.

What happens next? After the non-binding Maine Caucus ends this Saturday, there will be a debate on February 22nd and the next two primaries will be in Arizona and Michigan on February 28th. In the meantime, Romney's campaign, which must feel like it is playing whack-a-mole, will begin attacking Santorum and heavily campaigning in AZ and MI.

If Santorum emerges from his vetting unscathed and does well in AZ/MI, his odds of winning the nomination will increase substantially. Otherwise, he will crash and the campaign will shift back into Romney's favor. In such a case, Santorum's surge will have actually helped Romney, because the Anti-Romney vote will become even more split than before.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Contests in CO, MN, and MO Tomorrow

Voters in three more states will vote tomorrow, in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri. (The Missouri contest is a strange one--it won't count, and the real Missouri Caucus will be held in March. This is just another example of how each state running its own contest by its own rules allows for a lot of quirks.) Mitt Romney will experience the burden of a frontrunner in these contests. If he wins them, they will receive relatively little coverage: The media have decided that the primaries in Arizona and Michigan being held at the end of the month are more worthy of attention. But if Romney loses these states, then they will be considered noteworthy, particularly if Rick Santorum beats him. That's because the current narrative is that Romney is the inevitable nominee and Santorum is a lower-tier candidate. Any result that challenges that narrative will cause the dynamic to shift.

We have seen before the way in which the media overreacts to every development in the race. When Newt Gingrich won South Carolina, the same media that had been talking a week earlier about a Romney steamroller began saying that Romney had run a terrible campaign. Upon Gingrich taking South Carolina, Elephant Watcher predicted that if Romney won Florida, the media would turn against Gingrich just as quickly, declaring Gingrich can only win Southern states. The media have indeed turned against Gingrich and renewed the "Romney is inevitable" narrative.

In the same way, if Romney does poorly in tomorrow's contests, they can just as easily begin trumpeting the notion that Romney is a lousy candidate. More importantly, if Santorum beats Gingrich, Santorum can get back into the race. Otherwise, the three contests tomorrow are considered minor events. If Nevada got little polling, tomorrow's states have gotten virtually nothing. PPP (D) has conducted a poll in Colorado and Minnesota. There is no polling data on Missouri, where Gingrich will evidently not be on the ballot.

Colorado Caucus
02/04 PPP (D) -- Romney 40, Santorum 26, Gingrich 18, Paul 12

Minnesota Caucus
02/04 PPP (D) -- Santorum 29, Romney 27, Gingrich 22, Paul 19

Both Colorado and Minnesota were won by Romney in 2008, even after Romney had lost in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida. In theory, Romney ought to do very well in both states this time around. The Colorado poll suggests an easy repeat victory, but Minnesota will be more difficult.

However, without more polling data it's impossible to be sure. Santorum leads in the only poll. Interestingly, the Intrade market on Minnesota doesn't believe the poll: It has Romney with a 70% chance to win. PPP is a Democratic polling firm, and its track record is mixed. PPP did well in its polling for South Carolina, but did badly in Iowa and Florida, and pretty badly on the lower-tier candidates in Nevada. It's also been said that caucuses are more difficult to poll than primaries.

Nevertheless, the two polls show Santorum ahead of Gingrich in both Colorado and Minnesota. Intrade investors do believe that. If Gingrich has indeed been excluded from the Missouri ballot tomorrow, Santorum will beat him there, as well. Even without a win, Santorum will get a big boost simply by vaulting ahead of Gingrich.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Mitt Romney Wins Nevada Caucus

Just a few days after his crucial victory in Florida, Mitt Romney won another landslide, in the Nevada Caucus. Although Romney won an overwhelming victory, less attention will be paid to it, largely due to Nevada's unusually high Mormon population. In our analysis of why early states have such influence, we noted that less weight is given to a victory if the winner has a unique advantage in the state. If the Mormon vote weren't a factor, Romney would be given much more credit for his big win in Nevada. Even so, one should remember that Nevada is not the only state where the Mormon vote could play a role. Western states like Utah, Idaho, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming will also be affected to some degree. This is especially important because some of those states might otherwise be receptive to a "Tea Party" candidate.

Nevada Caucus (70% reporting)
Romney -- 48%
Gingrich -- 23%
Paul -- 19%
Santorum -- 11%

Though votes are still coming in, it appears Romney replicated his 2008 performance, when he won half the vote. Given the fact that he won so big last time around, it would be difficult for him to improve by too much; winning half the vote in a four-way race is pretty close to the maximum. Once again, Romney won more than Gingrich and Santorum combined.

Nevada was Ron Paul's best state in 2008 as well; he had placed second. If anyone believed Paul had a chance of taking a state, Nevada would be it. As Paul is considered by most to be a fringe candidate, he got nowhere.

Importantly, Rick Santorum failed to beat Newt Gingrich or even come close. As long as he continues putting in numbers like this, Santorum will never be able to break out of the second (or third) tier of candidates. February will be Santorum's last opportunity to turn things around. If Santorum beats Gingrich or comes close in one of the contests, he would get a lot of favorable publicity and the dynamic of the race will shift. It's likely that many of the Gingrich supporters are willing--perhaps even eager--to try their luck with Santorum as the chief Anti-Romney. One good performance would be enough to shift the narrative. Santorum looks far behind Gingrich today, but Gingrich has suffered catastrophic collapses before.

For some time now, Elephant Watcher has viewed Santorum as a more natural Anti-Romney than Gingrich, because he can more convincingly make the argument that he is more conservative--and he may be perceived as more electable. Santorum didn't get a ticket into the race in Nevada, but there are still a few February contests where he has an opening.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Nevada Caucus Tomorrow

On Saturday, the last of the early states will cast its votes: Nevada. Under the national Republican Party rules, Nevada is a member of the exclusive club--along with Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina--that gets to vote before all the rest. (Florida, given its importance in a general election, was able to crash the party, though it took a penalty for doing so.)

Traditionally, Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina are the "big three" early states. Nevada simply doesn't have as much prestige, and it gets less attention. The Mormon vote's role in both 2008 and 2012 also tended to result in the state being downplayed, as it gave Mitt Romney an unusual advantage. About a quarter of the Republican vote in the state is Mormon, and they nearly all voted for Romney in 2008. The Mormon vote played a similar role to the black vote in the Democrats' South Carolina Primary of 2008 (also about a quarter) which guaranteed Barack Obama's win.

Nevada's second-class status among the early states was reflected in the scant amount of polling that was done there. There have only been two recent polls conducted in Nevada:

Nevada Caucus
02/02 PPP (D) -- Romney 50, Gingrich 25, Santorum 15, Paul 8
01/31 Vegas R-Journal -- Romney 45, Gingrich 25, Santorum 11, Paul 9

Not surprisingly, Romney enjoys a colossal lead. Even in the poll taken before Romney's win in Florida, Romney holds a 20-point lead over Newt Gingrich. Since Romney is guaranteed to win Nevada, more attention will be paid to his margin of victory. One benchmark to consider is that Romney got 51% of the vote in 2008--and that was after losing in both Iowa and New Hampshire. However, it's possible that Romney's campaign expended more resources there in 2008, operating under the false impression that they would get full credit for winning one of the early states.

The other thing to watch for is how well Gingrich does compared to Rick Santorum. Santorum's argument for staying in the race is that Gingrich was given a chance to play the chief Anti-Romney and failed spectacularly in Florida. Santorum believes that if he is given a chance to take on Romney, he'll fare better. There are some polls that suggest this, but shifting from one Anti-Romney to another--without even the benefit of a debate--is like turning around a battleship. Santorum needs to beat Gingrich or get close in some of the February contests.

Meanwhile, Romney is hoping to build the impression that he is unstoppable. Having won Florida by a sizable margin, he hopes to win Nevada by a landslide and generate a bounce big enough to win the four states voting next week: Minnesota, Colorado, Missouri, and Maine. All of those contests will take place prior to the one debate scheduled in February.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

2012 Republican Primary in Review: January 2012

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, November, December.

January 2012 was the month of the early primary states. By tying for first in Iowa, easily winning New Hampshire, and decisively defeating his remaining opponents in Florida, Mitt Romney secured his position as the prohibitive favorite to win the nomination.

As January began, the situation in Iowa was unclear. Romney, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum all had reasons to be optimistic. Newt Gingrich, who had been leading in Iowa only a few weeks earlier, had been devastated by his rivals' negative ads. With no opportunities to debate, Gingrich could not respond. At last, Santorum was given the chance to be the Evangelical Anti-Romney in Iowa. His surge began at the last possible moment; it was spotted by Rick Perry and Paul, who quickly responded with the first attacks ever made against Santorum.

It was a race against time for Santorum, and he lost. Romney managed to squeak out a win in Iowa on January 3rd, beating Santorum by 8 votes. Santorum's spike in the polls was impressive, but so was Romney's ability to make a last-minute play for the state--one he had largely written off since his defeat there in 2008. A recount later found that Santorum had actually won the state by a handful of votes, but he was unable to get the kind of big win that he needed to propel him above Gingrich elsewhere in the country. Santorum was an Iowa-only candidate. Michele Bachmann fared even worse, and she quit the race.

Romney was expected to win the New Hampshire Primary, where he had dominated the polls all year. On January 7th, the candidates finally returned to the debate stage, but they didn't take the opportunity to attack Romney. He easily won the debate; on January 10th he won New Hampshire just as easily. Santorum and Gingrich tied each other for a distant fourth.

Romney's wins in Iowa and New Hampshire gave him a huge bounce in the polls--even in South Carolina, by far the most anti-Romney of the early states. The media began to speculate that Romney might simply win every contest. Seeing no path forward, Jon Huntsman dropped out of the race.

Gingrich and Perry shifted entirely to the offensive against Romney. Their main line of attack was to condemn Romney's success at Bain Capital, a private equity firm. Although they seemed to be scoring points at first, the attacks backfired: They sounded like anti-capitalist critics from the left, and were forced to retreat.

On January 16th, the first of two pre-South Carolina debates took place. Gingrich was given a prime opportunity to attack the liberal media after one liberal moderator all but accused him of being a racist. In attacking the media, Gingrich looked like a genuine Tea Party conservative--enabling voters to overlook his impure record. But that wasn't all: Gingrich was well ahead of Santorum in the polls, and Perry dropped out of the race to endorse Gingrich. It was clear that if anyone would be the alternative to Romney, Gingrich was it. The Anti-Romney vote coalesced, and Gingrich began to surge in the polls.

On January 19th, Gingrich was able to launch a broadside against the liberal media at another debate, when he was asked about his ex-wife's accusations. As with Herman Cain's sex scandal a few months earlier, it took some time before the issue would sink in and drive women voters away from Gingrich. Meanwhile, Romney--who had been able to defeat the Bain criticism--was badly damaged because he refused to release his tax returns. When questioned about it during the debates, he was evasive and defensive. South Carolina's voters began to question Romney's electability: Was he hiding something that would sink him in the general election?

Gingrich won a landslide victory in South Carolina on January 21st. In response, the media narrative shifted dramatically. Romney was no longer the inevitable Republican nominee. Gingrich had the momentum, it seemed. After being left for dead a second time in the campaign, Gingrich had made a comeback. He retook the lead in the Florida polls, a state Romney badly needed to win.

But the situation was not nearly as dire for Romney as it appeared. Despite having been at a severe disadvantage in South Carolina, Romney had nearly doubled his share of the vote there, compared to his run in 2008. And the damage to his electability argument was very superficial: All he had to do was release his tax returns, which he did the following week. As it turned out, there were no skeletons in his closet. Romney had merely been stubborn in failing to release them earlier.

But the Romney campaign knew they had to turn things around. They pulled out all the stops, pouring millions of dollars into negative ads against Gingrich in Florida. As in Iowa, the attacks had a big impact. But Gingrich's real vulnerability lay in the very thing he claimed to be his greatest strength--his debating ability. As Elephant Watcher predicted, Gingrich was not able to debate very well when actually challenged by his opponents. On January 23rd, Gingrich's performance was lackluster. On January 26th, it was disastrous. Romney won the debate by repeatedly hammering Gingrich, who was unable to respond.

In the days following the debates, Romney soared in the Florida polls. Voters' concerns about Romney's electability and toughness were dispelled. By contrast, Gingrich's campaign was left in ruins. Gingrich began to lash out, complaining about the negative ads while taking an increasingly negative tone in interviews. For weeks, Gingrich had claimed that he was the most electable candidate because he was the best man to face Barack Obama in a debate. But after losing two debates, Gingrich found himself making all kinds of excuses for why he was unable to debate properly. All the while, Florida was drenched in attack ads.

On January 31st, Floridians cast their votes in the primary. Romney won an overwhelming victory. Gingrich vowed to fight on, but the situation seemed hopeless. Florida had been very receptive to Gingrich in the past, and was his best hope for building momentum going into a longer race. Romney, having proven he could destroy Gingrich on neutral ground, looked to be in total control.