Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Mitt Romney Wins Florida Primary

Mitt Romney won a landslide victory in the Florida Primary on Tuesday. Romney won 46% of the vote; Newt Gingrich placed a distant second with 32%. Florida was a key test for the candidates, a neutral battleground that inherently favored neither Romney nor Gingrich over the other. Romney's big win in Florida is a strong indication that he will win the nomination.

Gingrich's double-digit loss will have a devastating effect on his campaign. Although his concession speech emphasized that there are "46 states to go," the race will actually become increasingly difficult. As time goes on, debates will become infrequent; the role of money, organization, and momentum will become more important. That's why Gingrich needed a big win in Florida. Even more alarming was the extent of Romney's win:

Florida Primary (98% reporting)
Romney -- 46%
Gingrich -- 32%
Santorum -- 13%
Paul -- 7%

Even supposing Rick Santorum had dropped out of the race, adding several additional points to Gingrich's total (and a few to Romney's), Romney would have beaten Gingrich in Florida by a comfortable margin. If Romney is able to repeat his Florida performance in in similar states, he will win the nomination with little difficulty.

Santorum's support eroded after Gingrich's win in South Carolina, but Santorum's debate performance on Thursday apparently stopped the bleeding. Gingrich's defeat to Romney strengthens Santorum's argument that the Anti-Romney voters have backed the wrong horse. However, Santorum placed so far behind Gingrich that it will be difficult for voters to see him as a viable candidate.

Is there any chance left for Gingrich or Santorum to win the nomination? At this point, their best hope is to absolutely destroy Romney during the remaining debates. Otherwise, only some unforeseen scandal or catastrophe can turn things around.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Florida Primary Tomorrow

Tomorrow is the big day: The Florida Primary. The media and all the political pundits are paying a lot of attention to Florida, and they are right to do so. Florida will be the first big test of how the fight between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich will play out across the country. Iowa's Romney-Santorum tie was inconclusive, Romney's win in his "backyard" of New Hampshire was expected, and Gingrich's win in his "backyard" of South Carolina should have come as no surprise. But Florida is viewed as a neutral battleground. If Romney or Gingrich decisively beats the other in Florida, we can expect a similar dynamic across the other "neutral" states in the country.

The other story, which will probably get a lot less attention, will be Rick Santorum's performance as the lesser Anti-Romney. If he can get close enough to Gingrich, it will suggest that some Anti-Romney voters are having second thoughts about Gingrich. If Santorum does poorly, he will increasingly be seen as a useless appendage to the race.

There has been a lot of polling in Florida, and here are the most recent ones:

Florida Primary
01/29 Suffolk -- Romney 47, Gingrich 27, Santorum 12, Paul 9
01/29 Quinnipiac -- Romney 42, Gingrich 29, Santorum 11, Paul 11
01/29 PPP (D) -- Romney 37, Gingrich 33, Paul 13, Santorum 13
01/29 Insider Adv -- Romney 36, Gingrich 31, Santorum 12, Paul 12
01/29 WeAskAmerica -- Romney 50, Gingrich 28, Santorum 12, Paul 10
01/29 SurveyUSA -- Romney 41, Gingrich 26, Santorum 12, Paul 12
01/29 Reuters -- Romney 42, Gingrich 30, Santorum 16, Paul 6
01/28 ARG -- Romney 43, Gingrich 32, Santorum 11, Paul 8
01/28 Rasmussen -- Romney 44, Gingrich 28, Santorum 12, Paul 10

The result shouldn't be in much doubt: Mitt Romney leads in every single poll. The only question is the margin. Most of the polls give Romney a double-digit lead, with the biggest being about 20 points. Two of the polls (PPP and Insider Advantage) have Romney with about a 5 point lead. The disparity is odd, but it may have something to do with the way the pollsters handle early voting. By all reports, Romney has a huge advantage among those who have already voted, and perhaps some of the pollsters weigh that differently.

In recent days, Elephant Watcher has spent some time exploring the primaries and caucuses set to take place further down the road. It's clear that the schedule favors Romney. Many of his strongest states are backloaded in the winner-take-all period of the primary, beginning April 3rd. He also has a slate of favorable states immediately following Florida. Thus, he gets the benefit of building up momentum early on, and he has the delegate advantage of stacking the winner-take-all deck. Most of Gingrich's favorable states (i.e. solid-red Southern states) are sandwiched in the middle of the schedule, where they offer less in the way of early momentum and fewer delegates.

Then there are the "neutral" states, particularly red states outside the South, and Republican-leaning swing states--like Florida. They are sprinkled throughout the schedule. Whom do those states favor? Florida's result should tell us. If Romney crushes Gingrich in Florida, he can do the same in similar states. Gingrich really needs a win in Florida to blunt Romney's momentum and prove that he can win enough to offset Romney's schedule advantage. (And Republican-leaning swing states are obviously necessary for Gingrich if Romney is going to win all the blue ones, as seems likely.)

After losing Florida, the Gingrich camp is likely to spin that Florida wasn't really a fair fight, and that Florida was really a pro-Romney state all along. Elephant Watcher isn't persuaded. At his height, Gingrich was polling very well in Florida. It's also, technically, a Southern state. There's nothing about Florida that really suggests a pro-Romney bent, other than the fact that it isn't an anti-Romney state.

Then there's the money issue. Florida, being one of the nation's most populous states, is an expensive place to campaign. Romney has the money advantage. But future states won't get any cheaper. They may be smaller, but they will come one after the other, often with multiple states voting on the same day. If anything, campaigning will become more expensive from now on, not less. Moreover, if Gingrich starts losing states, his money will dry up. He will receive fewer campaign contributions, while Romney will get more. Gingrich has also been unusually reliant on one big SuperPAC donor, which is a bad sign.

In conclusion, losing Florida will be a crushing blow to Gingrich. If Romney's margin of victory is big, Gingrich will be mocked in the media as experiencing another "meltdown" or "implosion." The only silver lining is that Romney is now expected to win. If Gingrich loses by a very, very small margin, he may be seen as competitive. But to continue being viewed that way, Gingrich will also need to do better than expected in the February contests.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Santorum Dilemma

Having performed well in the debate on Thursday, Rick Santorum is slowly creeping up in some Florida polls. This should worry Newt Gingrich: In the final days before voting, Santorum's numbers ought to fall as Anti-Romney voters coalesce behind Gingrich. If Santorum's numbers are similar to or greater than Romney's margin of victory in the Florida Primary, Gingrich may be prompted to complain that he would have won if the conservative vote hadn't split. Under such conditions, Gingrich wouldn't be shy about asking Santorum to quit the race.

After Gingrich's win in South Carolina, Elephant Watcher predicted that Santorum's support would melt away. In the days following Gingrich's victory, that's precisely what occurred: Santorum, who had been running close to Gingrich in Florida, plummeted to about 10%. Gingrich was left as the chief Anti-Romney. Watching the debate on Thursday, Elephant Watcher gave Santorum high marks and predicted that his numbers would stop bleeding. If anything, they would recover--but not enough to threaten Romney. Instead, the split would widen Romney's margin of victory.

Santorum's support appears to exist in limbo: It's never big enough to allow him to become the chief Anti-Romney, but it's never small enough to completely die off and leave Gingrich in peace. Why is this?

To understand the Santorum dilemma, one needs to go back to what happened in Iowa. Over the course of 2011, Iowa had seen Bachmann, Perry, Cain, and Gingrich all rise to the top, only to crash and burn once voters learned about their weaknesses. Finally, it was Santorum's turn, and he began to spike in the polls. Santorum was a more natural candidate for Iowa, since he could claim more electability than his predecessors. He was also more believable as a conservative, and his message was aimed directly at Evangelicals. On top of that, Santorum had spent his entire campaign in Iowa.

Unfortunately for Santorum, Florida's decision to push the calendar forward a month ruined his opportunity. He just didn't have enough time. On top of that, Santorum's rivals (e.g. Perry and Paul) spotted the Santorum surge early and responded by quickly unloading some negative ads against him. Santorum essentially tied Romney for first place. At the time, Romney was reported the victor, having won by eight votes.

Later, a recount of Iowa credited Santorum as the winner by a handful of votes. But retroactively declaring someone the winner of an early primary is like putting a sign on a pig that says "horse." The value of winning the early states is getting good media and momentum, neither of which can be awarded in a recount.

(As an aside, Romney didn't get the full benefit of a win, either. Since it was understood he and Santorum got almost a perfect tie, he had to share the headlines. The same would have occurred for Santorum if he had been given credit for the win at the time.)

After Romney's big win in New Hampshire, the Anti-Romney voters understood that they needed to coalesce behind a single Anti-Romney candidate, rather than splitting the vote. The question was whether they should rally behind Santorum or Gingrich. The battleground in which the decision would be made was South Carolina, and that meant Gingrich was the answer: Gingrich had the name recognition, more money, and a big edge in South Carolina polls over Santorum. Santorum performed ably in the debates, but Gingrich overshadowed him when the moderators set Gingrich up perfectly to attack the liberal media. Gingrich had a big win in South Carolina. He didn't just beat Romney; he clobbered Santorum. After that, there was little question Gingrich would be the chief Anti-Romney in Florida.

But then, having watched Gingrich wither under attack ads, and having seen Santorum perform better at Thursday's debate, some Anti-Romney voters are having second thoughts. Santorum is arguably a better fit for the Tea Party than Gingrich, who had been derided as a "RINO" earlier in the year. Did Santorum ever stand a chance? Does he have a chance going forward?

Santorum could have become the chief Anti-Romney. But to do it, he would have needed a big win in Iowa. Losing (apparently) to Romney by a few votes wasn't good enough. He needed to do what Mike Huckabee did in 2008, and take the state by a sizable margin. And he would have needed to distinguish himself in the debates before South Carolina, and at least make it close. Finally, Santorum needed to focus his attacks on Gingrich instead of Romney.

Going forward, the picture looks bleak for Santorum. He needs the debates even more than Gingrich does, as he lacks money and name recognition. His only hope is to somehow place a much closer third in Florida than the polls indicate. Perhaps if Santorum and Gingrich are close enough, the media narrative will include Santorum doing better than expected, and give him some kind of a boost. Otherwise, the problem is that Santorum will only reinforce his position as a lower-tier candidate. This will occur in one state after another before the next debate is held. If Santorum repeatedly places behind Gingrich, it only serves to hammer in the message that there's no turning back--it's too late to switch from one Anti-Romney to another.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

What Happens if Romney Wins Florida?

Earlier this week we considered the question of what would happen if Gingrich wins Florida. The answer was that the race would become a protracted delegate fight between Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney, with Romney rebuilding momentum through wins in the February contests. Now that the Florida polls--nearly all taken before Romney won Thursday's debate--have Romney with a comfortable lead, it's time to consider the alternative. How does the presidential primary proceed if Romney wins Florida?

The short answer is that Romney would become heavily favored to win the nomination. Why is Florida's result so important? In an earlier post, we explained why early states have so much influence in a primary. It's not just that they push the results of the later states; they also reveal how the later states are likely to play out. Florida is neutral territory. It is not heavily biased toward Romney (like Utah) or heavily biased toward Gingrich (like Georgia). It's a fair fight. If Romney wins in Florida--particularly if he wins big--it tells you that Romney is likely going to win other "unbiased" states in the future.

Romney winning Florida will provide him with momentum and good media narratives. The boost will be a bonus, as he has a series of pro-Romney states coming up in February. And there are few debates scheduled in the future--and even those may be cancelled. That means fewer opportunities for Gingrich to turn things back around.

February 4 -- Nevada
Romney won NV big in 2008, thanks in large part to the Mormon vote.

February 7 -- Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri (all non-binding)
Romney won CO and MN in 2008. Gingrich is not on the ballot in MO.

February 11 -- Maine (non-binding)
Romney won ME in 2008, and likely will dominate in the Northeastern states.

February 28 -- Arizona, Michigan
Romney won MI in 2008; it is his home state. Like other western states, AZ should be decent for Romney.

March 3 -- Washington
Like other "blue" states, WA will favor Romney.

By the time "Super Tuesday" rolls around on March 6th, Romney will have built up an unstoppable momentum. His campaign, and the media, will push the narrative that Gingrich can only win in the South, while Romney is favored to win in the Northeast, West, all the blue states, and probably all the swing states. However, Gingrich ought to remain in the race, and will still be able to win a handful of states (especially in the South) no matter how bad things get.

But beginning April 3rd, the remaining states will be "winner-take-all," making them much more valuable to win. As it happens, many of the blue states--Northeastern states in particular--are slated for April 3rd and later:

Romney favored?
Blue (9): CA, CN, DC, DE, MD, NJ, NY, OR, RI
Bluish swing (2): PA, WI
Western (4): MT, NM, SD, UT

Gingrich favored?
Southern (5): AR, KY, NC, TX, WV

Red (2): IN, NE

With the exception of Texas, Gingrich doesn't have much going for him. Romney can count on California, New York, and a whole host of blue or "bluish" states. It should be readily apparent that the winner-take-all deck is stacked against Gingrich. Gingrich's challenge, then, is to build up enough of a delegate lead and enough momentum in the January-March states to offset this imbalance. Without Florida to kick things off, that is an extremely difficult task.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Romney Approaches 100% Again on Intrade

It's been awhile since we last did a post on the Intrade market on the Republican primary. After Mitt Romney won New Hampshire and bounced to the top of the South Carolina polls, he climbed to over 90% on Intrade. When Newt Gingrich won South Carolina, Romney's Intrade odds plummeted.

Gingrich topped the Florida polls following his South Carolina victory. But Intrade investors did not simply flip the odds in his favor and give him as great a chance of winning the nomination as Romney had gotten following New Hampshire. At Romney's lowest point, on January 24 (before all of the pro-Romney polls started pouring in), he fell to less than 65%. Quite a drop from 90%, but not all the way to Gingrich's level.

By contrast, the Intrade market for the Florida primary took the poll numbers pretty much at face value. Romney, who had been rated over 90% to win Florida, fell to less than 40%, giving Gingrich a decent odds advantage. Evidently the investors understood the difference between winning Florida and winning the nomination: Even if Gingrich won Florida, they felt Romney would still have a firewall in later contests. However, it seems likely that if Gingrich won Florida, Romney's Intrade odds for the nomination would have fallen further, below Gingrich's.

The last several days have turned things around. New polls show Romney leading in Florida by nearly 10 points. Romney's strong performance at Thursday's debate (and Gingrich's weak performance) also made a difference. Romney's odds of winning the Florida Primary are back over 90%. His odds of winning the nomination are at 87%. If/when Romney wins Florida, his odds will probably match their earlier highs, perhaps reaching toward the 95% mark.

Romney's gain is Gingrich's loss. Today, his Intrade odds stand at 5.6%. Before Thursday's debate, he was trading at nearly double that. Ron Paul is at 3.4%. Rick Santorum can't catch a break--he is only at 1.9%. Intrade markets have started opening for the February contests, and Romney enjoys a substantial lead in each of these.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Who Won the Republican Debate on January 26th?

In tonight's debate, Newt Gingrich needed a knock-out performance. Instead, he was K.O.'d by Mitt Romney, who overwhelmingly won the debate. If Romney wins the Republican nomination for president, many will look back on this debate and say this was the night when Romney's victory was sealed.

Time and again, Romney engaged in one-on-one exchanges with Gingrich. Time and again, Romney trounced him. The crowd in the audience hall repeatedly cheered Romney during these exchanges and were almost mute to Gingrich's responses. It's ironic, considering Gingrich was the one who insisted that the audience be allowed to react. Maybe he expected to be given standing ovations, but instead the audience was firmly in Romney's corner.

From the start, Romney took control of the debate. The moderator asked Gingrich to explain his attack ad portraying Romney as "the most anti-immigrant candidate" in the race. Gingrich, who had been scolded by Senator Marco Rubio earlier in the week and forced to stop running the ad, tried to defend himself. Romney launched into a powerful attack against Gingrich, repeating Rubio's criticisms of the ad. Romney went on to bolster his argument that he is pro-legal immigration. Gingrich shrank.

Shortly afterward, Gingrich went on the offensive, attacking Romney for having stock in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But Romney slammed Gingrich by revealing that Gingrich, too, had investments with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Gingrich seemed more surprised than anyone.

Next, when Gingrich criticized Romney's use of a Swiss bank account, Romney counter-punched with a defense of capitalism. Once again, Romney received huge applause from the crowd. Gingrich seemed unsure how to respond.

Finally, after Gingrich attempted to defend his advocacy for a lunar colony, Romney attacked Gingrich for pandering by offering a list of the ways Gingrich had made promises to the different states he campaigned in; Romney framed this as a criticism of Gingrich promising big spending.

Rick Santorum also did well in the debate. He largely avoided attacking other candidates, but he did get into an extended battle with Romney over Romneycare. Romney certainly didn't dominate the exchange as he did during his duels with Gingrich. It was a draw, with an advantage to Santorum for putting Romney on the defensive. But it also gave Romney the opportunity to contrast Obamacare and repeatedly insist that as president he will repeal Obamacare.

What will the result of this debate be? Gingrich was shattered. Many political observers will be surprised by Romney's strong performance--or by Gingrich's poor debating skills. But this was the scenario that Elephant Watcher described on Sunday, and anticipated back in December: Gingrich hasn't been great in one-on-one exchanges, and when Romney has tangled with Gingrich, Romney has usually gotten the better of it. Having been forced to go on the offensive, Romney now appears as a stronger, more confident candidate. He had no choice but to prove Gingrich was not the debating champion he pretended to be. Now many Republican pundits will say they finally saw the fire and passion in Romney that they had been waiting for.

And as described in Sunday's preview of the week's debates, this undermines Gingrich's campaign in devastating fashion. Gingrich based his candidacy around the idea that he was the man who would be best able to debate Barack Obama. Having lost so badly to Romney, how can Gingrich make that argument convincingly?

Santorum also did a better job in the debate than Gingrich. Since the Anti-Romney vote coalesced dramatically behind Gingrich in South Carolina, Santorum's numbers have dropped precipitously. Normally, at this point, they would drop even further, as the polls show Gingrich is much closer to Romney in Florida. But this debate will make it much more difficult for Santorum supporters to get behind Gingrich. If anything, it should make some of Santorum's old supporters want to come back. But it is simply too late for the Gingrich vote to shift entirely in favor of a different Anti-Romney. Voting is on Tuesday. At most, a shift would only split the Anti-Romney vote and increase Romney's margin of victory.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Final Pre-Florida Debate Tomorrow

Tomorrow evening, the candidates will take the stage for the last time before the Florida Primary. The debate is set to air on CNN at 8:00pm Eastern. Once again, Newt Gingrich will be challenged to meet the high expectations he has set for himself as a debate artist. During Monday's debate, Gingrich did not fall apart, but he did not really shine. The media took note that it wasn't one of his strongest performances. Gingrich even complained that the debate audience wasn't permitted to cheer--apparently assuming that the audience would otherwise have expressed support for him.

The burden is on Gingrich to do well because he has made his debate expertise a central part of his candidacy. If he does poorly, he will get a lot of negative press. Even if he's just average, like last time, a second less-than-stellar performance will be seen as a defeat. The media may even call into question whether he's as good a debater as he claims.

After Monday's debate, the media even began to notice for the first time that Gingrich has relied heavily on attacking liberal debate moderators who aren't allowed to defend themselves. If the CNN moderators choose not to give Gingrich any reasons to attack them, Gingrich will lack his most valuable ammunition.

Gingrich has extra reason to perform well at tomorrow's debate: He's slipping in the Florida polls. Although the polling situation is not totally clear, some of the most recent polls suggest that Gingrich is losing his post-South Carolina bounce, and that Mitt Romney may be retaking the lead. Since it's expensive to advertise in Florida, and since Romney has the money advantage, Gingrich has an uphill battle. Negative ads have been very effective against Gingrich in the past, as his implosion in Iowa demonstrated. Gingrich needs a solid debate performance to counteract the negative ads. There will be few debates scheduled after Florida, making tomorrow's debate all the more critical.

Romney and Rick Santorum will need to choose whether and how often to go on the offensive. Though Gingrich was able to parry some of Romney's attacks during Monday's debate, Romney was able to appear tough. That's a contrast to the defensive posture Romney took in some prior debates. Since the polling appears to be moving in Romney's direction, his campaign may credit Romney's willingness to attack Gingrich face-to-face. At the same time, going on the offensive always carries a risk. If the campaign credits the negative ads, rather than the debate, then they will seek to avoid any unnecessary fireworks.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

What Happens if Gingrich Wins Florida?

Although Newt Gingrich is a long way from winning the Florida Primary, most of the Florida polls taken in the immediate aftermath of his South Carolina win show him in the lead. That means it is worth considering what would happen if Gingrich actually does win Florida when voters take to the polls in that state on January 31st.

There are essentially two different "modes" for a presidential primary season. In the first mode, a candidate wins decisively in the early set of primaries, and his momentum carries him forward to victory. All of the fighting really takes place in the early primaries. This is the mode that characterizes almost every presidential primary season.

Technically speaking, the winner of the presidential nomination is determined by the number of delegates he wins. Each state has its own rules on how the delegates are chosen: Some are winner-take-all, some are based on districts, some are proportional, some are a combination of different methods. And some states are penalized by the national Republican Party for breaking the calendar.

Normally, little attention is paid to the delegate math. Partly that's because it's difficult to follow, but mostly it's because the delegate math usually doesn't matter. In the "normal mode," the winner is obvious long before people start counting up the delegates.

But in the second mode, the "delegate mode," the outcome of the race isn't obvious after the early states vote. In such a case, the race goes on through every state (or a lot of states), and the candidates must grind out as many delegates as possible.

If Mitt Romney had won South Carolina and gone on to win Florida, the race would be in "normal mode." Arguably, if Romney wins Florida, the race will soon become characterized as one-sided, with Romney going on to win the next several states. As suggested a few days ago, the media will turn against Gingrich as quickly as they turned in his favor after South Carolina.

If Gingrich wins Florida, particularly if it's a strong finish, the race will enter "delegate mode." The race will become a contentious battle until Romney wins enough delegates to clinch the nomination, or until the convention. Since the Republican establishment views Gingrich as an unacceptable, unelectable nominee, there will be no giving up on the part of Gingrich's rival(s).

A few days after the Florida Primary, the Nevada Caucus will be held (February 4th). Romney is expected to win there, as he did in 2008. He won't get much credit for this firewall, as the Mormon vote will play a big role. But Romney will at least be able to claim a 2-2 tie with Gingrich.

There are four non-binding contests in early February, taking place in Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri. Romney is expected to win most or all of these, as he won Maine, Colorado, and Minnesota in 2008, and since Gingrich failed to qualify for the ballot in Missouri. (Gingrich will claim Missouri doesn't count, but Romney will credibly argue that Gingrich's failure to get on the ballot is significant in and of itself.) Having done well in these contests, Romney will regain some momentum lost after defeats in South Carolina and Florida. If Romney sweeps Nevada and the four non-binding contests, his campaign will begin pushing the narrative that Gingrich can only win in the South.

On February 28, there will be two primaries, in Arizona and Michigan. The situation in Arizona won't be totally clear for some time, but it should be a reasonably good state for Romney. Michigan is expected to be a strong state for Romney, since it's his home state and the state where his father served as governor.

Thus, although Gingrich's chance of winning the nomination would increase substantially upon winning Florida, his momentum would be blunted by Romney's wins in the February contests. That indicates Gingrich's best scenario is a protracted battle, since an outright win is not possible under these conditions. At most, Gingrich would be considered even with Romney; at worst, the narrative would be that the momentum has shifted against him again. By contrast, an outright win is possible for Romney if he wins Florida.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Who Won the Republican Debate on January 23rd?

In tonight's debate, Newt Gingrich failed to live up to the high expectations that have been set by his previous debate performances. Mitt Romney, who had been on the defensive in the last few debates, shifted to offense. Romney did a good job attacking Gingrich, and managed to look tough without looking nasty. Gingrich defended himself fairly well at first, but he showed vulnerability as time went on--near the end of his extended one-on-one exchange with Romney, Gingrich was (uncharacteristically) at a loss for words for a moment.

But the debate was not a clear-cut victory for Romney. His central line of attack against Gingrich was Gingrich's lobbying and taking money from Freddie Mac. Romney would have done better to directly attack either Gingrich's lack of conservatism or lack of electability. The lobbying charge would presumably be aimed at Gingrich's electability, but is not as direct as, for example, Romney's earlier attacks that Gingrich is "zany" and undisciplined.

Romney showed discipline when attacking Gingrich, but made a gaffe on the subject of illegal immigration. When asked how illegals would be forced to return home if they were not "rounded up," Romney explained that illegals would do "self-deportation." Romney went on to describe that if employers didn't hire illegals, illegals would not be able to find work and would return home to begin the process of legal immigration.

Ironically, when Rick Santorum was asked whether "self-deportation" was feasible, he immediately said that it was and that it was already happening, with many illegals returning to Mexico due to the bad economy. Regardless, Romney's use of the phrase "self-deportation" makes an easy sound-bite and could hurt him by making him appear soft on illegal immigration. Romney may have been attempting to curry favor with the Cuban vote in Florida, but a gaffe is a gaffe.

Fortunately for Romney, he dealt with the tax return issue quickly, was not challenged on Bain Capital, and largely was not attacked for Romneycare or flip-flopping.

Gingrich did not get the opportunity to have a stand-out moment in the debate. The debate moderators never gave him a chance to attack them for being too liberal.

Santorum was mostly out of the debate, since the action focused on Romney and Gingrich. Interestingly, Santorum chose not to go on the offensive against either Romney or Gingrich until his closing remarks. Meanwhile, Ron Paul was irrelevant and received little attention.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Debate Tomorrow on NBC

The latest installment of the January debates will take place tomorrow at 9:00pm Eastern on NBC. As with the week before South Carolina's primary, debates are scheduled for Monday and Thursday this week. Florida's primary will be held next Tuesday, on January 31st.

Mitt Romney enjoyed a big lead in all of the Florida polls, but they were taken prior to Newt Gingrich's win in South Carolina. All of the candidates will likely see both Romney and Gingrich as threats to win the Florida Primary. Rick Santorum, in particular, ought to feel the need to go on the offensive. Gingrich has tended to shy away from attacking other candidates during debates, as has Romney. Tomorrow's debate may be the first time each feels a compelling need to attack the other.

The debates present both an opportunity and a danger for Gingrich. He has been comfortable at the debates, and has used them to his advantage. However, he has also built the debates into his campaign narrative: Gingrich claims that he is electable solely because he is so good at debates. As the idea goes, even though polls show Barack Obama beating Gingrich by a wide margin, Gingrich would beat Obama in the debates.

Therein lies the danger for Gingrich: If Gingrich does badly at a debate--particularly if he suffers in one-on-one exchanges with Romney--his narrative is undone before a live audience of millions. Expectations are so high that even a single poor debate performance could cause Gingrich's electability argument to collapse like a house of cards.

The media narrative is that Gingrich is very good at debates. But as Elephant Watcher observed in December, Gingrich has not fared particularly well when he's been in one-on-one exchanges with opponents. He has not done that well at what one would ordinarily call "debating," that is, arguing back and forth with an opponent. Instead, he has gotten applause during the debates by delivering interesting answers and criticizing the liberal debate moderators (who can't fight back). Thus, the media and the audiences seem to have conflated "being good while at the debates" with "being good at debate."

This presents the big question for Gingrich: If he doesn't get an opportunity to chew out a debate moderator, and if he shrinks when he's attacked by Romney or Santorum, what happens to his electability argument?

Meanwhile, Romney has his own electability argument to consider. Essentially the entire reason for Romney's current support is that he is considered the most likely to defeat Obama. The polls alluded to earlier support this belief. Though Romney deflected the Bain attacks well, they were an attempt to undermine his electability. The questions about Romney's tax returns and overseas investments also serve to cast doubt on his electability. Romney's first priority should be to allay concerns about any financial skeletons he may have. Second, he should get into an extended debate encounter with Gingrich to prove that Gingrich is not the debate wizard he claims to be.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Gingrich Wins South Carolina Primary

Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina Primary on Saturday. Gingrich won 40% of the vote; Mitt Romney came in second with 28%. Rick Santorum, who was contending with Gingrich for the title of chief Anti-Romney, placed a distant third. Though Gingrich's win in South Carolina was anticipated by Elephant Watcher, Gingrich's late momentum took the media by surprise, adding to its effect. Until midweek, most political observers assumed Romney would simply win everything and enjoy a coronation instead of a real contest. Just as the media overreacted to Romney's New Hampshire win and his favorable early polls in South Carolina, the media will also overreact to Gingrich's win in South Carolina. However, there were two important developments that can be seen in South Carolina's results:

South Carolina Primary (99% reporting)
Gingrich -- 40%
Romney -- 28%
Santorum -- 17%
Paul -- 13%

The most important result was that Gingrich soundly beat Santorum. Given that Gingrich has already been ahead of Santorum in the Florida polls, Gingrich will credibly claim the mantle of the chief Anti-Romney. Santorum's support will melt away. Santorum's tie for first in Iowa (where he won a handful more votes than Romney in the recount) is irrelevant; Santorum really needed a big win there and what he did get wasn't enough to build momentum.

In consequence, the primary becomes a two-man race between Romney and Gingrich. But the odds are far from even: For Gingrich to get any further, he needs to make up a lot of ground and either win or place a very close second in Florida. Unlike South Carolina and New Hampshire, Florida is seen as neutral territory. With the Anti-Romney vote united behind one candidate, Gingrich has no excuse for losing Florida. If Romney beats him there, Romney is expected to also win Nevada, Michigan, and perhaps Arizona, which are the next major contests. The media narrative will turn just as quickly against Gingrich as it did in its favor here, and all will declare that "Gingrich only wins in the South."

The other important development in South Carolina is how much Romney improved on his 2008 performance in the state, when he placed fourth with only 15% of the vote. Romney probably won't get much credit for this, since only a week ago the media were expecting Romney to win South Carolina.

But the vital comparison going forward is not how Romney finished compared to early South Carolina polls. The reason why the 2008 comparison is more useful is that Romney came so close to winning the nomination that year: Romney came in second in Iowa, second in New Hampshire (by 5 points), won Nevada, and placed second in Florida (by 5 points). Improving by a half-dozen points--he improved by twice that in South Carolina--would mean victory.

If Gingrich is to become the frontrunner in this race, he must not merely beat Romney in one of Romney's weakest states; Gingrich needs to prove he can beat Romney in the rest of the country. Florida may be his last opportunity.

Friday, January 20, 2012

South Carolina Primary Tomorrow

The South Carolina Primary will be held tomorrow, and its results are likely to get a lot of attention. For some time now, the media narrative has been that if Mitt Romney wins in South Carolina, the primary will be over. A less-pronounced narrative is that if Newt Gingrich wins South Carolina, the entire race will be transformed dramatically, and that it will become a long, grinding test of wills between the two candidates.

Initially, Romney's strong poll numbers in South Carolina gave many the impression that he was very likely to win there. Even the investors on Intrade for the South Carolina Primary market gave Romney more than a 90% chance to win there at one point.

Elephant Watcher was not convinced. Last week, we examined the probable scenarios for the South Carolina Primary. It was time for a reality check, as a favorable scenario for Gingrich was plainly visible: If Gingrich held a strong lead in the polls over Rick Santorum, the Anti-Romney vote would coalesce, stripping Santorum and Rick Perry of their support in the final week and giving Gingrich the edge.

That is precisely what has happened. Although Gingrich got good marks for his debate performance on Monday, the effect of the debate was overrated. Gingrich's upward movement was already taking place, and was largely due to the strategic shift of Perry/Santorum support over to Gingrich. Voting takes place tomorrow, and here is where we stand:

South Carolina Primary
01/19 PPP (D) -- Gingrich 36, Romney 30, Santorum 16, Paul 15
01/19 WeAskAmerica -- Gingrich 32, Romney 28, Paul 13, Santorum 9
01/18 Reuters -- Romney 35, Gingrich 23, Santorum 15, Paul 13
01/18 ARG -- Gingrich 33, Romney 32, Paul 19, Santorum 9
01/18 Rasmussen -- Gingrich 33, Romney 31, Paul 15, Santorum 11
01/18 PPP (D) -- Gingrich 34, Romney 28, Paul 15, Santorum 14
01/18 Insider Adv -- Gingrich 32, Romney 29, Paul 15, Santorum 11
01/18 Tarrance (R) -- Romney 37, Gingrich 30, Paul 11, Santorum 10

In most of the polls, Gingrich holds a narrow lead over Romney. He also has the momentum. What's more, Santorum is still holding onto a chunk of the voters. That means Gingrich's numbers can rise even further at Santorum's expense. As we observed in the review of last night's debate, Santorum gave a strong performance, but it's too late to reverse the process; he can only hope to stop the bleeding.

That would be enough to guarantee Gingrich victory, but an early "October surprise" adds some doubt: On Thursday, ABC aired a highly-publicized interview with Gingrich's second ex-wife, who made incendiary claims about Gingrich (most prominently, that Gingrich asked her to tolerate an open marriage).

Unfortunately, there is no time for any polling that will take this scandal into account. Thus, it's difficult to determine what impact it will have on the voting in South Carolina. With Herman Cain's scandals, we saw that its effect was not immediate; it caused a slow erosion of Cain's support. Cain lost support from women earlier, as they were more willing to take the scandals to heart, but in this case the effect would need to be almost overnight.

Our best guess is that adding Gingrich's momentum, the possibility of further Santorum defection, and Gingrich's preexisting lead should be enough to hand him South Carolina. However, it ought to be somewhat close. It will be closer if the Gingrich scandal has any impact.

A win by Gingrich in South Carolina will put a quick halt to Romney's aura of inevitability. As we explained earlier this week, however, Florida is the real test. That's because it will be the first opportunity for a single Anti-Romney to fight against Romney. The narrative thus far has been that Romney has won due to the split in his rivals' vote. If the Anti-Romney vote coalesces behind Gingrich and Romney still wins, that proves Romney is the clear favorite.

Romney will get bad press if he loses South Carolina, but it's easy to exaggerate the state's importance. South Carolina is one of Romney's worst states. In 2008, Romney got about twice the share of the vote in Florida as he did in South Carolina. If Romney is able to get 30% of the vote in an unfavorable state like South Carolina, that means he is greatly over-performing compared to his last run, and he should be very optimistic about his chances of winning the nomination.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Who Won the Republican Debate on January 19th?

Tonight's debate was unlike any of the previous ones. As the night wore on, it increasingly resembled kind of a political version of a war crimes tribunal: Rick Santorum was the chief prosecutor, and the other three candidates were in the dock. Santorum repeatedly challenged the conservative credentials of his foes, particularly Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. They then defended themselves, but they didn't bother to counter-attack Santorum on his own credentials. As a result, Santorum was always on the offensive, which is a good thing in a debate, because the burden remains on the defender. At best, the defenders didn't get scored against; at worst, they lost points.

Clearly, Santorum was in the spotlight, and had opportunities to display his confidence and rhetorical skill. On some issues, Gingrich and Romney defended themselves well: Romney was particularly effective in defending his pro-life record as governor. On other issues, Santorum may have scored points. Romney vigorously defended himself against the attacks on Romneycare--this time one of his opponents had done research on it--but he may have lost points. Gingrich did not defend his own support of the individual mandate very well.

But the central issue facing Santorum is that his numbers have been in free fall. Voters seeking an alternative to Romney have seen Gingrich well ahead of Santorum in the polls, and they have been defecting from Santorum in large numbers. Can a strong debate performance by Santorum reverse that? It's too late. The only question is to what extent Santorum can staunch the bleeding. He may be aided by the Gingrich ex-wife scandal, but its effect cannot yet be measured.

In fact, the debate moderator decided to open the debate by asking Gingrich about the allegations made by his second ex-wife that Gingrich had asked her for an open marriage. Gingrich was in top form as he denounced CNN for opening a presidential debate in such a way. The crowd rose to its feet and gave him a standing ovation as he vented long-felt frustrations that conservatives have about the liberal media. Gingrich has frequently criticized moderators in past debates, and this one served as a perfect target.

...On the other hand, one can't help but remember how the debate audience also cheered Herman Cain when he denied his own sex scandal during a debate. They applauded Cain, and a few weeks later they completely abandoned him.

Otherwise, Gingrich was fairly unremarkable. Aside from his standout moment at the beginning of the debate, it was probably one of his weaker performances.

Romney's performance was mixed. Frequently, Romney was strong, and he served red meat to the base in defending capitalism and free enterprise. He easily waved aside questions about Bain Capital, and his opponents saw fit to the let the matter rest. Romney was weaker when asked about releasing his tax returns. At first, it seemed that Romney would get a pass: Of the four candidates on stage, only Gingrich had released his returns. Ron Paul and Santorum expressed no plans to release theirs, and Romney said he would release his in April. But when the moderator asked Romney if he would follow in his father's footsteps by releasing many years' worth of returns, Romney was taken by surprise, answering, "Maybe." He was evasive, and the moment may ruin an otherwise solid night for him, as it presents an interesting sound-bite for the media to replay.

Rick Perry Quits, Endorses Gingrich

Rick Perry announced that he was quitting the race today during a press conference in which he also endorsed Newt Gingrich. Perry was expected to quit the race after the South Carolina Primary this Saturday, in which he would have finished poorly. Perry's decision to quit early was likely based on his desire to avoid the embarrassment of taking last place in Saturday's contest. Now, Perry can at least make the claim that he was acting selflessly to help the conservative vote coalesce behind someone other than Mitt Romney.

How will this change the race? For some time now, Perry has had no chance of winning the nomination. His departure is beneficial to Gingrich, though not as much as one might expect: Perry was already polling in the mid-to-low single-digits. His remaining support would have eroded before voting day in each contest anyway, with most going to Gingrich. This occurred in New Hampshire, where Perry's few points of support went down to 1% on voting day; Jon Huntsman experienced the same effect in Iowa, where his few points went down to 1% on the day of the Iowa Caucus.

Gingrich at least benefits from the fact that someone other than Romney has now been endorsed by a departing candidate. Also, Gingrich no longer has to worry about Perry switching tactics to attack him, though Perry can no longer attack Romney, either. The downside for Gingrich is that Perry's departure raises expectations: Gingrich can't claim he's being handicapped by the conservative vote splitting among multiple candidates. He is only competing against Rick Santorum.

Perry's candidacy was a high-profile failure. Expectations for Perry were high. He was the first candidate to experience a surge and bust, having taken a big lead in all the polls (except in New Hampshire) during late August and early September. At that time, Perry was considered the frontrunner. But Elephant Watcher never gave Perry more than a 21% chance of winning the Republican nomination. Even so, Perry was considered competitive with Romney until the debates in September. As time went on, Perry grew worse in the debates and was decisively defeated by Romney after the third debate. Perry's support declined and was cannibalized by a series of other Anti-Romneys, including Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum. Perry completely collapsed after his extraordinary "oops" gaffe during the debate on November 9th. He did not, and could not, recover after that.

Perry is likely to be remembered as one of the worst debaters in American political history. He enjoyed many advantages in the race: Plenty of executive experience, institutional support, money, ease with "retail poliics," and a strong conservative record. But nothing could overcome his poor debate performances. In the future, candidates will recognize the vital importance of the debates, and will hopefully take greater care to prepare for them.

The Campaign Status page has been updated to reflect Perry's departure. Judging by the tenacity of the remaining candidates, this could be the final time the Campaign Status page changes until a candidate secures victory.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Final Pre-South Carolina Debate Tomorrow

CNN will host the latest Republican primary debate tomorrow at 8:00pm Eastern. It will be the candidates' last chance to debate before voting takes place in South Carolina on Saturday. The dynamics of the debate will be similar to the debate on Monday: Mitt Romney is a big favorite to win the nomination and enjoys a comfortable lead in South Carolina polls, and it's up to the other candidates to take him down. The media narrative continues to suggest that if Romney wins in South Carolina, it's all over.

But there is a twist: Newt Gingrich got positive reviews for his debate performance on Monday, and the polls show Gingrich with a substantial lead over Rick Santorum in both South Carolina and Florida. This week, Gingrich said publicly that he would like Santorum and Rick Perry to drop out of the race and endorse him so that the Anti-Romney vote can unite. Santorum and Perry may now be more aware of the fact that it's not enough to take down Romney--they must stop Gingrich, as well. Though Perry knows his own situation is hopeless, Santorum may come to realize that the biggest threat to Santorum is Gingrich, not Romney. If Santorum trails Gingrich by too much, his candidacy will lose all support. But he can survive if he's close enough to Gingrich, even if they both lose to Romney.

It will therefore be important for Santorum to go on the attack against Gingrich. Santorum needs to prove that Gingrich is not the only candidate who can put in a strong debate performance. So far, Gingrich has done well in answering questions, but tends to be a bit weaker when confronted by other candidates in a back-and-forth exchange. Still, as we have seen in previous debates, just because a strategy is optimal doesn't mean a candidate will actually follow it. Santorum may very well continue to attack Romney.

As for Romney, he will once again need to play the role of the gracious frontrunner who is undisturbed by the attacks against him. On Monday, he skillfully parried the attacks against Bain Capital and his history of flip-flopping. He was more hesitant when asked about his tax returns. Since that got some attention, his rivals will surely focus on the tax return issue in tomorrow's debate. Chris Christie, who endorsed Romney and has campaigned for him, has said publicly that he thinks Romney should release the returns. Will Romney be able to effectively answer whether he'll release his tax returns? Romney is undoubtedly preparing for this line of questioning. If Romney has decided that he won't release them, it will be difficult for him to explain why not, without leading voters to worry that he has something to hide.

Finally, Romney must decide whether he should attack Gingrich. Romney has usually preferred to remain positive during the debates, in the belief that as frontrunner the status quo is beneficial. However, Romney may feel threatened enough by Gingrich that if Gingrich attacks him first, he will unleash a counterattack.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Gingrich Leads Santorum: Is It Enough?

Last week, we discussed a scenario in which Newt Gingrich could win South Carolina. For Gingrich to prevail, he needs to have polls showing him develop a substantial lead over Rick Santorum, so that the strategically-minded Anti-Romney vote coalesces behind Gingrich. Along with strong debate performances, a dramatic coalescing of the Anti-Romney vote could put Gingrich over the top. Let's look at the most recent South Carolina polls and see if that scenario is developing:

South Carolina Primary
01/15 Monmouth -- Romney 33, Gingrich 22, Santorum 14, Paul 12
01/15 WeAskAmerica -- Romney 31, Gingrich 18, Paul 12, Santorum 9
01/15 Insider Adv-- Romney 32, Gingrich 21, Paul 14, Santorum 13
01/13 Reuters -- Romney 37, Santorum 16, Paul 16, Gingrich 12
01/13 PPP (D) -- Romney 29, Gingrich 24, Paul 15, Santorum 14
01/12 ARG -- Romney 29, Gingrich 25, Paul 20, Perry 9
01/12 Rasmussen -- Romney 28, Gingrich 21, Santorum 16, Paul 16

Each poll shows Gingrich well behind Mitt Romney. However, Gingrich has a significant lead over Santorum in all but one of the polls (the Reuters poll on January 13th is the sole outlier). Notice also that Rick Perry fails to make the top four in all but one of the polls. If the Anti-Romney voters wish to be strategic, and if Gingrich motivates them enough in the week's two debates, they could rally behind Gingrich.

There are two holes in the scenario right now. First, there has been little or no media attention to the growing gap between Gingrich and Santorum. Recall that in the days before the Iowa Caucus, a lot of media attention was devoted to Santorum's sudden rise in the polls, as the media anticipated Santorum's long-awaited surge. Instead, the media have focused on the fact that Romney enjoys a lead over everyone else. There is still some time: If polls released in the next few days show Santorum dying off, the media will report it and lead to an even greater decline in Santorum's numbers.

The second hole is that Romney is doing quite well. He is not merely edging out Gingrich; he is leading by a significant margin. In some polls, Romney is dangerously close to being ahead by so much that even a significant defection of Santorum votes to Gingrich wouldn't be enough. A significant defection of Perry votes would help close the gap.

Now let's look at the Florida polls:

Florida Primary
01/16 PPP (D) -- Romney 41, Gingrich 26, Santorum 11, Paul 10
01/15 ARG -- Romney 42, Gingrich 25, Santorum 9, Paul 8
01/14 Sunshine/VSS -- Romney 46, Gingrich 20, Santorum 12, Paul 9
01/11 Rasmussen -- Romney 41, Gingrich 19, Santorum 15, Paul 9

Romney has a big lead, but Gingrich has an even bigger lead over Santorum here. Should Gingrich win South Carolina, or take second place there with a big lead over Santorum, he can become the chief Anti-Romney.

Most commentators say that if Romney wins South Carolina, it's all over. But if the Anti-Romney vote remains split in South Carolina, the final test will actually take place in Florida. Unless Gingrich and Santorum are close in South Carolina, Gingrich should be able to get the Anti-Romney vote behind him by Florida. That would be the first time Romney is forced to compete against one rival. If the Anti-Romney vote is united and Romney still wins, it's over, because what more can they do? In Florida, Romney is even closer to the point at which combining the Anti-Romney vote behind one opponent would still result in a Romney victory. Romney's margin would be reduced by a Gingrich win in South Carolina, so it could get interesting.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Who Won the Republican Debate on January 16th?

Tonight, each of the candidates did well in the debate. Newt Gingrich, in particular, got a lot of applause--but so did his opponents. Mitt Romney stands to benefit the most from this, as he would like to see his competition continue to block each other. It's unlikely, for example, that Gingrich's main competitor for the Anti-Romney vote--Rick Santorum--will lose as a result of this debate. Even Rick Perry, who has fared poorly in the debates, did well. Tonight was probably Perry's strongest performance thus far. Since Perry will not win South Carolina, that only serves to take votes from Romney's competition.

In the opening round, the debate moderators went immediately to the issue of the attacks against Bain. Gingrich did not backpedal, but he came close. Instead of pressing Romney on Bain, Gingrich said that he had merely been "asking questions." Romney took the opportunity to put the Bain issue to rest (at least in this debate). That wiped out the main line of attack that had been made against Romney.

In general, the candidates did not really attack Romney. At one point, Santorum threw his weight around by challenging Romney--but it was on the issue of allowing felons to vote. Romney, who was taken by surprise at the question, was against allowing felons to vote, while Santorum was in favor. Santorum wanted to know why Romney didn't change the law in Massachusetts to prevent felons from voting. Santorum looked confident, but it was on a completely tangential matter.

Though many candidates got applause, the problem faced by Romney's competitors is that they needed to either destroy Romney or destroy Romney's competition and become the chief Anti-Romney. In this debate, they failed to do either.

Huntsman Drops Out, Endorses Romney

Jon Huntsman announced today that he was dropping out of the race. He also immediately endorsed Mitt Romney. The Campaign Status page has been updated to reflect Huntsman's departure; there are now only five candidates remaining. Huntsman needed a win in New Hampshire to really propel his campaign forward, and he came nowhere close. However, he remained in the race for a few additional days as a way of showing appreciation to the 17% of New Hampshirites who voted for him.

Huntsman's departure will have little impact on the race. For some time now, he has had a 0% chance of winning the nomination, and he has been polling at near zero in the remaining states. Huntsman's endorsement of Romney does add a small amount to the impression that Romney is inevitable. Of the candidates that have either dropped out or decided not to run, those who have decided to endorse (e.g. Christie, Huntsman, Pawlenty) have all endorsed Romney. Huntsman no longer being in the race also means one less opponent to attack Romney during the debates.

Huntsman was one of a few candidates to be considered "highly electable." Romney is now the only one of those to remain. Despite his electability and some enthusiasm on the part of establishment Republicans, Huntsman was unable to get anywhere in this race. According to Elephant Watcher's calculations, Huntsman's odds of winning the nomination never exceeded 3%.

Why did Huntsman fail? Partly it's because Huntsman was in Romney's shadow and needed Romney to make a major mistake. The main problem was that Huntsman chose to run to the left of Romney. Candidates have some power over how they're perceived, particularly if the candidate is unknown. Huntsman chose to enter the race by touting his belief in evolution and global warming. This decision, along with the fact that Huntsman was already somewhat vulnerable to being characterized as a "RINO," meant that he would always be perceived as the candidate to Romney's left. There was simply no room. In New Hampshire, voters either liked where Romney stood or they wanted someone to Romney's right. The Anti-Romney voters have always perceived Romney as too moderate, so Huntsman was always off the table. Accordingly, Huntsman has the distinction of being the only candidate in the race who never enjoyed a big bounce in the polls.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Debate on Fox News Tomorrow

Fox News will host the next primary debate, which takes place tomorrow at 9:00pm Eastern. Tomorrow's debate will be one of two to be held prior to the South Carolina Primary. The second debate will be on Thursday, and the voting will take place in South Carolina on Saturday. It's an important week: By the end of it, we should have a better sense of whether a single opponent can coalesce the Anti-Romney vote, or if Mitt Romney will cruise to victory.

Obviously the two debates represent a final opportunity to derail Romney's candidacy before the South Carolina Primary. Romney will be facing numerous attacks from his opponents. Given the amount of attention focused on Bain over the last week, Romney will be given ample opportunity to defend his tenure at the private equity firm. And Romney's opponents--Newt Gingrich in particular--will be given ample opportunity to criticize what Romney did at Bain.

Romney's best strategy is to focus on the reasons why his experience at Bain makes him an expert at creating jobs. He should avoid being put on the defensive, quickly returning to a specific list of companies Bain helped start and the tens of thousands of jobs created by them. Finally, he should cap his explanation by drawing a contrast between capitalism (represented by Bain) and big-government socialism (represented by those who think capitalism should not involve the risk of failure). If questioned about inaccuracy in attack ads against him, Romney should be able to specifically enumerate the falsehoods.

Gingrich has no choice but to stand by his attacks against Bain. The attacks against Bain may have been ill-considered, since Romney has plenty of vulnerabilities and criticizing those instead wouldn't have backfired. But Gingrich has put too much time and money into the anti-Bain line. If he attempts to change horses midstream and runs away from the anti-Bain narrative, Gingrich will look like he's completely surrendering.

Gingrich must take great care in his attacks against Bain. If he appears to be criticizing capitalism, or appears in any way to be making his attacks from a leftist perspective, it could doom his chances. Remember, Gingrich is attempting to appeal to those voters who think Romney is too far to the left. The debates, particularly tomorrow's debate, will be a crucial test: When Gingrich attacks Bain, will the audience end up booing him? If so, he is in deep trouble.

Though the debate will focus on Romney and Bain, there is another (arguably more important) undercurrent, the battle between Gingrich and Rick Santorum. Each man wants the other to be out of the race so that he can coalesce the Anti-Romney vote. Some recent polling suggested Gingrich pulling ahead of Santorum in South Carolina, which would enable him to take sole possession the Anti-Romney mantle. But there was also a poll (a gross outlier) muddying the waters by showing Santorum ahead of Gingrich. Meanwhile, a group of influential social conservative leaders decided on Saturday that they would be supporting Santorum.

Once again, Romney benefits from that ambiguity. The polls over the next few days will be decisive. Gingrich needs the numbers to show him with a comfortable lead over Santorum. Santorum needs the numbers to show a very quick shift in the opposite direction, so that he can get a comfortable lead over Gingrich in time to get Gingrich's supporters to switch. Otherwise, the vote will end up as it did in New Hampshire, with the two men splitting the Anti-Romney vote and giving Romney a victory. If the polls don't cooperate, it's vital that one or the other demonstrate a clear superiority in the debates. Tomorrow's debate is arguably the more important, because a very strong contrast on Monday could move the poll numbers by the end of the week, while Thursday is too late (polling would take place on Friday and wouldn't be reported practically until the voting begins).

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Why Are Early States Allowed to Choose the Nominee?

One of the most common complaints voters have about the primary system is the disproportionate influence that the early states have on the process. Particularly when a voter's favored candidate does poorly, a voter wants to know why a state like Iowa or New Hampshire has such power. This year, for example, many pundits observed that if Mitt Romney wins South Carolina, he wins the nomination. Voters in later states are sometimes upset by things like this, and they wonder why just a few states get to have input.

It's true that the results of the early contests have an influence on the later states. People like a winner, and they don't like a loser. Wins in the early states propel a candidate, and very poor finishes can doom a candidate. But the early states do not exercise as much power as it may appear. The reason is that collectively, early states vote pretty much the same way that later states would collectively vote if given the opportunity. The results of early contests don't simply influence the rest of the country, they also reveal how the country in general will vote.

The early states represent different regions of the country: The Midwest (Iowa), Northeast (New Hampshire), South (South Carolina), and West (Nevada). Aside from South Carolina, they are swing states. Aside from Florida, they are small enough states for most candidates to be able to compete in without needing a lot of money. If one were to switch out Iowa for another Midwestern state, or South Carolina for another Southern state, the results might be a little different, but not that much different.

To factor out any peculiarities in an early state, voters weigh results differently. Where a state is really uniquely favorable to a candidate (e.g., if a former governor of Iowa wins Iowa, or if a black candidate wins South Carolina), people give the state's result less weight. Similarly, they take results more seriously if a candidate wins on unfavorable turf. In the present primary year, South Carolina is one of the most inhospitable states in the country for Romney. That's part of the reason political observers say it's the last chance for Romney to lose: If he can win in an anti-Romney state, he's likely to sweep most of the country.

One more thought about the way early contests reveal how the later states would vote anyway, if given the chance: Imagine a deck of playing cards divided into four stacks of thirteen cards each. The "spades" stack contains mostly spades and a few clubs; the "clubs" stack is mostly clubs and a few spades; the "hearts" stack is mostly hearts and a few diamonds; the "diamonds" stack is mostly diamonds and a few hearts. One of the four stacks is selected at random and represents the winner of the contest. The first two cards of that winning stack are flipped over, revealing two diamonds. At this point, even though only two of the 13 cards have been shown, we can immediately see that "spades" and "clubs" are not going to be the winner. This is analogous to the way the early contests winnow out a few obvious losers. We can also guess that it's very likely that "diamonds" is going to be the winner, though we can't be 100% sure yet.

If the third card is flipped and also shows a diamond, it's almost guaranteed that we are dealing with the "diamonds" stack. We don't need to go down the line and turn over the 10th, 11th, 12th, and 13th cards. By the time we're just a few cards in, we know what the later cards will reveal anyway. The only situation in which we would need to see every last card in the stack is if the stack were split almost evenly, with the final card breaking the tie. For our analogy, that would be like a presidential primary where two candidates are extremely close. (For reasons beyond the scope of this post, such a situation is extremely rare. Even in 2008, where Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama fought to the end, Obama was essentially guaranteed to win months before Clinton dropped out.)

Although politically-minded individuals in the later states may wish they got to participate earlier in the primary, they can rest assured that if the order of the states was shuffled, the final outcome would be no different.

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.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Has Mitt Romney Been Vetted?

A few weeks ago, we explored the question of why so many candidates went boom and bust during the primary season. The answer was that voters assumed new candidates had some degree of conservatism and electability, but once they were vetted, voters learned otherwise. Mitt Romney, whom some have dubbed "the last not-Romney," is on the rise. What happens when Romney is vetted?

Although many opponents of Romney demanded to know why Romney wasn't being vetted like the other candidates were, the reality is that Romney was the only candidate who already had been vetted. The key test in determining whether a candidate has been vetted is if the average voter is already aware of the candidate's weaknesses. Even before the primary season began, voters were quite familiar with Romney's vulnerabilities.

A good contrast would be the difference in the way voters perceived Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney in early December, when Newtmania was at its peak. The conservative credentials of both Gingrich and Romney are suspect because each has flip-flopped on various issues. Gingrich was even an early supporter of the individual mandate for healthcare. But at the time, the average voter only knew about Romney's flip-flops, not Gingrich's. Until the barrage of attacks was unleashed against Gingrich, voters assumed he was a pure, Tea Party conservative. When voters learned the truth, Gingrich's numbers took a nosedive. Gingrich (or other candidates) couldn't do the same thing to Romney that he had done to Gingrich, because voters already knew the truth about Romney. In other words, Romney had already been vetted.

That doesn't mean attacks against Romney are completely ineffective. He can still lose support in response to a good negative ad, and he can still be forced into an awkward situation in a challenging debate. But it does mean that Romney's numbers are more likely to be stable--just as Romney's opponents, having now been vetted, are not likely to crash a second time.

It is interesting to note that Romney's opponents, particularly Gingrich and Perry, have now begun focusing their attacks on Romney's tenure at Bain Capital. Perhaps the most fascinating part is what they're not doing: They're not focusing the attacks on Romney's flip-flops or Romneycare. Why not attack Romney's Achilles' heel(s)? Romney's opponents may have come to the realization that they're not going to take Romney down by repeatedly saying what voters already know. If so, it's a tacit admission that Romney was already vetted and survived.

As for the Bain Capital line of attack, it's something of a desperate move. Until recently, Romney's opponents gave Bain little attention. During the September debates when Rick Perry squared off against Romney, Perry attacked Romney on many things, but not on Bain. Indeed, during one debate Perry even conceded that Romney created many jobs at Bain, but simply argued that his own job-creation record as governor of Texas was more impressive and relevant. In addition, Romney was attacked in a lot of different ways during the 2008 presidential primary, but his opponents pretty much left Bain alone.

If Romney's opponents in the 2008 and 2012 primaries didn't see fit to bring up Bain, it's probably because they judged it would be a weak attack. Those who criticize Bain (especially Gingrich) have already received backlash from conservatives--including some, like Rush Limbaugh, who do not favor Romney. Many conservatives feel that the attacks against Bain resemble attacks against capitalism from the left. The direction of an attack can be important. Recall that during the September debates, Perry lost a lot of his Tea Party support when he said that it was heartless to oppose in-state tuition to illegal immigrants. If a candidate sounds like he's coming from the left, the right turns off. That's a poor strategy for those opposing Romney, since the Anti-Romney voters are the ones who think Romney isn't far right enough.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Romney Wins New Hampshire; Rivals Split Vote

Mitt Romney won the New Hampshire Primary on Tuesday, a result which should come as no surprise. With 81% reporting, Romney won with 38%. Ron Paul came second, losing by about 15 points. Romney's margin of victory, though large, was less than many polls had suggested it could have been. The more important story is how Romney's main rivals for the nomination--Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum--will be weakened by the result. The following is the result, as of this posting, and an analysis of how the result will influence the race going forward:

New Hampshire Primary (81% reporting)
Romney -- 38%
Paul -- 23%
Huntsman -- 17%
Gingrich -- 10%
Santorum -- 10%
Perry -- 1%

Yesterday, Elephant Watcher predicted that if Romney finished in the 30s, it would be treated as an underwhelming victory, particularly if second-place was not far behind. After all, winning by 15 points is not a great performance when so many polls had indicated a win by 20 points or more. Some pundits will claim the result shows weakness on Romney's part, offering some version of "This is one of Romney's best states, he's been campaigning here all year (or for the past five years) and only beat his 2008 performance by a handful of points. Romney can't close the deal. He is a weak frontrunner. The voters want this thing to continue." Other pundits will also remark on Jon Huntsman's third-place finish, speculating on whether he can be yet another candidate to surge.

Although it's true that Romney would have preferred a bigger margin of victory, it's important to view the race in its proper context: Romney isn't running against himself or his poll numbers; he's running against Gingrich and Santorum.

From that perspective, Romney had a very good result. Romney's biggest fear is that either Gingrich or Santorum will beat the other convincingly, become the chief Anti-Romney, and coalesce all of the Anti-Romney vote. Therefore, Romney's best scenario was for Gingrich and Santorum to finish well behind himself, and as close to each other as possible. Gingrich and Santorum would then continue to split the Anti-Romney vote. New Hampshire voters gave Romney his wish: Gingrich and Santorum virtually tied at 10% each, an embarrassing and ambiguous finish.

What about Paul and Huntsman? Neither man has a chance of winning the nomination. Paul is viewed by most Republicans as a "kook." Huntsman, who finished barely high enough to justify remaining in the race, entered the race by making the unspeakably poor decision of running to the left of Romney. He will be unable to play an Anti-Romney role, because the Anti-Romney vote is comprised of people who think Romney is too far to the left, not too far to the right. Thus, Paul and Huntsman served only to diminish Gingrich and Santorum more.

Now the race moves to South Carolina. The contests in Iowa and New Hampshire have done nothing to clarify the Anti-Romney situation. Rather than providing Romney with one strong opponent, he has two evenly-matched opponents who weaken each other. Romney's campaign has been professional and disciplined. More important, he continues to be lucky.

Monday, January 9, 2012

New Hampshire Primary Tomorrow

Voters in New Hampshire will head to the polls on Tuesday for the New Hampshire Primary. The winner of the contest isn't in doubt: Mitt Romney has taken first place in every one of the dozens of New Hampshire polls conducted over the past year--most of the time by a sizable margin. The second-place candidate has alternated as various candidates went boom and bust, but Romney has consistently polled in the mid 30s to lower 40s. The question is who will take second, third, and fourth in the primary. The polls are unclear, with several candidates bunched together:

New Hampshire Primary
01/08 WMUR/UNH -- Romney 41, Paul 17, Huntsman 11, Santorum 11
01/08 PPP (D) -- Romney 35, Paul 18, Huntsman 16, Gingrich 12
01/07 Suffolk/7News -- Romney 35, Paul 20, Huntsman 11, Gingrich 9
01/07 ARG -- Romney 40, Huntsman 17, Paul 16, Santorum 12
01/05 NBC/Marist -- Romney 42, Paul 22, Santorum 13, Huntsman 9
01/05 Rasmussen -- Romney 42, Paul 18, Santorum 13, Huntsman 12
01/05 WMUR/UNH -- Romney 44, Paul 20, Santorum 8, Gingrich 8
01/04 Wash Times -- Romney 38, Paul 24, Santorum 11, Gingrich 9
01/04 Suffolk/7News -- Romney 41, Paul 18, Santorum 8, Gingrich 7

Ron Paul is in second in most polls. As in Iowa, he's polling in the upper 10s and low 20s. As expected, Rick Santorum got a bounce out of Iowa, but he has been unable to capitalize on that to get clear of Newt Gingrich, who is about tied with him in the polls. Jon Huntsman seems to be in about the same position as Santorum and Gingrich, though the PPP and ARG polls have him a few points ahead.

Huntsman is an interesting case. As a low-poller, strategic voters would ordinarily abandon him for their second choice. But many Huntsman supporters' second choice is Romney, who is guaranteed to win. Since Romney doesn't need the Huntsman votes, perhaps the Huntsman supporters will vote for their preferred candidate instead of shifting. This would serve to reward Huntsman for all the campaigning he has done in New Hampshire, and maybe to voice a bit of a protest against Romney's inevitable win.

Huntsman is the only candidate likely to drop out of the race in response to a poor performance. How well does he need to do to stay in the race? Though Elephant Watcher calculates Huntsman's chance of winning the nomination has been at zero percent for some time now, Huntsman may stay in for awhile if he exceeds expectations. A second-place finish would keep Huntsman in the race. A decent third would be a maybe. If Huntsman is in fourth when the ballots are counted, we should expect him to leave.

Santorum and Gingrich each desperately want to finish ahead of the other to gain a stronger position as the chief Anti-Romney in South Carolina. But instead, the polls have them right where Romney wants them: Far down and almost tied with each other. An ambiguous result means more splitting of Romney's opposition.

Finally, when Romney wins, the media will focus on the extent of his win. Finishing in the 40s will be treated as a good win. A few polls currently have Romney in the mid-30s, while the rest have him in the low 40s. If the numbers remain static, then adding in the undecided vote should give Romney a finish in the 40s. However, if New Hampshirites have last-minute thoughts, Romney ends up in the 30s. Particularly if second place is close, such a win will be treated as underwhelming. If Romney gets 50% or more, it will be treated as an overwhelming win and lead to more media proclaiming him the inevitable Republican nominee. Reaching the 50% mark would be difficult, even adding in the undecided vote, but is possible if someone like Huntsman sheds votes as they shift to second choice Romney (which hasn't happened so far).

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Who Won the Republican Debate on January 7th?

When answering the question of "who won tonight's debate?" this season, most of the time the answer has been mixed. This time, that's not the case. Mitt Romney overwhelmingly won the debate. It was perhaps the most one-sided debate so far, such that nearly every observer would agree that Romney was the winner.

It was expected that most of the candidates would spend their time attacking Romney. Although there were moments when most of the candidates were critical of Romney, they didn't devote much time to it. During the first half-hour in particular, the Anti-Romneys found themselves attacking each other instead. When Romney was criticized, he did not take the bait, but instead calmly made the case for why he should be president. It's clear that he was attempting to look presidential, and he succeeded in doing so more than the other candidates did.

No new attacks against Romney were laid out. There was some criticism of Romney's tenure at Bain Capital, which Romney dealt with even more effectively than in previous debates where the issue was raised. Romney listed specific companies that Bain helped start, and listed statistics of tens of thousands of jobs created by those companies. Romney also scored big against the debate moderator, George Stephanopoulos, who pressed Romney on whether states have the right to ban contraception. Romney found himself laughing at the absurdity of the question, since no state wants to ban contraception. It would be an understatement to say the audience was in Romney's corner. Stephanopoulos embarrassed himself.

The most contentious moments of the debate took place when Ron Paul got into extended fights with Rick Santorum (accusing Santorum of too much spending and taking money from lobbyists) and Newt Gingrich (accusing Gingrich of being a "chickenhawk" for not serving in the military). It was very evident that Gingrich and Paul do not like each other.

There were some odd moments. Rick Perry, falling back into the pattern of making at least one gaffe per night, said that if America did not return to Iraq, Iran would go back into Iraq "literally at the speed of light." Paul claimed that after communists in China murdered 100 million of their own people, America broke the ice with them by playing ping-pong. And in the middle of one response, Jon Huntsman randomly spoke in Chinese for no apparent reason.

Tonight was Rick Santorum's first opportunity to play a starring role in a debate. He gave a vanilla performance: Not bad, but not especially good. It was to his detriment that he was put on the defensive by Paul, as opposed to putting Romney on the defensive. If the other candidates were supposed to provide New Hampshire a reason not to hand the state to Romney, they did not provide it. Instead, they gave New Hampshire an excuse to deliver Romney a landslide.