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Monday, January 02, 2012

Iowa and the Republican Nomination

The Iowa Caucuses have arrived. Finally. What can we expect in the Hawkeye State, and how will those results affect the rest of the Republican Nomination process? Let's break it down by candidate.

First, the Primary Schedule is helpful:
January 3--Iowa Caucus
January 10--New Hampshire Primary
January 21--South Carolina Primary
January 31--Florida Primary
February 4 to March 3--Nevada, Maine, Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri (doesn't count), Arizona, Michigan, Washington.
March 6--Super Tuesday (10 states)

The story of the weekend was clearly the rise of Rick Santorum. The first candidate to travel to all 99 Iowa counties, Santorum, sometime today, is becoming the seventh candidate to be the favorite in Iowa. At some point in the last year, each of Michelle Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul have had their turn atop Iowa's polls. If one were given today, it'd surely be Santorum on top. Popular theory is that he peaked at the right time. But will his excellent timing translate to success down the road?

As is the answer to every question asked about the effects of Iowa's results: maybe. We know Santorum won't play in New Hampshire. After he finishes top two in Iowa, he needs to go straight to South Carolina to work for a top 2 finish there. By then, other variables will determine the viability of a Santorum nomination.

Romney is not one of them. Ironically, the man most charged with hemming and hawing, flipping and flopping, is the most predictable finisher of the pack. He will finish top 3 in Iowa. He will win New Hampshire. He will finish top 3 in South Carolina. He will finish top 3 in Florida. He is the heavy favorite to win the nomination.

Who, if anyone, can stop him? To answer, we return to the Iowa Caucus and Rick Santorum's uncontrollable variables.

It won't be Michelle Bachmann. After finishing out of the top 3, she'll drop out. Where her support goes is crucial. If Perry also finishes out of the top 3, he, too, might drop out. (He's less likely to drop out, as his national support, structure, and money is much stronger than Bachmann's. Indeed, it might be as strong as anyone's but those of Romney and Paul.)

Then, Rick Santorum, the only irrefutably conservative candidate remaining, will get nearly all their votes, which makes him a contender for the nomination. (Astonishing if you think about where he was two weeks ago.) However, if Perry remains after Iowa (or if Bachmann does, for that matter), he'll keep conservative votes away from Santorum, splitting the far right of the party in their quest to avoid a Romney nomination. This development is more likely, keeping Santorum a longshot even with an Iowa victory (think Mike Huckabee in 2008).

While Romney has the least variables, Newt Gingrich has the most. He could finish anywhere from 3rd to 6th in Iowa. (I foresee 5th or 6th.) He can finish anywhere from 2nd to 4th in New Hampshire. (I foresee 3rd or 4th.) Then he can finish anywhere from 1st to 4th in South Carolina. (I foresee 2nd or 3rd.) Note, however, that among the variables is a pattern--a steady rise for the former Speaker.

Thus, we're right back to where we were before his collapse--Gingrich is the best chance to keep Romney from the nomination. He still clings to leads in South Carolina and Florida, and is with Romney atop the polls nationally. After finishing out of the top 3 in Iowa, his numbers will fall, of course, in those two states, but that doesn't mean it's over for him.

Like Santorum, Gingrich depends on a certain scenario developing. He need to finish top 5 in Iowa and top 4 in New Hampshire. At the same time, he also must hope that Perry is still in the race in South Carolina and Florida so he splits the conservative vote with Santorum. It's important for Gingrich that a clear, anti-Romney conservative does not manifest during the first four contests. Under this not implausible scenario, Gingrich will benefit from "Steady Rise/Rebound for Gingrich" headlines, the story being that he finished 5th in Iowa, 4th in New Hampshire, then 2nd/3rd in South Carolina will catapult him to 1st/2nd in Florida, and away we go. If, best case for him, he maintains his South Carolina and Florida leads to win each state, and consequently has the delegate lead after the first four contests, he'll get all the anti-Romney money and be able to match the former Massachusetts governor down the stretch.

Finally, the favorite: Mitt Romney. If Romney is winning in delegate count after the first four states, the nomination is his. He has by far the most money nationally (especially after everyone else exhausts their funds to survive the first four contests), and naturally plays well in the remaining states, the biggest of which are moderate (California, New York, Illinois (Perry will be out before Texas, and Florida is already done)). Plus, come Super Tuesday, he is best equipped to fund a blitzkrieg of national ads.

And if you're wondering why I haven't discussed Ron Paul, it's because everyone knows about his chances. His ceiling lies at about 15 percent of the vote. He's the most likely to finish in the top 3 for the nomination, but the least likely (save Bachmann) to win the nomination itself. Low ceiling, but rock solid floor.

In sum, there are three realistic scenarios for three realistic potential nominees:

1) Romney has a solid delegate lead after the first four states. Runs away with the nomination. Percent likelihood: 75.

2) If Perry and Bachman are gone by South Carolina, Santorum gets all the conservative support he can handle, and he can then compete with Romney down the stretch. (And Gingrich is done in this scenario.) Percent likelihood: 10.

3) Gingrich finishes 5 in Iowa, 4 in New Hampshire, 2/3 in South Carolina, and 1/2 in Florida, maybe even winning the last two, and he can then compete with Romney down the stretch. Percent likelihood: 10.

Shortly I will post the percentages for each candidate to win the nomination. See left side bar for odds.


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