Who’s on first?
By John D. Turner
12 Jan 2008

OK, pop quiz time. As of today, 12 Jan 2008, who is ahead on the Republican side in the primaries?

Well, let’s see. Romney was expected to win in Iowa, but he came in second to Huckabee, so as of the Iowa Caucus, Huckabee was ahead. Romney was winning in New Hampshire, but came in second to McCain, so now conventional wisdom says that McCain is ahead. McCain has the “big Mo”.

Thompson looked good in the last debate – the focus group says he won. But he isn’t very consistent. Rudy hasn’t shown up yet – he’s waiting for Super Tuesday; an unconventional strategy, and we’ll see how it pans out.

Right now, the pundits seem to think it is a two-man race between Huckabee and McCain, with Rudy a potential spoiler, depending on how his strategy works. Thompson is a distant fourth, who may or may not catch on.

And Romney? Well, he spent megabucks in Iowa and New Hampshire, and didn’t win either despite early leads in the polls in both states. He looked good to start with, but when push came to shove, the evangelicals couldn’t find it in themselves to pull the lever for a Mormon when they had a “real” Christian to vote for in Huckabee. And in New Hampshire, which McCain carried by a large margin in 2000, Romney couldn’t quite pull it off.

Megabucks spent. Result? Two silvers and no gold in Iowa and New Hampshire. He came up gold in Wyoming, but who cares? It’s kind of like winning the Curling competition in the Winter Olympics. Perhaps it’s big in some part of the world, but here in the U.S., not a very well followed sport. Conventional wisdom is that Romney is toast. He may stick around awhile (he has the bucks), but pretty much none of the talking heads seem to take him seriously anymore. When names come up, it is usually everyone but Romney.

And yet, have you heard the delegate count reported by anyone as of yet? Romney mentioned it during the debate. It’s the delegate count that in the end is what nominates the candidate. Current delegate count is (drum roll please):

Mitt Romney 30
Mike Huckabee 21
John McCain 10
Fred Thompson 6
Ron Paul 2
Rudy Giuliani 1
Duncan Hunter 1

Hmm. The one no one talks about any more is actually in the lead. Huckabee is 9 delegates back, and McCain is 11 behind him. How can this be?

It’s true that Romney came in second in both the “big” early states of Iowa and New Hampshire. But he came in second to two different people, both of which came in behind him in the states they didn’t win. And he did win in Wyoming, which of course, everyone discounts.

Primary voting is different from the presidential election, where almost all of the states award all their electoral votes to whichever party wins the majority. This gives you a little bit of an idea what presidential elections might be like if the two major political parties hadn’t made almost all the contests winner take all. We have a so-called “two-party system” not because the constitution dictates it (the constitution is completely silent on the topic of political parties), but because the two major parties have set it up that way to lock out any competition.

State primaries are more varied. Some are winner take all, many are not. Some are a combination of the two.

The next contest is Michigan, a state the pundits early on tagged as going to Romney, since his dad was governor there, and he has strong family ties in the state. Now of course, polls show that it is leaning McCain, with Huckabee making gains as well. Proof, the pundits say, that Romney is flagging.

The MSM claims that Michigan is a do-or-die for Mitt. How can he possibly win the nomination if he can’t even carry his “home” state?

But Romney hasn’t lived there for 40 years! Family ties and name recognition are all very nice, but it’s kind of like if I were to run for president and claim that Colorado is my home state. I was born there sure enough, but six months later my dad was reassigned, and except for driving through 10 years ago on my way to Washington State, I haven’t been back since. Of course, my dad wasn’t governor of Colorado, but still.

To be sure, Romney does not disavow Michigan – far from it. And he is aggressively looking for gold there; not placing first would certainly have some psychological effect, which is not to be discounted in a political campaign.

In Michigan, there are 30 delegates up for grabs. Normally there would be 60, but since Michigan moved its primary up before the 5th of February in violation of party rules, they were stripped of half their delegates (as were Florida, South Carolina, Wyoming, and New Hampshire). This works in Romney’s favor, as if McCain does win, and Romney stays a close second, McCain will not be able to pull ahead of him in the delegate count.

The polls are all over the map; some show McCain in the lead, some Romney, some Huckabee. All three seem fairly close. If all three end up fairly close in delegate count, Romney will remain in the lead, even if he comes in third.

Next we get to Nevada and South Carolina. South Carolina has 24 more delegates up for grabs. Here it would appear Huckabee has the advantage, as South Carolina is a strong evangelical state. Still, Romney has picked up significant endorsements there, not the least being Bob Jones College (Mormons need not apply for admission). If Huckabee were both evangelical and conservative, he would be a shoe-in. But he isn’t, based on his record as governor of Arkansas. It must be pretty bad when the governor of Massachusetts can “out conservative” you. Although there are 24 delegates up for grabs, 13 of these are at large/bonus delegates and under South Carolina’s rules these are winner-take-all. So South Carolina can give a significant boost to whoever comes out on top

A new Fox News poll in South Carolina (10 Jan 2008) now show McCain in the lead, with Romney and Huckabee neck and neck for second. However all three candidates are within the survey’s margin of error. Thompson and Giuliani are both well back in single digits.

Once again, it is tight. If Romney loses here to McCain, McCain will make up significant ground, due in large part to the 13 winner-take-all delegates. However, if he is close to Huckabee, even if third, Huckabee won’t make significant gains against him. And if by some chance, Thompson surges and takes the state, the impact on Romney will be even less. Currently, Thompson and Huckabee are locked in a slugfest in South Carolina, with Thompson labeling Huckabee a liberal, and Huckabee calling Thompson a late bloomer when it comes to supporting Ronald Reagan, the touchstone of conservative politics.

Nevada follows South Carolina, with 34 delegates up for grabs. Since Nevada is a caucus state, and not a primary state, it was not affected by the rule that halved the number of delegates for primary states who advanced their dates before 5 Feb. Polling data from last month showed Romney and Giuliani running neck and neck with Huckabee 9 points back and the rest trailing in single digits. This has changed significantly this week, however. Current polls again are varied, with the Real Clear Politics (RCP) average showing Romney, McCain, and Huckabee essentially tied. If it stays that way, none will move significantly against the other, although the media will make it sound like whoever comes in first is going to win it all. (Unless it is Romney, in which case you probably won’t hear much about Nevada, and the media will instead focus on the next caucus three days later in Louisiana.)

Louisiana, a caucus state, with 47 delegates is next; 26 of these are potentially winner-take-all, if a 50% threshold is met. However, from what I am able to gather, they don’t actually assign the delegates at the caucus; on 9 Feb voters will cast ballots in a Presidential Preference primary, which will actually determine the delegates. I am sure I don’t understand it. Politics in Louisiana are, as usual, somewhat murky to an outsider.

And I haven’t been able to scare up any polling data on Louisiana either. So there isn’t much more I can say on that topic.

The biggest number of delegates at stake before “super Tuesday” is in Florida. Florida is a winner-take-all state, and with 114 delegates, would be a significant factor in culling out the pack. However, since it too moved its primary up, Florida’s delegates were also cut in half, so now it has only 57; a significant number to be sure, but less significant than it was.

Polling data? Well, it’s a long way until 29 January, particularly in political terms, but as of now, the RCP average shows Giuliani in front. This is actually good from Romney’s point of view, who trails behind in fourth behind Huckabee. Giuliani hasn’t campaigned much in the prior contests, and really isn’t showing much in the polls. If he wins Florida, as far as delegate count is concerned, Romney will still be in the running.

As will be McCain and Huckabee as well. In fact, I don’t see much, based on current polling data to separate the pack before Super Tuesday on 5 Feb. There doesn’t appear, as yet, to be a clear favorite on the Republican side, unlike the Democrat side which has narrowed to three and shows every sign of further narrowing to two. Unless someone catches fire (and the MSM is working hard to generate a front runner they can tout), McCain, Huckabee, and Romney, joined by Giuliani after the Florida primary could still be pretty much even.

I think we are going to have to wait until after Super Tuesday to see what shakes out. I don’t expect any of the current Republican candidates to drop out before then unless perhaps Thompson continues to do poorly. If so, he may. I don’t expect to see Ron Paul quit. His supporters continue to provide sufficient funds for him to stay in the race, and I expect them to keep on doing so, even though I would be shocked to actually see him win. He is the best candidate the Libertarian Party has fielded in quite some time.

As long as Romney can stay close, he will be in the fight. As long as no clear winner emerges, all of them are in the fight. If after Super Tuesday, things still are murky, who knows? Perhaps the final battle won’t be fought until the national convention. It has been some time since we have witnessed a floor fight.

One thing is certain however. If it comes down to a battle in smoke-filled rooms, Romney will be at a serious disadvantage.

Of course, actual smoke-filled rooms are simply a metaphor these days.