Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Road to Super Tuesday (and Beyond)

Tomorrow is the Florida primary's election day.  In the first closed primary of the campaign, around 2 million Floridians will go to the polls and choose who they want to be the nominee.  For a 2-3 day period immediately following South Carolina, it seemed as though Newtmentum might be enough to take the Sunshine State's 50 delegates as well.  But after a week of aggressive ad buys & 2 strong debate performances, Team Mitten has a lead anywhere from 5 to 20 points in winner-take-all Florida (my prediction for tomorrow is an 11 percent win, 43-32).  All the candidates vow to go on, but as we look at the road to Super Tuesday Mittmentum would seem to have very few places to be derailed.

The media has called February a "dead month", a lull between the initial burst and the 10-state Super Tuesday on March 6th.  This is an inaccurate portrayal, as there are actually more contests in February than there have been in January.  Assuming there is no Gingrich surprise tomorrow, a look at these states 1 by 1 shows just how tough the next few weeks are likely to be for anyone who's nickname can't also be worn on a hand.

Nevada (2/4) - Just a few days after Florida comes the Nevada caucuses.  28 delegates are at stake, all awarded proportionally based on state vote share (3.57% = 1 delegate).  Very little polling has been done here, but there's a reason for that.  In 2008 Gov. Romney won 51% in Nevada, aided by the state's significant Mormon population.  There is little reason to believe this has changed, and the Gingrich & Santorum campaigns have largely conceded the state.  Caucuses are Ron Paul's strength so look for him to do fairly well here, but it would seem realistic to expect Romney to win 15 or more of the delegates available.

Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri* (2/7) - Next Tuesday, 3 more states' voters go vote.  Missouri's primary is purely for show, as the delegates are attached to their March caucus.  The state's results will still be a show of momentum, and a chance for Santorum to possibly score a 'win' of sorts with Gingrich not on the ballot.  Colorado is another state Romney won in '08, and their caucuses seem likely to give him a win again this year.  Minnesota is more difficult to predict: while a Romney state in 2008, it does not have the built-in advantages that a Western state like Colorado does for Mitt.  If there's a win out there for a not-Mitt candidate this could be it, though the money & organizational advantage of Romney's campaign could be decisive here.  MN and CO technically do not choose their delegates in these contests, but instead select members to a state convention that will elect the delegates (a way to avoid the RNC's rules on pre-Super Tuesday contests).  Combined, the 2 states will eventually choose 76 delegates (36 CO, 40 MN).

Maine (2/11) - The Maine caucuses are spread around a number of days based on region, but the majority of the state's results will be reported next Saturday.  Maine also chooses people for a state convention where their 24 delegates are awarded so as to comply with the RNC.  This is another Mitt '08 state, one that he won 51% of the vote in 4 years ago.  Ron Paul is reported to be making a strong play for this state (where he won 18% in '08), but until tangible evidence suggests otherwise this is Romney's state to lose.

Arizona, Michigan (2/28) - Three weeks later come 2 winner-take-all events, the Arizona and Michigan primaries.  Though both states have had their delegate totals cut in half due to violating RNC primary rules, there will still be 59 delegates up for grabs this day.  Michigan's a large, media-driven state where the late George Romney was Governor and head of American Motors, and the Romney family still has extensive ties in the state.  It was a Romney state in '08 as well, and a report earlier today by CNN's Peter Hamby implies that Gingrich plans to cede the state to Mitt.  Arizona also has a Romney advantage: between the sizable Mormon population in the north and the endorsements of McCain, Jeff Flake, and others (providing access to established campaign networks in-state), AZ would seem to be another probable Romney win at this point.

Washington (3/3) - The Saturday before Super Tuesday, Washington state holds its caucuses.  Like Colorado, Minnesota, and Maine, they will select state convention delegates who then pick the 40 actual RNC convention delegates as a way around primary calendar rules.  There's no good '08 comparison to be made here (WA's caucus happened after Mitt's withdrawal from the race), but it seems unlikely that Gingrich or Santorum devote a ton of energy/resources here.  It's a contest that seems destined to be an afterthought in the national narrative, thus it would seem to be a state only a candidate with the ability to spread resources around (Romney) or who's running a caucus-based strategy (Paul) will target.

All of these states seem to either favor Romney demographically, or they are caucuses where superior organization is likely to carry the day.  While it's by no means a certainty, it's entirely possible Romney wins all 8 of those contests.  Combined with his Florida win, that would be a string of 9 straight wins & a 10-1-1 overall win total between Mitt, Newt, and Rick.

Super Tuesday (3/6) - That leads up to the 10 states of Super Tuesday.  Here, Gingrich does have some favorable match-ups.  Georgia's primary is the largest of these contests with 76 delegates available: Newt seems likely to win most (if not all) of the state's Congressional districts & thus the state.  How much he wins each by matters, since the 3 delegates/district are winner-take-all if a candidate wins over 50% of the vote (otherwise they're split 2-1).  Assuming all 4 main candidates remain in the race, this is a high threshold to reach across the board.  Newt could easily win over 50 of the delegates at stake, but claiming the full 76 would seem to be highly unlikely.

Other states are in play that could go for Newt.  Tennessee, with 41 delegates tied to its primary, and Oklahoma (40 delegates) are both likely to be top targets of the Gingrich campaign.  If these states voted today I would assume Newt wins both, but the question in both is what the cumulative effect of a string of Romney wins and momentum would do to this support.  Alaska and North Dakota (24 & 28 delegates respectively) hold caucuses this day, and these too could be states for Newt to target.  However, with Alaska's delegates being proportional and North Dakota's technically chosen at a state convention "in such a way so that they best reflect the Presidential preference of the caucus participants" (whatever that ultimately means), the incentive for Newt's campaign to put much effort into these states is minimal.

Romney also has several likely wins on the Super Tuesday map.  Virginia's primary has 46 delegates, and due to the Gingrich campaign's failure to collect enough valid signatures (and Santorum not even trying) the only candidates on the ballot will be Romney and Paul.  In this reality, Mitt should win most (if not all) of the delegates available as they are winner-take-all by Congressional district & state.  Massachusetts also votes on March 6th with 38 delegates at stake.  These will be proportioned to correlate with the state result, meaning Mitt likely wins most (though not all) of the delegates here.  Neighboring MA, Vermont's primary also at present time would seem anti-climactic.  With 14 delegates in play, Romney should expect another win here as well.  Idaho also holds its caucus this day, with 32 delegates in play.  Only Utah has a higher LDS-population percentage than Idaho's 26%, and if Romney can get above 50% here he'll take all the delegates.

Unlike Gingrich, Romney has the resources to make a run at most or all of the Super Tuesday states.  Alaska & North Dakota, though possibly states where Gingrich could be strong, are also caucus states where Mitt doesn't need to spend a lot of his money to build a superior organization to the others.  Running with strong momentum could put Tennessee and Oklahoma into play for Romney as well.  Mitt's campaign war chest also presents possibilities in Newt's backyard.  It's hard to imagine a way Romney wins Georgia, but he could run ads and target districts through the state in a way that forces Newt to use more of his far more limited resources to secure parts of the state.

That leaves just one Super Tuesday state: Ohio.  This is almost certain to be the battleground of the day between Romney and Gingrich (with Santorum & Paul likely aiming to take some districts' delegates).  While there's no way I'm making a prediction this far out on my state, expect a similar style campaign from Romney in Ohio to the one being used in Florida.  Like FL, Ohio's a state you have to saturate with expensive media buys (5 of America's 70 largest media markets are in the Buckeye State).  Ohio also has a comparable overall electorate to the ideological makeup of Florida.  Newt's campaign can take solace in the things that make Ohio different.  It's far easier to campaign across the much smaller Ohio geography than Florida (where crossing the state by campaign bus is a multi-day endeavor).  Newt will also have more time to reach out to Ohio voters, particularly if he largely skips over the February contests as it looks like he might.

Ohio could prove to be Newt's last stand.  For all of his current talk about going all the way to the convention, political reality sets in at a point.  You can't continue a campaign without money, and if Romney has a large enough lead and momentum people will tend to unite behind him as the near-presumptive nominee in a push to move on to the general election.  If either of these happen, Newt is done regardless of his claims (remember: everyone's "going all the way to the convention" right up until the moment they drop out).  A win gives Newt justification to keep going, but a loss (coupled with the other likely results) likely puts extreme pressure on him to withdraw in the name of party unity & winning in November.

The good news for Newt is this: if he gets through Super Tuesday as a still-credible challenger, then the calendar yields a few more favorable battlegrounds for him in the remainder of March.  Kansas, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana all hold potential for Gingrich.  However, this is a big "if".  In all the talk of a battle to the convention, Romney has an opportunity in the next 5 weeks to run off a string of victories across the nation that could bring the competitive phase of these primaries to a relatively quick end.  Whether or not he does it remains to be seen, but the road is there for building Mittmentum to deal a potential knockout blow to the competition by early March.

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