Simply put, I’ve never been very good at relating the twists and turns of soap operas.
But, I did engage in punditry about New Hampshire, so I should follow up.
Where to start? Well, I maintain that there are three key factions in the GOP. First, there’s the libertarian faction, represented by Ron Paul. Paul finished second in New Hampshire with about 22% of the vote. That’s on par with his performance in Iowa, although in the Hawkeye State, he came in third behind Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. He’s polling around 15% in South Carolina, site of the next contest on Saturday. That’s probably what we will continue to see nationally. He’s not viable, but his supporters are dedicated. Honestly, unless something changes, I’m probably going to leave him out of future analyses.
Then there was the fate of John Huntsman, the sane (and therefore doomed) conservative in this race. After staking his whole campaign in New Hampshire and drawing a 17% third place result, he quit and endorsed Romney.
Paul and Huntsman represented the easy part of this analysis.
My analysis of New Hampshire focused on the state of the “anti-Romney” forces of conservative evangelicals. This has been the wing of Perry, Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich and Santorum. Well, Bachmann and Cain have been gone, although Stephen Colbert’s SuperPAC has endorsed Cain…apparently photoshopping his picture over Cain’s. I’d say this is comic relief in this saga, but at the rate things have been going it could actually wind up generating delegates for Cain.
That leaves Gingrich, Santorum and Perry. Gingrich outpolled Santorum in New Hampshire. This seems to have put him back in the driver’s seat of the anti-Romney movement. Since then, a couple of things have happened. First, an influential group of evangelical leaders, unable to accept a Mormon, have concentrated their support and thrown it behind Santorum, apparently not quite having let Gingrich off the hook for his personal baggage. Of course, among the GOP electorate in South Carolina, such a principled (?) stand does not seem to have held up in the face of Gingrich’s race-baiting, dog whistle language and naked fury in a recent debate. Since then, Gingrich seems to have pulled ahead in the polls.
Pretty straight forward stuff, huh?
That was before today.
Event 1: It turns out that Santorum won Iowa. Well, the final count shows Santorum up by 32 votes…except they’re not sure about that because 8 precincts are unaccounted for. Does this change anything? Well…it’s hard to say. Keep reading.
Event 2: Perry dropped out of the race today and endorsed Gingrich. Yawn.
Event 3: Under pressure from Gingrich to release his tax returns, word is emerging that Romney (who says that his effective tax rage is 15%) has millions of dollars in offshore tax shelters. This really shouldn’t move the needle much among GOP voters unless they are looking at how it will play in the general.
Event 4: Apparently Gingrich’s second wife (the one he served his cancer-stricken wife divorce papers in the hospital to be with) has given a tell-all interview to ABC news that aired tonight where she claimed that Gingrich asked her for an open marriage so he could countinue his affair with his now-third wife (while he was impeaching Clinton for having an affair). Most analysts seem to think that his is coming too late to influence South Carolina’s voting on Saturday. Still, it plays directly into the criticism of the evangelicals backing Santorum.
So where does this leave us. Well, South Carolina is considered a bellweather for the GOP. Where Iowa and New Hampshire serve to legitimize candidates and winnow the herd, South Carolina’s winner tends to be the nominee. Conventional wisdom would suggest that a Romney victory here, outside his native “establishment Republican” territory, would have that very result.
I’m not so sure.
Neither Gingrich nor Santorum are the type to give up easily, and of course Paul isn’t going anywhere unless he tries a third party run. Meanwhile, there is only so long Romney could withstand the full fury of an enraged Gingrich without taking damage. But there still seems to be the question of who gets to keep the mantel of anti-Romney.
A Gingrich victory on Saturday will increase the pressure on Santorum to leave the race. If I were him, I’d be looking to poll high enough on Saturday to justify my continued presence in the race, at least long enough to see if the evangelical support and the entry into the record of Gingrich’s personal baggage (Romney’s sure to jump on that bandwagon.) would be enough to sink Gingrich. If that doesn’t happen, Santorum will need to make a quick exit to force the social conservatives to unite going into the Bible Belt. Likewise, should Gingrich severely underperform, he would find himself in the same position.
So, where does this leave us for Saturday?
Here’s what to watch for:
1) Who wins? If Romney wins, the pressure will be on for others to vacate the race. The campaign has been nasty enough that the damage to the nominee would outweight the benefits of building a national campaign by organizing throughout the primary season. If Gingrich wins, then the notion of Romney’s inevitablity will be severely compromised. If Paul or Santorum wins…well then heads start to explode. Let’s not go there.
2) What happens farther back in the pack? Let’s assume a close 1-2 finish for Romney and Gingrich. Then we need to look at Santorum’s performance. He’s currently polling at 11-14%, behind Paul’s 15%. If he shows significant improvment, say finishing ahead of Paul, particularly at the expense of Gingrich, it would indicate that Gingrich’s personal baggage is weighing him down and justifies Santorum’s bid to represent the social conservatives farther into the South. If Santorum underperforms, we need to assume that he will be leaving the race soon.
Or I could be completly wrong.