Thursday, December 15, 2011

Can Mitt Romney Deliver the One-Two Punch?

In a nomination fight that thus far has been appropriately centered around the debates, tonight's debate is the highest-stakes contest yet, for a number of reasons.  First, it is the last time that all of the candidates will be on stage together before the first-in-the-nation caucuses in Iowa on January 3rd (there are two additional debates between the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.)  Second, being a weekday evening debate on Fox News, it is highly likely to get amongst the highest viewership of any of the recent debates.  Third, support is still very soft among the Republican electorate for all of the candidates and so significant shifts in the polling are still not only possible but highly probable.  The question is in what direction.

Mitt Romney has been quietly making headway over the course of the past week.  He hasn't scored any big knockdowns against Newt Gingrich, but Gingrich's support has slowly started to soften as potential voters begin to evaluate him on his own merits rather than as simply the latest "not Romney" choice.  Also, both Romney and Rick Perry have considerably stronger ground organizations and greater financial resources and are spending like crazy to unseat Newt.

We could see an epic moment that moves the polls.  But if we don't, what will happen over the course of the next couple of weeks?

First, let's understand that while history doesn't indicate that either Iowa or New Hampshire individually is particularly predictive of outcomes, it is almost impossible to win the nomination without winning one of the two.  Looking back at competitive GOP nomination fights starting in 1972 (when Iowa's caucus moved up to its current position), here is how the eventual nominees fared in the contests (I've excluded re-election campaigns where there wasn't meaningful competition - in those cases, the nominees obviously won both contests.)

1976 - Gerald Ford - won Iowa and New Hampshire
1980 - Ronald Reagan - lost Iowa, won New Hampshire
1984 - Not Competitive
1988 - George H.W. Bush - lost Iowa, won New Hampshire
1992 - George H.W. Bush - won Iowa and New Hampshire
1996 - Bob Dole - won Iowa, lost New Hampshire
2000 - George W. Bush - won Iowa, lost New Hampshire
2004 - Not Competitive
2008 - John McCain - lost Iowa, won New Hampshire

So of the 7 nominees in competitive races, 2 won both races and the other 5 won at least one of the two.  4 of the 7 won Iowa and 5 of the 7 won New Hampshire.

Clearly, you can afford to lose one of the two and still get the nod, but winning without at least one of the two hasn't been done in recent history.

Mitt Romney, for all of his soft support, is still a huge favorite to win in New Hampshire.  He has a geographical advantage, being Governor of a neighboring state, he is popular with moderates and independents that have a huge influence on the primary race in New Hampshire's open primary system and he has an average of about a 10 point lead in the polls there.

So Mitt can clear his long-uncertain path to the nomination if he finds a way to land a knock-out punch in Iowa.  But Iowa is very unpredictable at this point.  Newt Gingrich still leads on paper in 2 out of the 3 polls published this week, although Romney leads the third.  But Newt's ground game being week could be very damaging in notoriously hard-to-poll-for caucuses, given that getting a caucus vote involves getting someone to a meeting place and having them stay for hours at a time to be publicly counted, not simply getting them to show up to a poll to vote.  And Ron Paul, darling of the Tea Party and libertarians everywhere, is lurking in the wings with his rabid supporters, consistently only a few points out of the lead.  And rest assured, his supporters WILL show up.  Mitt Romney, though his supporters are soft, has a fantastic ground organization to turn out the would-be supporters.

It's actually close to a pick 'em race in Iowa given all these factors.  A Romney win in Iowa would probably come close to ending the race after New Hampshire, since his one-two punch would be almost impossible to overcome, even if he lost South Carolina.  A Ron Paul win would make for an entertaining showdown between Romney and Paul down the road, as Paul is almost certainly in it for the distance, but few take Paul's chances at winning the actual nomination seriously, and it would likely be a complete disaster for the GOP if it happened.  A Newt win in Iowa sets up a pick 'em horse race for the nod.  So the outcome of Iowa is critical to the whole thing.

Can Romney deliver the one-two punch and sew up the nomination?  Tonight may be our first indicator.

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