Sunday, January 8, 2012

Romney Survives 2 Debates Unscathed, Appears Inevitable

The other 5 candidates on stage with Mitt Romney, twice in 12 hours this weekend, needed your favorite sports analogy.  The hail mary, the haymaker, the long ball, whatever.  But rather than throwing for the end zone, loading up the punch or swinging for the fences, they chose to play small ball against Romney.

Newt Gingrich is looking past New Hampshire to South Carolina.  But he is polling either second or third there, depending on which poll you believe.  And 2nd or 3rd in his most friendly state just isn't going to cut it.  He has to do big damage and now.

Jon Huntsman is praying for a New Hampshire miracle.  He's currently in either third or fourth in New Hampshire.  And even if he finished third or somehow surprises Ron Paul and finishes second, does he have any battlegrounds that are even remotely as friendly as New Hampshire on the horizon?

Rick Perry is...I'm not sure what Rick Perry is doing.  He should've already quit this thing.

Rick Santorum is banking on a top 3 finish in New Hampshire and a win in South Carolina.   He could well achieve the first half of that on Tuesday if he can pass Huntsman, but winning in South Carolina will be extremely hard unless he can steal a lot of the current Gingrich support and consolidate the "not Mitt" vote to pass Romney's surprisingly commanding lead in South Carolina.  Still, Santorum has the most viable path forward of all the candidates.

Ron Paul will continue to agitate.  But I don't see a single primary or caucus that he can win this cycle.  And it is pretty tough to be the nominee if you don't win any of the contests.

So there you have it.  It's almost certainly going to be Mitt Romney facing Barack Obama in November.  Obviously, we will continue to closely watch New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and beyond, because if this race has taught us anything, things can be very fluid in the race.

But in the end, the GOP appears poised to do exactly what I said they would do and what they have done for my adult life - nominate the next guy in line for the nomination. 

So what does a Mitt/Barack showdown look like?  Could a viable third party candidate either from the right or from the center emerge? 

On the first question, in a heads up match-up, the economy obviously becomes crucially important.  Key swing states such as Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, Ohio and Florida are all heavily dependent on economic outcomes.  The economy is now indisputably improving, with job creation picking up and official unemployment down to 8.5% (the true rate is always higher, for reasons discussed in previous posts), but it is still unlikely to be roaring come November.  But an uptrend would definitely benefit the President. 

General election polling this early in the season is notoriously unreliable, but still instructive as to where the battle will be fought.  And my early read is that there will be more close states this time than in any election since the '88 and '92 cycles.  This is a by-product first of all of a potentially very close election.  But '00 and '04 were also close elections, but with relatively few key battlegrounds.  This is because '00 and '04 were largely regional elections, with the Democrat taking the northeast, the west coast and parts of the mid-west and the GOP candidate taking the rest, with Ohio and Florida basically comprising the key battlegrounds.  Obama redrew the map by broadening the Democratic footprint in the Southwest and the Southeast, winning states such as Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia, North Carolina.  Ohio and Florida are still in play, as are the states Obama gained in 2008, but a Mitt Romney candidacy also puts parts of the northeast in play.  New Hampshire could be a real battleground again.  Romney could do surprisingly well in some of the more liberal parts of the Northeast too - for instance, is it a forgone conclusion that Barack Obama would beat him decisively in Massachusetts?

Earlier, I posted some key battleground states.  Statewide polling is still a little sparse to date, but I will begin to update the electoral map as the Republican race comes closer and closer to wrapping up.

Relative to the question on third party candidates, this is probably the most likely year for a major third party candidacy since 1992, when Ross Perot captured the anger of disaffected Republicans and Reagan Democrats to capture 19% of the national vote.  The problem is, there isn't yet a good national candidate to fill that role.  Gary Johnson has left the GOP to run as a Libertarian, but his name recognition and appeal likely aren't broad enough to do any better than Bob Barr did last cycle.  Donald Trump has talked about running, but does anyone actually think he would get many votes in the final calculus?  Ron Paul has been talked about as an indy, but basically denies that he will run that way, while leaving the door ever so slightly open.  Americans Elect, a group formed to develop a bi-partisan ticket, and funded by some big name donors, could make waves, but only if they get a big name to head their ticket.  Jon Huntsman has been talked about as has New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura.  Each would have an impact on the race, but we will have to wait and see if anything serious happens there.

If Romney essentially wraps up the nomination by the Florida primaries, we are in for a very long general election campaign, with record amounts of both official and third-party money spent (thanks to the Citizens United ruling.)  It's going to be a wild ride.

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