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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

« On the Michigan Results | HorseRaceBlog Home Page | On Yesterday's Results »

Can Mitt Catch On?

Romney's win in Michigan keeps his candidacy alive - but what are the odds that he will win the nomination? I'm not sure, but they are much reduced from what they were six months ago.

Early last year, the Romney campaign put together a plan that - if it panned out - would probably have won him the nomination. The idea was for Romney to build a huge war chest that would enable him to compete everywhere. He would then win Iowa and New Hampshire, emerge as the consensus Republican candidate, and overwhelm the rest of the field.

But the plan backfired. Romney lost Iowa, and then he lost New Hampshire. Accordingly, he is not the consensus candidate of the party. Far from it. While he has a toehold in the GOP electorate, that's all he has. The recent Pew poll offers cross-tabs that tell the story in vivid detail. Even though the poll was completed before the Michigan primary, there is still a good bit to learn from it:

Pew Poll.jpg

Huckabee's strength is with evangelicals. McCain's strength is with self-identified moderates and liberals; he is also strong among mainline Protestants and Catholics. Romney wins a solid portion of self-identified conservatives - but he is in a three-way statistical tie with Huckabee and McCain for their support. Clearly, he has not yet broken through with either demographic - be it ideological or religious. You could also slice the party by income - and you would see the same result. McCain dominates; Huckabee has a fair share; Romney has not broken through.

I think this is why Romney is skipping South Carolina. With the current alignment of the vote - Romney cannot expect to win a sufficient slice of the South Carolina electorate. His victory in Michigan might have shifted things in his favor (we'll know in a few days) - but obviously not enough to put South Carolina in play for him.

So, what is Romney's angle on the nomination? He heads to Nevada and wins that state's uncontested caucus. This keeps him viable until Florida, regardless of what happens in South Carolina. He then gives Florida everything he's got.

Will it work? I don't know. He has another potential problem.

Why is it that most primary candidates refuse to run sustained, intense negative campaigns? The answer is that everybody is basically on the same side. An attacking candidate has to be careful about his opponent's core supporters. He runs the risk of alienating them - and they might ultimately refuse to support him after their guy drops out of the race. Romney might find himself in that situation. His attacks on McCain and Huckabee have been as sustained and intense as any this cycle. And there is evidence that this has damaged him with the Mac and Huck factions.

The Pew poll found that Romney's net favorable rating among these voters is not very strong: just +7% among McCain voters, and a whopping -9% among Huckabee voters. Of course, the sample sizes informing these statistics are small - but they are large enough to validate this modest conclusion: Romney is relatively weak among Huckabee and McCain supporters. For comparative purposes: McCain is +30% among Huckabee supporters; Huckabee is +15% among McCain supporters; Giuliani is an eye-popping +69% among McCain supporters, and +33% among Huckabee supporters. [A problem Romney will confront if he wins the GOP nomination: he has a net -12% favorable rating among the general electorate. I'd wager this is also a consequence of the negative tenor of his campaign in recent months.]

This could create problems for Romney in Florida, depending on how things turn out in South Carolina. Following Pew, it does not seem that Romney is the second choice of a plurality of Huckabee voters or McCain voters. The situation in Florida might be different than what Pew finds on the national level, but I doubt it is significantly so. My sense is that if Floridians bolt Huckabee after he loses South Carolina - a plurality will go to McCain, not Romney. Similarly, if they bolt McCain - a plurality will go to Giuliani, not Romney. Generally, Pew and other pollsters have found Romney in third or fourth place when it comes to second choices. Pew also finds that 20% of Republicans will never vote for Romney, making him more "unacceptable" than McCain or Giuliani.

In light of this, I think that what Romney needs is a nominal Huckabee (or Thompson) victory in South Carolina. It would keep the field as open as possible. If the Florida electorate is split four or five ways, Romney might be able to pull out a victory based on his current coalition - thus giving him an opportunity to expand it in advance of Super Tuesday.

Ironically, Giuliani is in the same position. This is one of the strangest features of this year's race. Romney has competed everywhere, Giuliani has competed nowhere - but they are both stuck in the middle and in need of an open field.

-Jay Cost