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RealClearPolitics HorseRaceBlog

By Jay Cost

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What's Happening in the GOP Race?

We're just five days from the Florida primary - the last "beauty contest" before Super Tuesday. Here are my thoughts on where the race stands at the moment.

(1) While the race in Florida is tight - it appears today that Giuliani is not in the lead. So, a question worth asking: if he can't win, whom does he hurt? Survey USA's recent poll of Florida Republicans is helpful for answering this question. [Bear in mind that SUSA found McCain with a larger lead than other pollsters, and Romney at a lower point than the others. Also, see the footnote at the end of the post.] Unsurprisingly, it found that Giuliani was cutting into one of McCain's strengths: moderates and liberals. However, it also found Rudy in a tie with Romney among self-identified conservatives. Even if Romney's strength is underestimated in this poll - it nevertheless remains that Rudy is drawing a good chunk of conservatives into his camp. So, it is unclear who, Romney or McCain, is at a greater disadvantage because of Rudy's presence in the race.

(2) SUSA's cross-tabs on voters' top concerns are also worth noting. The top three issues, in order, are the economy, terrorism, and immigration. Giuliani has the edge on terrorism. No big surprise there. Romney has the edge on immigration. Again, no surprise. But McCain has an edge on the economy. And remember that McCain won voters whose top concern was the economy in New Hampshire and tied them with Mike Huckabee in South Carolina. Romney won them in Michigan, and the recent LA Times/Bloomberg national poll showed Romney with a statistically significant, six point lead over McCain as to who is best equipped to deal with the economy. Interestingly, preferences on this question break along self-identified ideology - moderates/liberals and independents split between Romney and McCain, conservatives go for Romney; furthermore, the poll found that moderates/liberals and independents were more concerned about the economy than conservatives. All in all, I think the data tells a mixed tale about the political effects of the economy. I think it is fair to say that Romney's background gives him real potential with voters concerned about the economy - but he has not yet broken out with them in the early states beyond Michigan.

(3) I find it hard to make an argument about where Fred's voters will go. I thought the low-profile nature of his withdrawal was quite intriguing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Insider Advantage's latest Florida poll, taken after Fred dropped out, shows 7% supporting "Other." Rasmussen has that figure at 6%. Any guesses as to who this "other" candidate is? It seems to me that at least some portion of Fred's voters will not learn that he is out until after they vote for him. Assuming the Fred Heads do learn about his departure - it is hard to guess whether any candidate will enjoy a significant gain. Most of Fred's voters are conservative - and as I indicated above, there seems to be a rough tie among conservative voters, with Giuliani and Romney out front by a few ticks over McCain and Huckabee. My guess is that the tie among conservatives between Giuliani and Romney is in part a function of the particulars of the SUSA poll - so I think that Romney stands to gain the most. But Fred's voters will probably spread themselves out among the rest of the field - and between this and those who stick with Fred, I am not sure that Fred's departure will have a big effect in Florida.

(4) As of now, the Florida race is as tight as any we have seen this cycle. It might be tight to the end, or it might break in one direction or the other over the weekend. The RCP average shows the candidates separated by just a few points. From poll-to-poll you see candidates trading different positions (although none at this point show Rudy in first, and only one has him in second). And, of course, 8 to 10% of the public still claims to be undecided (not including the lingering Fred Heads).

(5) I am not convinced that Florida will alter the dynamics of the race in a significant way. Of course, it might. New Hampshire - as it often does - catapulted its winner to a national lead. And Michigan seems to have given Romney a boost in Florida (and maybe nationwide, too). Florida might have a similar effect. But there are reasons to think that Florida's effect will be modest. Consider:

(a) Races like this do not end with a multi-candidate scrum - with the winner of the state in question claiming the nomination, and the opposition all falling off. They are better characterized as a war of attrition - with the field being whittled down bit-by-bit. Florida might help to whittle the field down, but we should see more than two candidates walk away from the race with a claim to viability.

(b) What is more, Florida might not whittle at all! McCain, Romney, and Huckabee have either the resources or the poll standing (or both) to stay and fight through Super Tuesday. So, the only candidate who could be whittled away is Giuliani. And, if he wins, he's still in.

(6) So, looking ahead to Super Tuesday - what do we see? One noteworthy feature is the large chunk of Republican delegates coming from blue states. Blue states don't out-number red states on that day, but they are delegate rich: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York combine to offer up 465 bound delegates. That amounts to 36% of the total number of delegates that a candidate needs to win. The delegates in all of these states except Illinois and Massachusetts are chosen via some kind of winner-take-all procedure. By contrast, twelve red states will offer up 456 bound delegates, and five of these states have some form of proportional allocation to dole them out. A strong show in the blue states was the linchpin of Giuliani's strategy - his plan was to stay viable through Super Tuesday and perform well in the blue states. Can McCain do the same if Rudy falters? He could. And, as a feather in his cap, Arizona offers up 50 bound delegates that day, winner-take-all. All in all, this could produce an interesting dynamic on Super Tuesday. What happens if the moderate McCain wins the blue states, and the conservative Romney wins the red states?

* - Historically speaking, I have not been the biggest fan of SUSA. Upon reflection, I do think it is to their credit that they offer so many cross-tabulations. That's a sign that they are not afraid of people taking a close look at their numbers. Nevertheless, it is less than ideal to have just SUSA for cross-tabulations. But to my never ending frustration, few other pollsters are so generous with their data. This makes sophisticated analysis of these races very difficult. I used SUSA to draw these inferences because theirs is the only data set available. This amounts to a real caveat. Just like the drunk who looks for his keys under the streetlight - I am dealing with the data that is available, not the data I would love to have.

-Jay Cost