Republican Rankings: Who is the least unlikely to win?

My latest rankings of the GOP race was done about a month ago, at the beginning of the Huckabee surge which made everyone's calculations worthless and dramatically weakened both Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani. 9 days from Iowa and on a slow news day, it's the ideal time to update my assessment of the Republican race. Last month's rankings (with McCain at number 5th and Giuliani at number 2) now looks totally off.

This is a stunningly open race: John McCain, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee have pretty much equally plausible paths to the nomination and none of their victories would be a surprise; in fact, it's almost impossible to rank them at this point given that so much of their fate is outside of their own control but depends on the showing of other candidates (that's especially Giuliani's case). As for Fred Thompson, he is clearly the least likely to pull this through at this point; but given the perfect storm, he could still get some buzz going and clinch the whole thing. So there you have it: 5 candidates who could very realistically become the Republican nominee -- making any ranking extremely difficult.

But let's face it: While all the candidates have plausible paths to the nomination, it's really impossible to look at any of them as likely.:

  • Could Romney win Iowa or New Hampshire? Surely it's possible -- but odds at this point are that he gets neither.
  • If he won Iowa and then probably South Carolina, Huckabee would face the massive GOP machine that has destroyed so many candidates in the past -- could he survive? No one else ever has.
  • Sure, McCain could get New Hampshire, but then capitalizing on that to win South Carolina and the big states against Giuliani when he's massively under-organized and probably depended on independents to carry New Hampshire, just like in 2000? Odds are against it.
  • If Giuliani is already plunging in the big states before any early contest has been decided and any early victor has gathered some momentum, can he be expected to maintain any sort of form in Florida and California after coming in fourt/fifth in primaries throughout January? I've always said this was hugely implausible, and his poll numbers are already showing why.
  • As for Thompson, I'm really not sure what a good scenario would be for him anymore: A strong third in Iowa? McCain is threatening that. A victory in South Carolina? Huckabee winning Iowa would nix that hope, and if Romney prevails there expect him to be favored to sweep January.
Right, you get the picture. All scenarios look stunningly unlikely. Though one of them will come to pass, and one of these candidates will become the nominee. The question then is which of these scenarios is the least far-fetched at this point? And believe me, it took me a long time to decide on that answer:

1. John McCain (November ranking: 5)

I realize how crazy it sounds to suggest John McCain is now favored to win the nomination. But frankly his scenario just sounds the least unlikely of them all -- provided Romney does not win Iowa. If Romney pulls through in the caucuses, McCain will probably lose his opening in New Hampshire and not get very far. But McCain is doing the most of his surge -- and is now moving in Iowa for a few days to capitalize on some of his numbers moving there. This means that McCain is taking his fate in his own hands, instead of being left to pray that Huckabee comes out on top of Romney. If McCain comes in a strong third -- and even competing for second, it would be a strong signal that he is back whoever is at the top of the race, and he would remain very competitive in New Hampshire 5 days later.

As for the later states, 2008 is not 2000. The base then did not trust McCain, but it had an establishment candidate to turn towards. George W Bush made sure to demolish McCain in South Carolina, but who would do that today? It is much more likely that the establishment would be concerned with how to destroy Huckabee than how to hurt McCain, and the AZ Senator could emerge as the unlikely beneficiary of establishment support. Not because anyone trusts him more (if anything, the immigration fallout of the spring and his collapse in July show that they trust him less) but because his opponents are even worse in the eyes of some in the base. GOP voters vetted Rudy, Romney, and Huckabee and many do not like what they see -- making McCain suddenly an acceptable option. It's all come down full circle, and the first frontrunner of this insane race could emerge as the frontrunner once more.

That said, Romney has not lost Iowa just yet, nor has Thompson given up on coming in third. And McCain has not yet won New Hampshire. Depending on the Iowa results, McCain's hope could be crushed in a heartbeat. Imagine if Romney beats Huckabee by 6-7% with Thompson coming in third? You can wave good bye to McCain at number 1.

And even if McCain gets some early wins, that would serve to eliminate Huckabee and Romney -- which would be Rudy Giuliani's dream scenario. This would probably lock McCain and Giuliani in a two-fight for the nomination in later states, and while McCain would benefti from his early state wins, he has no organization in places like Florida.

2. Mitt Romney (November ranking: 1)

How quickly have things degenarated for the Romney campaign. At Thanksgiving, his Iowa and New Hampshire leads seemed unsurmountable; and then Mike Huckabee came out of nowhere and distanced Romney, forcing him to go negative and spend his time in a state he thought he had wrapped up. And just when we thought that this could actually work in Romney's favor, it was John McCain's turn to surge in New Hampshire and challenge Romney there -- which means that Romney will find it very difficult to pull through in New Hampshire if he loses Iowa. And at least the situation is clear: Without either of the early-states, his entire primary strategy collapses and he is out by January 8th.

The good news for Romney: He is the only candidate positioned to sweep the field... if only he wins Iowa or New Hampshire. If he wins in Iowa, he is likely to go on to pull through in New Hampshire, in Michigan, and in South Carolina -- and it's then hard to see how anyone can stop him. So can he still pull through Iowa (or possibly New Hampshire without Iowa)?

Romney has the best organization of any candidate in the two early states, and he has spent a ton of money. Many Republicans see him as the concensus conservative -- and McCain's reliance on independents could cause a backlash among Republicans. Iowa polls show that Romney has kept himself very close to Huckabee and is in a position to overtake him if his organization holds through. Given how low turn-out is likely to be in Iowa, Romney's preparation could easily boost him a few points, so keep that in mind when you look at Iowa polls. Odds are against him to win Iowa at this point -- and given McCain's surge I'd rather be the AZ Senator today than Romney in New Hampshire, but both races are still wide open. And given the high number of undecided voters, Romney can still pull either race if he runs a flawless campaign in the next 9 days and if his organizational advantage is as significant as it should be given how much money he's poured in this thing.

3. Mike Huckabee (November ranking: 3)

Huckabee is holding on to his Iowa lead -- and he is now tied for first in national polls. An Iowa victory would probably allow him to carry South Carolina, and he is surging pretty much accross the field in most states. So why he is only third? Two reasons: First, he has been unable to break through in New Hampshire, which means that an alternative will emerge out of New Hampshire -- whether it is McCain or Romney -- and will prevent an early-state sweep that would make Huckabee inevitable.

Second, the GOP establishment despises Huckabee and will everything to stop him at all costs. They have not really cared who they rally against for now, just made sure they bash Huckabee. Whether or not they actually believe Huckabee would be an electoral disaster come November, fiscal conservatives, immigration hawks and groups like the Club for Growth will seek to stop Huckabee before it is too late; and there are so many stories left untouched about Huckabee given how late his surge was that he is bound to get a share of negative coverage from the media in the next two weeks. All of this means that everyone will be out to get him -- and it's rare for a candidate to survive such scrutiny.

That said, if there is any year a candidate can pull that through, it's now. The GOP base clearly loves Huckabee, and his defending the small-guy rhetoric is proving to hit the right note. Evangelicals might not be a majority of the party, but they are a sizable plurality that could wield a huge influence in the case of a fractured race. A bad scenario for Huck would be if the race gets down to a two-personal dual too fast, for he is much likely to pull this through if more candidates are stlil campaigning.

For any of this to matter, of course, Huckabee needs to pull through in Iowa. And while he is still (extraordinarely) leading, his edge is not very big and could be easily overtaken if Romney puts his organizational advantage to good use. And Huckabee has really nowhere to go if he loses the caucuses, making his fate even more dependent on a single state than McCain and Romney, which is what leaves him in third place.

4. Rudy Giuliani (November ranking: 2)

Giuliani's strategy has always been to (1) survive January and (2) win the big states starting with Florida. In the past month, however, he has collapsed in Iowa and New Hampshire (even though he had a huge ad buy in the latter state) and his numbers have melted in national polls and in states like Florida and California -- even New York! Giuliani's fate is out of his hands more than any other candidate: If there is a candidate who wins a few of the early contests, Giuliani is likely toast. Giuliani desperatly needs the field to be very muddy by the time of Florida. That means Huckabee and McCain dividing up the states, and perhaps even with Romney staying somewhat viable! That would, Giuliani's campaign would argue, allow Giuliani's advantage in big states to kick in and Rudy to emerge victorious in Florida, New York, New Jersey, etc.

Trouble is, Rudy's supposedly momentum-proof lead in these states is already gone. And if Rudy spends a month out of the media spotlight because he is not competing in Iowa and hardly in New Hampshire, what tells him that he would remain a viable option by January 29th? If Huckabee and McCain divide up early contests, it looks to me that Florida could very well turn into a two-way fight between them. And as I said in the paragraph on Huckabee, a muddied race with multiple candidates is also Huckabee's dream scenario as he is more likely to get a plurality of the vote thanks to his evangelical base if the field is fractured.

Where could Giuliani suddenly come from to hope for redemption in this late state? I have never understood this, and it's been months now I'm wondering. Perhaps I'm completely wrong about the way momentum works and perhaps Giuliani will prove me completely wrong. But until his campaign offers a convincing explanation as to how he can possibly surive 4 weeks of losses, there is nowhere for Giuliani to be ranked but at the bottom.

5. Fred Thompson (November ranking: 4)

It all starts and ends in Iowa at this point for Fred Thompson. He has collapsed everywhere else, and is nowhere to be found in places he was one strong such as South Carolina or national polls. Many see the potential for a strong third place finish in Iowa, but there is not a lot of evidence for that. The question also remains what he would do with such a third place, even if he got it. He would need other things to happen as well, such as Romney going down in flames and Huckabee looking strong which could precipate Republican panic and the desire to coalesce against a conservative who looks strong and viable -- which is Thompson. But more than anything then, Thompson could play spoiler by siphoning votes away from Huckabee and letting another candidate emerge victorious.

Update: I was asked via e-mail how Ron Paul fits into this, and I realized that it was a huge fault on my part to not even mention him at all. The man, after all, polls solidly above Thompson in New Hampshire and is starting to get some decent numbers other places as well. He is likely to be one of the biggest fundraisers of the fourth quarter, and he can raise more money very easily. But it is undeniable that Ron Paul has no chance whatsoever to win the nomination. Simply put, his stance on the Iraq War alone would guarantee that he never pull off majorities when it would come down to finish things off.

That said, Ron Paul will have a significant impact on the primaries. For one, he will draw votes away from other candidates -- though I'm hard pressed to say who exactly he will be hurting. More importantly, he will come ahead of so-called big candidates in some states (the ones I listed here), (1) showing that he has to be taken seriously and (2) humiliating whoever is behind him. And finally, Ron Paul has a huge opportunity to run as a third-party candidate in the general election and shake things up there. And while Democrats are salivating at the prospect, I really am not sure that Paul would pull more votes from the GOP. While he is clearly more in line with Republicans, there is plenty of evidence that many of his current supporters are coming from the Left.



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