The battle of Florida, part 2: The dynamics of the Republican race

I concentrated this morning on the Democratic race in Florida and whether the candidates would break their pledge to not campaign in the state. But there is no question that the most heated race by far is the GOP showdown, with Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney scrambling furiously to hold off McCain's momentum. So let us look at the dynamics playing out in the Republican field a week from the primary.

Florida is a closed primary -- the first state in which independents can't vote. And that's a big challenge for McCain, who always runs much weaker among registered Republicans and the party's base. That is why his main chance of winning these races is to face a fractured race that allows him to claim victories with small pluralities of the vote (he won with 33% in SC last Saturday, he lost with 42% of the vote in 2000).

More specifically, you might recall that Thompson's presence on the South Carolina ballot siphoned votes away from Huckabee and helped McCain score a narrow victory. In Florida, McCain's main rivals for now appear to be Giuliani and Romney and that changes the dynamics. Indeed, Rudy and McCain appeal to a similar branch of the party -- national security hawks and social moderates -- while Romney is going for those more focused on economic issues and hoping to rally social conservatives.

Romney's hope to coalesce conservative support around him got two huge boosts today. His main worry was that Thompson and Huckabee would siphon votes from him. But Fred Thompson withdrew today, meaning that there is one less viable candidate in the GOP race and that a share of the conservative vote can now be redistributed among the other candidates. In other words, McCain needs to get an even higher share of the vote now and he isn't helped by the fact that Huckabee and Romney are much better fit for Thompson voters. (If Thompson endorses McCain, we will have to see just how much his backers follow his directive.)

Furthermore, Jonathan Martin from the Politico is now hearing that Huckabee could be on his way to conceding Florida and pulling out of the state, focusing his dwindling resources and his time on Southern states that vote on February 5th and in which he needs to get some victories. If Huckabee's totals also start diminishing in the next 7 days because of Huck's departure from the state (the way Romney remained weak in South Carolina because he didn't really spend time there in the final days), that could help Romney pick up some votes and catch up with McCain.

That said, McCain has an advantage of his own. In South Carolina, Huckabee refused to go negative in any way against McCain; instead, he constantly offered praise of the AZ Senator (vying for VP, anyone?). The same thing is happening -- albeit to a much smaller degree -- in Florida, with Giuliani's refusal to really go after McCain. This dynamic has been playing out for a while, for example in the January 10th debate in which no one dared go after McCain. I wrote that day: "Tonight's Republican debate raises a very puzzling question: Do Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Mike Huckabee want John McCain to be the GOP nominee?" Two weeks have passed, this same question is still very much relevant.

Not even that, but McCain is able to benefit from the constant problems that Giuliani is encountering and the stream of negative stories running about the former New York Mayor. The New York Times today added a new layer with a truly fascinating and must-read article about Giuliani's grudges and quests for revenge. The Times details numerous incidents of people who spoke out against Giuliani having their career sabotaged or finding themselves in legal trouble. The piece does quote former city officials, some by name and some anonymously because of the interviewee's fear that Giuliani might go after them if he is elected President! Giuliani's nasty reputation is by now established, but the allegations of the article go much beyond what even Rudy's critics have come to expect.

And that said let's close this discussion with the latest ARG poll from Florida that has McCain holding on to a lead -- but a lot will still happen in the next 7 days:

  • McCain has a healthy lead, 29% to 22% against Romney. Huckabee gets 17%, Giuliani 16% and Thompson 6%.
  • A very important indication is early-voting. And ARG confirms SUSA's numbers released last night that had McCain and Giuliani leading the pack. ARG has these two candidates tied at 28%, with Romney 21% and Huckabee at 12%. ARG also says that 21% of its sample has already voted -- a very sizable segment of the electorate, which is going to make it that much harder for Romney to catch up.
Update: More confirmation coming in now that Huckabee will not be able to seriously contest Florida. He has seemingly renounced to run ads on broadcast tv, a lot of his advisers are no longer being paid and he will only spend a few days in Florida rather than the entire week. This is very bad timing for Huckabee who is facing money issues at the exact time he could have moved in and tried to capture some of Thompson's voters.

This also serves as a reminder of Romney's huge advantage in this race. Since he is self-funding his campaign, he will very rarely face choices like this. And in the run-up to February 5th, he will finance his own campaign and contest McCain in most states, whatever happens to Huckabee and Giuliani.



  • I think Huckabee might be forced to drop out if he finishes fourth in Florida. However, Giuliani will stay till at least Super Duper Mega Awesome Orgasmic Tuesday regardless of where he finishes, just out of Ego.

    This would hurt McCain twice.

    Huckabee shares a lot of the same voters as Romney (as did Thompson), while Giuliani shares the same voters as McCain.

    Also, Romney appears to be the only candidate with any serious cash left, which will help him the most on Tuesday. He will be able to run ads in states other candidates will have to ignore.

    By Anonymous C.S.Strowbridge, At 22 January, 2008 23:13  

  • I am holding out hope for a Giuliani/Thompson ticket. While he had arguably the best platform and ideas, Thompson just didn't have the outward drive and dynamism that Rudy can bring to the top of the ticket...

    But can't you see Thompson embarrassing the hell out VP candidate John Edwards in the summer debates?

    Giuliani is hardly out of it (assuming he wins in Florida) and I believe a Giuliani/Thompson ticket has the best shot at winning in November.

    This country needs serious tax and spending cuts -- and it needs them now.

    And is there anyone who doubts Rudy would be a great diplomatic leader and a excellent Commander of Chief of the US Military?

    By Blogger MPH, At 23 January, 2008 01:34  

  • I doubt that Rudy would be a great diplomatic leader and an excellent Commander in Chief of the U.S. Military. And so do millions of other people. Rudy is a spiteful and arrogant man with neither the intellect nor the demeanor to hold this job. He would be like Bush on steriods, blundering around the world like some damn fool. As someone wrote, "Rudy is a small man in search of a balcony". Almost any of the other candiates would be better than this loser. And no, there won't be any VP debate between Thompson and Edwards. Neither of them bring enough to the table.

    By Anonymous stone621, At 23 January, 2008 06:40  

  • I'm in agreement with Stone...well, partially, anyway. Giuliani has a number of great administrative skills from running the largest city in America, but I don't see how that qualifies him to be CINC. Nor would Thompson be a viable VP. Considering him in tandem with the two most likely GOP nominees, McCain would be better served by Huckabee and Romney is still stinging from some of Thompson's attacks.

    John Edwards will not be the VP candidate for the Democrats. He had his chance, and he lost. He couldn't even win his home state for Kerry. Richardson is a far more likely pick for either Obama or Clinton. And if things keep going the way they were the other night, he can just go ahead and fill in his own name on the ticket, because Lord knows neither Clinton nor Obama will choose the other.

    By Anonymous Mr. Rational, At 23 January, 2008 11:18  

  • "But can't you see Thompson embarrassing the hell out VP candidate John Edwards in the summer debates?"

    No I can't. Thompson rarely performed adequately at the debates. Edwards is much better at that format than most.

    "Richardson is a far more likely pick for either Obama or Clinton."

    Clinton / Richardson with Edwards becoming the head of the new Department for Poverty Affairs.

    By Anonymous C.S.Strowbridge, At 24 January, 2008 20:16  

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