Guidelines to Nevada and South Carolina, with the day's program

Busy Election Day today, with 3 different contests being held at different times. And that certainly makes life confusing for those of us trying to follow the results. So here is the day's program:

  • The polls close at 7pm in South Carolina, so results should start tricking in then.
  • The Nevada GOP caucuses start at 9am PT and will conclude by 10am PT. The results will then start being posted, though it could take a few hours for the final numbers to be released (at the latest by 12:30pm PT)
  • The Democratic caucuses start between 11:30am PT, and have to end by 1pm PT. The numbers will start coming in then and we should know who has prevailed in the next 90 minutes or so.
In other words, a near constant stream of politial news throughout the day. And to help you decipher the results, as always, here is a quick guideline of what to look for today:

Democrats: Nevada polls cannot be trusted given that pollsters have no history to base themselves on and that the contest is a middle-of-the-day caucus. It appears that the battle for first place is being waged between Obama and Clinton, with Edwards a distant third -- and that could have major repercussions on the final results if Edwards finds himself unviable in many precincts and his supporters have to realign to Clinton and Obama (which should help Obama, at least if we base ourselves on the second-choice preferences expressed in Iowa).

The pressure is much higher on Clinton than on Obama here. It looks like Hillary will have a very tough time climbing back in South Carolina, so she has to be expecting another loss in a week. With Florida and February 5th looming in the horizon, a loss for Clinton today would mean losing two in a row and making Obama that much more powerful heading into the big state contests. For the same reason, Obama can afford losing today since he still looks to be in control in South Carolina and a win there would more than offset a loss in Nevada.

Republicans in Nevada: This is the first result we will know today, and Mitt Romney better win it. It is not just that polls show him ahead so pundits are expecting him to triumph here, but he is the only candidate to have spend time here in the past few days and the only candidate to have invested significant resources in organizing. In the past few days, especially, when it became clear to Romney that South Carolina was a lost cause despite the millions he had poured there since September, the campaign invested even more energy in Nevada to get a win here and be part of the storyline today.

A win by Romney would make solidify his delegate lead and make him the first candidate to win three states (Wyoming, Michigan being the first two). He would certainly claim front-runner status and he would have no problem heading in Florida and February 5th with the necessary coverage.

If the winner is anyone but Romney, that would certainly be huge news and the victor would get a significant buzz out of it. But the second-place could also be good to get for the GOP candidates. If he wins South Carolina and gets second-place in NV, McCain especially will make the case that his candidacy is being received nationally and that he is the new front-runner.

Republicans in South Carolina: This is the big one, of course, the state that no GOP nominee has lost for quite a while and the primary that has broken so many past contenders -- starting with McCain in 2000. This time, McCain is back and is battling Mike Huckabee for the win. Polls showed McCain ahead for a long time but a few surveys over the past few days have shown the race tightening considerably, making it anyone's game.

Both Huckabee and McCain have a lot at stake today. First Huckabee: The SC demographics are as good as it gets for Huckabee, who won Iowa on the strength of the evangelical vote. If he cannot pull it off today, he is even less likely to pull it off in the Southern states on February 5th -- and I'm not even speaking of the ability he needs to demonstrate at least to some degree to appeal beyond evangelicals. On the other hand, Huckabee would get a tremendous boost out of a win here. He would solidify his lead in other Southern states and be a major contender in Florida, where some polls have shown him leading.

McCain has just as much to lose tonight. However unfair that is, the press and media now expects him to win SC given his lead in polls and a loss would spark a series of stories about how not that much has changed since 2000, that McCain can only win by appealing to non-Republicans and that the base still distrusts him. After New Hampshire, McCain looked like he might coast to the nomination, starting with dual wins this week. But he lost Michigan, and a second defeat tonight would seriously damage to raise money (always a problem for McCain) as well as his strategy that is based on emerging as the national front-runner and winning big states like that.

Behind the two front-runners, Fred Thompson is the one that has the most at stake here. This is the one state he has poured all his effort in, and the one that his camp has always argued he is favored in. It does not look like he has much of a chance to pull a win tonight, but his choice to attack Huckabee could help him take votes from the former govenor and rise at his expense. Thompson could have a very strong showing tonight, but how much does that help him? Can he stay in the race with anything but a win?

Romney has less at stake here given that he left the state 48 hours ago and did not air ads in the week between NH and MI, but he could certainly get a lot of buzz by a strong showing (a strong third-place?). To be fair, Romney poured millions in the state and started running ads much before any of his rivals did, so I am not sure he should be held to such a lower standard. But of course that's not how politics works.

And one last note on Rudy Giuliani. He will likely come in with a ridiculously low percentage yet again (will Ron Paul beat him for the third time?), but despite that he has had everything he might wish for now: Huck in IA to get Romney out, McCain in NH for the same reason, Romney in MI because McCain had become very threatening. He would love Huck to win tonight, because a McCain victory would make it extremely hard for Rudy to get anywhere in Florida in 10 days. Giuliani's luck is truly extraordinary given how short-sighted his strategy is and how pathetic his results in the early states (even if Rudy wins the nomination I will not change my mind on his big-state strategy, whose success has been entirely out of his hands for a long time and that is still alive by a constant stream of miracles).

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