Heading to Florida, GOP emerges out of chaos

John McCain's narrow win in South Carolina brought some clarity to the Republican race, that was threatening to sink into utter chaos if Huckabee had managed to scramble the cards once more. Let's give John McCain credit for his victory, because Huckabee sure looked set to triumph here when he won Iowa on the strength of the evangelical vote. And what is even more remarkable is that McCain managed to win in an environment that was much more difficult for him than in 2000. Only 19% of the electorate was independent this year, versus 30% in 2000, but McCain appears to have narrowly won the vote of registered Republicans. He performed above expectations in the upstate conservative strongholds and triumphed the more moderate coastal counties.

The key factor in McCain's victory is that the field was fractured. In 2000, McCain was facing George W. Bush who had rallied the party's establishment. McCain lost despite getting 42% of the vote. This time around, Fred Thompson's presence on the ballot helped McCain a great deal. By taking third-place and running very strongly upstate (21% in Greenvile County, for example), Thompson kept Huckabee's percentages down among evangelicals and conservatives. Huckabee "only" got 41% among evangelicals to McCain's 27%. In Iowa, Huckabee had crushed Romney 46% to 19% among that group. Another factor that helped McCain was Romney's decision to concede the race a few days ago. That seems to have weakened Romney in the coastal counties and allowed McCain to open up big margins there.

Yet, however narrow his victory and whether or not he would have won without Thompson being on the ballot and without Romney conceding the state, McCain's win is a huge boost to the Arizona Senator. And it is the main story out of Saturday. We always knew the Nevada results would be overshadowed by South Carolina and its king-maker reputation kings in Republican politics. This by no way means that McCain has wrapped-up the nomination, but he has certainly reclaimed his front-runner status. Since his New Hampshire win, McCain has been rising in national polls and now looks very strong in states like New York, New Jersey and... Florida. With the press now celebrating McCain's renaissance in the Palmetto State, his big-state advantage will likely strengthen. To put it as clearly as possible, McCain's rivals better hope to stop him in Florida.

Another reason why the Republican race is now so much more clear -- beyond the fact that there is now a front-runner -- is that three candidates are much less viable tonight than they were this morning. I am speaking, of course, of Mike Huckabee, Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani.

First up: Huckabee. His nomination route was entirely based on a Southern strategy that would make him win the February 5th states among which evangelicals are the strongest and combine that with strong showings nationally thanks to the force of the religious right and also of more working-class voters that allowed him to helped him claim third-place in Michigan. Huckabee was even hoping to get a strong showing in Florida off a victory in South Carolina. But that strategy is now put in peril. Around 55% of the electorate tonight was evangelical, and if Huckabee did not manage to win in this kind of environment, where can he succeed? The Iowa caucuses were about 60% evangelical -- but that was also due to the fact that there were lower-turnout caucuses. Huckabee did not even get a clear win among that group, as his 14% advantage is not enough if he wants to get his Southern strategy to work.

Second, Fred Thompson. South Carolina was "his stand" as he put it, and he came in a weak third. Frankly, one has to wonder whether he isn't even a bit happy about the results, as long as he made John McCain win. In his speech tonight, Thompson was already speaking in past tense, and he will face a deluge of questions about when he is dropping out. Thompson is nowhere in national polls nor is he polling in significant numbers anywhere else in the country. His only hope was a strong showing there, and it had been a while we knew he would not get it.

Finally, the results tonight were worrisome for Rudy Giuliani. Up until today, everything had played out perfectly for his campaign. Three winners in three states, no front-runner and chaos. But McCain's rise leaves very little space for Giuliani, so that Rudy desperately needed Huckabee to extend the chaos. Not only do McCain and Giuliani appeal to the same group of socially moderate voters focused on national security, but McCain is strong in the states that Giuliani needs the most. And a recent poll of New York has McCain moving into a tie with Giuliani in his home-state. If McCain had lost tonight, he would have faltered in places like New York and Florida and allowed Giuliani to recuperate his voters just as the spotlight turns back on him. But Giuliani will now have to deal with a surging McCain who will make it that much more difficult for Rudy to get anywhere in Florida. And this is not even mentioning the fact that Giuliani came in sixth in both of today's showings, at 4% in Nevada and at 2% in South Carolina -- two pathetic showings for the candidate who long ran as the national front-runner.

And that leaves McCain confronting Mitt Romney, who came in a weak fourth tonight considering he had spent millions in the state since September. But Romney triumphed in Nevada earlier in the day which guarantees that he stays in the storyline going forward. Romney now has a delegate lead which he will keep until at least January 29th; he is also the candidate with the most state wins, having also won Michigan and Wyoming. And more importantly, Romney has all the money he can wish for given that he is freely spending his personal fortune. Romney probably realizes that he needs to cut McCain's advantage there, for he cannot afford seeing McCain head into Super Tuesday with a huge high-profile triumph in Florida.

We're ten days from the next Republican contest, and the storyline has finally gotten more clear: John McCain and Mitt Romney are locked in a tight battle for the nomination, with Rudy Giuliani trying to save himself in Florida and Mike Huckabee trying to generate some buzz in Southern states. Granted, both races have been crazy enough that no one should be counted at this stage, especially in the run-up to Florida. But the situation certainly appears much less chaotic than it did twelve hours ago.

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  • It still amazes me that someone can be declared the winner and frontrunner with only 33% of the vote. Yes, McCain got more votes than Huck, but only by about 13,000 statewide. McCain probably won't have Thompson taking votes from Huck in Florida and about 25% of Fla. Republicans are evangelicals. But that's politics. It will be an interesting 4 way race down there.

    By Anonymous stone621, At 20 January, 2008 01:10  

  • I think you are spot-on with your analysis. Thank you again!

    By Anonymous John Middleton, At 20 January, 2008 01:53  

  • Stone, 25% is far from 55%, and Florida has been a more moderate state historically. McCain may have it easier down in Florida for that very reason. Also, if Thompson drops out of the race and endorses McCain (as I think he might), that would certainly dilute--if not outright cancel--any boost Huckabee might get from Fred's departure.

    In any case, let's look at it realistically. McCain's win in SC certainly boosts him going into FL, and if Thompson sides with him on top of that, McCain will probably win the state. Then it's on to Super Tuesday, where a bunch of big states with some fairly moderate voters (California, Illinois, New York, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Colorado, New Jersey, and McCain's home state of Arizona) get to vote. Those states, and their sizable delegate totals, would then probably swing to McCain...and that would be the ball game.

    By Anonymous Mr. Rational, At 20 January, 2008 02:13  

  • I agree. Unless Romney manages to swing his win in Nevada and lead in delegates into some momentum, which seems unlikely, then McCain has this won.

    It will be interesting to see if the Party decides to support Romney since McCain and Huckabee seem to have serious issues with the hardcore faithful.

    By Anonymous C.S.Strowbridge, At 20 January, 2008 07:16  

  • I think it's interesting how at every battle, it's a Romney must win. No one is giving any notice to his message and how people like him. He will do well in Florida and the real opponent is Rudy, knocking Rudy down now really makes it a clear two man race.

    Huck and Thomspon both will be biting at McCains ankles so he'll still split the vote for christains between them three.

    Romney's Landslide in Nevada is more important than people are putting it out to be, you'd think that McCain would have shown up being the senator from neighboring Arizona but people know that he's a politican and that's it, America wants someone that will help them like Romney will, not just be in the race for themselves.

    By Blogger Christopher, At 21 January, 2008 08:51  

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