October 6, 2011

GOP moving parts almost stop moving. Let's predict.

Oh really now?
With Sarah Palin and Chris Christie bowing out of the race, the nominees are pretty much locked.  With states moving up their caucuses and primaries, the dates are locking in and coming soon.  The moving parts are stopping their moving and locking in for the GOP nomination process.  With things locking down predictions about what is likely to happen are somewhat easier, though by no means have they become a simple task.  The ubiquitous "a lot can happen between now and..." still applies.

Just ask the guy on the left.

Things change, and we can't wait for the next one.  The question is, who will it be to replace America's significant O?

Let's start with the known factors as far as the GOP field and primaries are concerned.  There are known candidates, and known primary and caucus dates.  There are a couple more we can roughly assume what the timing will be.

What we know: Candidates

Michele Bachmann
Herman Cain
Newt Gingrich
Jon Huntsman
Gary Johnson
Ron Paul
Rick Perry
Mitt Romney
Rick Santorum

What we know: Primary dates 2012

Jan 14th - Nevada caucus
Jan 21st - South Carolina primary
Jan 31st - Florida primary

What we have to assume for now: Primary Dates 2011/2012

December 2011 - Iowa Caucus

Jan 3rd - New Hampshire primary

The early state results most often shape the race.  If you don't win early you have to win often, but that typically doesn't happen.  The early states are key.  With Herman Cain surging to a top tier candidacy, while Rick Perry has seen a decline from his initial surge, much like Michele Bachmann did after her Iowa straw poll victory, and Donald Trump did after his temporary entrance into the race.

With a number of debates between now and late December, Rick Perry seemingly has a number of chances to right his ship.  Realistically he probably only has one - at a time.  If he doesn't do well in the Bloomberg Washington Post debate on October 10th, it's probably over for him.  He has a lot of money, but the quick infusion since his entrance will abate after poor debates and that has probably already started. Perry needs to show well next time out or he will sink right out of the top tier.  If he does well, he could re-emerge as the alternative to Romney and overshadow Herman Cain.

Herman Cain has momentum but he doesn't have money and he doesn't have much field organization compared to Romney (and perhaps Perry).  In a Twitter/Facebook and television age, perhaps that doesn't matter as much as it used to matter.  But it still does matter.  Like Perry, for Cain, each debate he is in now, he is on the hook to perform.  Vaulting into the top tier has inherent risk because it brings with it more scrutiny.  One major slip up or a few minor ones, and Cain could find himself back down in Bachmann territory.  He does have an Achilles Heel - he's weak on foreign affairs, and he supported the TARP bailout.  Expect to see him hit on those things in the next debates. He has to keep his momentum up to get the cash flowing.  The good news for him is that any money sitting on the sidelines waiting for Christie or Palin has been freed up and with him riding a wave of momentum he is in a good position to benefit from that.

Mitt Romney has been a top tier candidate since 2008.  He's polished and well rounded.  He's well financed. He's the establishment favorite, and 75% of the GOP primary voters won't support him.  He's stuck at 24% polling.  Why? Romneycare, and flip flopping on issues.  While he may be best positioned to defeat Obama, he's really not all that popular with conservatives outside of the establishment.  He's playing the long game fairly well however - as each alternative rises, in turn they have faded.  He's hoping that by outlasting the others he will be the last man standing.  Organizationally and financially he's suited to play that game and it could be a very effective strategy for him.

From a caucus and primary perspective, what is the impact of those contests being squeezed into the front end and starting only 13 weeks or so from now?  The pressure on candidates to establish a beachhead support level has become greater and more urgent.  Expect the debates to intensify dramatically over the next few outings.  

Predictions that will probably be proven wrong

Late December 2011 - Iowa Caucus:  Romney skipped the straw poll and has focused on New Hampshire as his beachhead.  He won't win.  Cain doesn't have much of an organized presence in the state and is looking to finish top 3.  His focus is South Carolina. I don't expect him to win at this point but a continued surge could do it for him.  That leaves straw poll winner and 'hometown' favorite Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry.  If Perry performs reasonably well over the next two months I think he takes this state.  If he falters then the conservative vote will look towards Cain or Bachmann.  Cain, minus a presence has a tough go and I think barring a collapse on her part Bachmann can still take Iowa.  Of course that is subject to events between now and then.  But she has to win this state or her chances of winning the nomination disappear.  She's got to throw everything into this state so she could very well pull it out.

Jan 3rd - New Hampshire primary:  This is Romney's state to lose.  Aside from a minimal threat from Huntsman there really is no threat for him here among his own base.  Second place is the interesting detail here.  The state may toy with Perry or even Gingrich in second spot.  If Perry draws a second here and performs top 3 in Iowa, he's in good shape going into South Carolina and Florida.

Jan 14th - Nevada caucus: There hasn't been a lot of polling lately out of Nevada but the polling earlier this year had Mitt Romney well out in front of the field.  Because he has money and a solid organization, and because it comes on the heels of New Hampshire, I expect Romney to push hard for this state and secure himself back-to-back wins.  Perry at this point I can see throwing a lot of resources into this race.  If he goes 0-for-3 his game could be over.  If he loses Nevada after losing the first two he'll be forced to backstop his campaign in South Carolina where he'd be in a tough fight with Cain, who should win that state.  The best thing for conservatives fighting a not-Romney battle would be for Perry to contest Romney in this state and Cain to take South Carolina.  It's possible, that Perry can win here but it's a tough battle.  Having stuffed the Iowa straw poll, Nevada might be his better bet.  I think he might put his eggs in this basket and charge head on at Romney if he has survived the debates in 2011. If Perry's still viable I'm predicting this state as his battle front and as his first win.  If he falters, the state will default back to Romney.  Sorry Cain fans, the lack of field organization hurts him in a caucus state.  He's got little time to pull enough ground game together for a moved-up Nevada caucus.

Jan 21st - South Carolina primary:  Here's where I expect Cain to win his first race.  Romney has no chance, Perry has to focus on an earlier win for credibility sake or else take him on directly here.  There is something to be said for the not-Romney candidates to consolidate themselves early on so that there can be a reasonable alternative to Romney early on that can pull a lot of delegates and ensure a not-Romney win.  That also plays to the not-Romney candidates having a single focus for their battle and probably a series of endorsements from other, former not-Romney candidates.  Whether that happens depends a lot on events between now and Nevada.  The other possibility here is a Gingrich resurgence.  If he performs exceptionally well during the debates, this might be his chosen battlefield.  It's close enough to his home state that his message might carry some geographic resonance. He may show top three here.

Jan 31st - Florida primary:  If my prior predictions hold true this because a critical state for everyone involved.  Imagine going into Florida in late January with 4 states down and 4 winners; Bachmann, Romney, Perry and Cain.  That makes Florida the early tiebreaker and most likely to influence the next sequence of states.  The latest polling here has Romney and Cain neck and neck.  Cain won the straw poll and if he does well in the races prior to Florida, particularly South Carolina, he'll take the state.  But don't expect it to happen without a really bloody fight.  Romney needs this to make sure not-Romney doesn't have momentum.  With a four way tie he has enough standing to remain standing if he can be the first to get to two wins.  Perry has to do the same.  Back-to-back Cain wins or two Romney wins put him on treacherous ground.  Bachmann I think at this point will be out.  No momentum after Iowa will spell disaster for her campaign and despite Florida being critical for her rebound and to remain competitive, I think a lot of people will see her win in Iowa as an anomaly.  That is if she does indeed pull Iowa out.  

Take all of this with a grain of salt, or a tablespoon of salt.  I expect a lot to change between now and December.  Who knows, Mike Huckabee might jump back in, though I doubt it.  The only thing for sure is that it is going to be a very interesting next four months.

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