NOTE: this post is a continuation of Part 2a - GOP primaries – The Wildcards.
In addition to the wild card factor posed by Sarah Palin and Donald Trump, there is some wild card factor with two people still in the race - Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. How will they affect the race?
Let me predicate my explanation with the note that it is my firm conviction that Ron Paul cannot win the GOP nomination. The vote in Iowa will mark the high water mark of the Paul campaign. In defense of that supposition let me point out that Ron Paul was polling right at the top of the pack in Iowa and finished near the top. In New Hampshire Ron Paul is in second at 13%, 20 points behind Mitt Romney. In South Carolina he's in third well behind Mitt Romney who in turn is well behind Newt Gingrich. In Florida he's in third at 9% - behind Mitt Romney at 21% and Newt Gingrich at 37%.
Factoring in against Paul as well was his rise coming without a lot of negative campaigning headed his way. Yet that is. Having performed well, the free ride will not continue. He's going to be attacked along with Romney.
So what happens with Ron Paul? How long will he stay in the race? If he comes in third in New Hampshire, there is incentive to stay in the race and collect delegates. If Paul can make it to April, he will be able to collect proportional delegates for each state along the way. Third place finishes and perhaps an occasional second place could keep Paul in the race. But will it be enough? That's hard to say and that's where Ron Paul becomes a real wild card. Despite his statements that he is running as a GOP candidate, he could turn independent if he sees his path within the GOP blocked.
The likelihood of that happening is not certain, but what it would mean is a likely re-election victory for president Obama. Enough libertarians, independents and conservatives not happy with the eventual GOP nominee (particularly in the event it is Mitt Romney) peel off and vote for Ron Paul, and Obama skates to a second term without breaking a sweat.
How likely Ron Paul is to consider that option is probably inversely proportional to how long he remains in the GOP hunt, and how long others remain in the hunt as well. The longer Ron Paul sees no clear leader emerging and he remains a possibility amongst those remaining, the longer he will remain in the GOP hunt. If he drops out before March, he has far more time to organize and run as an independent. However, he's still in the mix by the convention in June, hopping out and going it alone is next to impossible logistically. For whomever the eventual GOP candidate is, it is better to keep the chances of Ron Paul viable for as long as possible. Nobody can walk that tightrope - win, but not by too much. So if Ron Paul is to remain a non-factor as a wild card, then events will have to transpire in such a way that no clear leader emerges from the pack. The probability that Mitt Romney runs away with the nomination is high, but not insurmountable. In fact I'd say, unlike InTrade, that it is only about 50/50 (InTrade has a Romney nomination at 80% currently).
The chances of Romney winning it all early, are lower than that. Currently it's quite possible that Romney wins two states and then Gingrich wins the next two. With proportional delegate allocation, Ron Paul will indeed be in third place after four states. That's third place where it counts - delegates.
My best guess is that if Ron Paul drops out it will be at the earliest after Super Tuesday in early March. That's still plenty of time to run as an independent, but it's no guarantee. The other factor is whether Ron Paul would really do it. He's a member of the GOP and running as an independent would isolate him in Congress and make it harder to push his points on fiscal and monetary policy. Ron Paul is a big picture guy and he may deem an independent run as counter-productive to his agenda. A cabinet position in Commerce or Treasury may be where he can affect more change. That has to be a consideration too. Also to be factored in is his legacy and the potential future of his son, Senator Rand Paul. Rand Paul is clearly a fiscal conservative and more mainstream than his father. At 76 he may believe that if he cannot win now then perhaps he should not create impediments for Rand Paul in the future. Then again, at his age he may feel this is his one last shot at winning and go all out no matter what the cost or implications.
Ron Paul is indeed a wild card, and is probably the hardest one of all to figure out. Perhaps time will add insight. I know there will be those who say I'm crazy - he'll be in the hunt right up until the end, he has a real shot at this. All I can say in reply is time will tell who is right.
The guy came in second in Iowa, after coming out of nowhere. How can he be a wild card rather than a contender? Rick Santorum has less funding and less infrastructure than any of the heavyweights in the race. His probability of running a prolonged campaign battle surely got better after his Iowa showing, but they were pretty much nowhere to begin with, so better doesn't mean much. His poll numbers are virtually nowhere in the upcoming states and he has very little time to impress. In other words, Santorum's victory is an aberration from the flow of the race. One month from now by February 5th, 6 states in, he will be mired in the doldrums.
Santorum is likable enough but that doesn't win primaries. Organization, money, a universally appeal message and charisma does. Santorum is unfortunately not long on any of those elements. He'd make a good president but he won't be one, because he's not going to be the nominee.
So how does he become a wild card? He will siphon off not Romney votes, particularly from Newt Gingrich. But emboldened by his win, the question is - for how long? Splitting the Not Romney vote only helps Mitt Romney. He's playing in the same space as Rick Perry, and to a lesser extent Newt Gingrich. He may also pick up the Michele Bachmann supporters after her withdrawal from the race, simply because of his temporary front runner status. The unknown with Santorum is how long before he realizes he can't win and bows out? And when he bows out, who gets his endorsement? The latter question will depend on who is left at that time, and that in turn depends to some extent on how long Santorum stays in the race.
Your guess is as good as mine.
With all of the unknowns and potential wild cards in this race, it seems quite premature to call the race for Romney. That's a good thing. Not only is Romney not the best candidate to face Obama, a prolonged race actually helps build the eventual winner's operational staff and in the long run, the dialogue is both healthy for the party and also a chance to have basically free exposure for conservative ideas with as little as possible media filter/lens on it. More debates mean more free publicity, less liberal media filter. There's no reason to want this thing ended early. Obama will have a monetary advantage no matter what. They might as well play to what advantages the situation presents the GOP with. No matter who wins in the end, the battle against Obama is where the real fight begins.
Next up Part 3 - GOP primaries – Beyond the Nomination. Stay tuned.