1/10/2008

After New Hampshire: Where the Republicans Go From Here

The New Hampshire primaries have had a tremendous effect on the presidential race, as the results ensured that the major candidates will not be forced out quickly. An Obama victory would have severely wounded Clinton and forced her to enter Super Tuesday after losing Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. A Romney victory would have eliminated McCain and made him even money against Huckabee.

But this did not happen. Instead of delivering two knockout punches, New Hampshire delivered yet more jockeying and forced radical changes in political strategy. Romney, for example, has suspended his ad buys in South Carolina and is now concentrating on Michigan. And Clinton is retooling her message so that it's less about "I" and more about "we."

So where do the candidates go from here? Here are my thoughts on the Republicans, whose race is as muddled as ever:

John McCain is now in much better shape and has one of the easier paths to the nomination, in my estimation. McCain has the advantage of being the lone statesman in the field and he is unimpeachable when it comes to national security and Iraq. To his credit, he did not waver when it came to supporting the surge in Iraq and he can claim some independence in that he was not afraid to criticize the mission there when it wasn't going well. Independents and even moderate Democrats still view him as less conservative than he really is, and they have a lot of respect for him. This would suggest a great level of crossover appeal in a general election.

McCain won the Michigan primary in 2000, so he is obviously a well known and highly regarded candidate in the state. Voters who may have been worried about his electability should have had those fears vanquished by his strong showing in New Hampshire. However, he will be going against Romney, whose father was a popular governor there. Romney is wounded, but I think he still has the inside track to victory there. McCain probably needs to place at least a close second in order to maintain his momentum. Should McCain actually win, Romney would become John Edwards and it would be difficult to see how he could continue. That's what Rudy Giuliani does not want to have happen, obviously, because the more crowded and unsettled the field is, the better off Giuliani is. The nomination race would then come down to McCain and Huckabee in South Carolina, where it's entirely possible that neither candidate will eliminate the other, given how they draw from two totally different bases.

McCain should continue to run on strength, leadership, and statesmanship. Giuliani may have the strength and leadership issue because of September 11, but McCain can trump him by combining his military service record with his statesmanship. I would also recommend that he stress his electability and even try to peel off some of Huckabee's supporters by stressing how he is post-partisan in that he has a proven record of working with people across the aisle and forging practical solutions. Democrats should be very cautious about McCain because he would be one of the more difficult candidates to run against in November.

Mitt Romney has the unique problem of being nobody's favorite, but everybody's second choice. He himself has referred to winning a bunch of "silver medals." The problem is, you have to win the gold if you want to be a winner. Placing second in New Hampshire effectively ended his hopes of being able to compete in South Carolina because his loss, combined with Huckabee's strength, essentially ceded the state to him. Obviously, should Romney win Michigan, he'd get a second shot at South Carolina, but by then it might be too late because Huckabee is working the state hard.

Michigan is a winnable state for Romney, but he will need to do more than run on his father's record there. An economically depressed state, the economy is likely weighing heavily on Michigan voters' minds. So rather than stressing how conservative he has become on social issues (Michigan is a moderate state), I think voters there would respond better to a message of fiscal discipline and competence regarding economics. Voters in the big steel and automotive industries there are thinking about pocketbook issues, so I'd recommend that he talk about his record of turning failing businesses around, creating economic prosperity, and being a no-nonsense manager. The challenge for him, however, is that he would have to discuss these issues while being able to convey sincere empathy for the voters he's trying to reach. I believe his perceived artificiality and emotional distance are what's causing a lot of voters to withhold their support for him because they don't think he's "concnerned about people like me."

Losing Michigan would unfairly add the word "loser" to the Romney brand and he would be ridiculed for not being able to carry what should be fertile territory for him. Then there would be a risk in the future that he would be seen as someone so desperate to win that he would say anything, thus further reinforcing the flip-flop and credibility problems he has. However, how could Romney continue his campaign, aside from continuing to finance it on his own? McCain bests Romney on strength, and Huckabee trumps him on authenticity and social issues. This leaves economic issues, but again, Romney is not "warm enough" when he talks about what should be his strongest issue. Is it possible for Romney to be the nominee even if he doesn't win anything? (Wyoming doesn't count.) My guess is that by consistently placing second, he could be seen as a moderately acceptable alternative consensus candidate that doesn't really inspire anyone. But what kind of momentum would that create in a general election scenario?

Mike Huckabee has become a formidable candidate whose path to the nomination is a bit less complex than some of his rivals' because of Romney's inability to connect with social conservatives and Thompson's lackadaisical campaign. Thus, he has fewer rivals who threaten his base. Huckabee's challenge, however, is to broaden his appeal. Romney has run some tough ads criticizing Huckabee for his immigration positions and the tuition assistance he offered for the children of illegal immigrants. And he raised a few eyebrows when asked to comment about international affairs. When asked about his foreign policy acumen at the recent Fox News debate, he listed the names of some of the countries he has been to. However, simply going to a country does not a foreign policy guru make. Republicans who do not want to lose their national security and tough on terrorism advantages in the general election are going to have to think about Huckabee very carefully because Hillary Clinton could easily portray herself as tougher than he is, and Barack Obama still has the advantage of opposing the war from the start.

But is this as much of a liability as one would initially think? The three Democratic candidates with foreign policy heft (Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, and Bill Richardson) all failed in their presidential bids and John McCain was on life support last summer. And foreign affairs did not seem to weigh too heavily on voters' minds in the Iowa caucuses, so perhaps Huckabee might not be penalized too heavily for this.

To counter this weakness, Huckabee is seen as authentic and has the ability to present himself as the "compassionate conservative" that Bush never was. He can also appeal to voters who like his approach to politics even if they don't agree with his actual politics. Economically struggling voters in Michigan might find his empathy to be sincere and respond to his populist message. It seems like Michigan for McCain, Romney, and Huckabee is the same as Iowa was for Clinton, Obama, and Edwards in that all three candidates could just as easily place first or third. Huckabee doesn't have to win Michigan to remain competitive. However, he would love to place ahead of Romney on his home turf because that would mean Romney lost to Huckabee twice. In that case, Romney would have to seriously reconsider his campaign because losing twice to Huckabee would force him to accept the fact that voters simply view Huckabee as a better candidate. So Huckabee will compete in Michigan.

McCain and Huckabee have been quite gracious towards each other in their interviews, the debates, and even in their victory/concession speeches. I don't expect the two of them to hit each other hard in Michigan because they both would like to get Romney out of the race as soon as possible. And also, Huckabee doesn't need Michigan as much as McCain does. South Carolina is where McCain and Huckabee would finally have to run against each other. South Carolinians remember the way McCain was slimed in 2000, and there are a lot of military voters here who respect his support for the mission in Iraq. So South Carolina is not hostile territory for McCain. Huckabee is clearly trying to shore up support among social conservatives, as is evidenced by his pro-life campaign ads that have started making the runs here. So while McCain wins the military vote and Huckabee wins the social conservative vote, they will have to compete directly with each other for the anti-tax vote while hoping Fred Thompson's shadow doesn't loom as large as was once feared.

Rudy Giuliani is still stuck in the parking lot because he has placed all his chips on Florida. I can only wonder how future presidential scholars will look at the Giuliani campaign model. While it may be cheap because he can focus all of his advertising and campaign appearances in one state, it's highly risky because he only gets one chance to get it right. And in addition to that, because he's not currently a major part of the national dialogue, he risks being forgotten or eclipsed by another candidate.

The conventional wisdom says that a divided conservative opposition is good news for Giuliani because his rivals' votes would be dilluted. And this conventional wisdom also says that Romney is Giuliani's worst nightmare because of his deep pockets. All of this remains true. However, this divided opposition is also giving Giuliani's rivals many opportunities to improve their standing in voters' minds as they rack up primary victories and strengthen their own electability arguments. When Giuliani settled on his Florida strategy, Huckabee was still an obscure candidate with great debating skills and McCain was busy licking his political wounds. Now they are both crowding Giuliani out and are getting favorable media coverage while Giuliani is left gasping for oxygen.

On top of that, McCain's national security credentials are stronger than Giuliani's and Huckabee has the social conservative voters that Giuliani can't win. It is quite possible that Giuliani could lose to both of these candidates even if the vote is split.

Fred Thompson's campaign all comes down to South Carolina, but it looks like it's too little too late for him, unfortunately. His problem is that he took the bride down the aisle, but never said "I do." Like Giuliani, it may be too late for him because he is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Second place won't cut it for Thompson this time. He needs to win South Carolina in order to stay alive, but I'm not so sure he even wants to.

Ron Paul finished with a lower percentage of the vote in New Hampshire than in Iowa and has confirmed that his support is not as strong as the straw polls and online polls may have suggested. He will not win the nomination, but remains a player only because he could serve as an effective spoiler candidate who draws angry Republicans and independents away from McCain and Giuliani. I cite those two candidates because they have positioned themselves as the most hawkish on the Iraq War.

As far as ranking the candidates, I'd have to say Huckabee is the frontrunner with McCain second, Romney third, Giuliani fourth, and Thompson fifth. Thompson and Romney have the least margin for error and the clock is ticking for Giuliani as well. McCain and Huckabee are on the verge of becoming Clinton and Obama because of their collective political strength, compelling storylines, and the contrasts they represent.

4 Comments:

Itamazesus said...

McCain is surely the front runner, with appeal in all regions, while Huckabee can expect little from more than his narrow base - which happened to be big in Iowa. Huckabee's knowledge on foreign affairs is unimpressive at best, embarrassing at worst, which is one reason why, on electability, McCain leads.

The only caveat is that many voters are hesitant to support someone over 70. Still, Republicans assume that Huck would lose, so unless he has Jesus in his pocket, he could well be a one-time phenomenon.

Even some Democrats in Michigan are talking about voting for Huck, on the theory he'd be the easiest Rep to defeat.

Schenck said...

You do know about the Ron Paul vote fiasco, right? His votes were initially misrepresented in more than one New Hampshire district. Anyways, Kucinich has demanded a recount, so we'll see how that goes.

Nikki said...

OK Anthony I am OCD about checking your site.....just waiting patiently for a write up about the snoozer debate. I was wondering if you noticed some alliances being built...I think Romney and Thompson are in cahoots and McCain and Huckabee are in cahoots......Guiliani is alone. It appeared like Thompson was in the Romney camp maybe for a vice option?

Anthony Palmer said...

Itamazesus,

McCain and Huckabee are quite close and are clearly the two top candidates right now. I think McCain could win Michigan while Huckabee wins SC and eliminate Romney. Thompson will drop out, and Giuliani will run out of money. So then it would be McCain vs. Huckabee, but I think one of them would fold for the good of the party because a prolonged campaign is not good for the party.

I would personally consider voting for McCain even though I have strong disagreements with his Iraq policy. And I would even consider voting for Huckabee even though I am not a social conservative. Both of those candidates seem the most interested in actual governance than in partisanship and putting down the other side. I've gotten tired of people accusing each other of being "liberal" or "a cut and runner" or a "Bush clone."

I really don't know who would win in a McCain-Obama or Huckabee-Clinton race. A Huckabee-Obama or McCain-Clinton race would be even tougher to predict because those four candidates are all so similar.

Huckabee is underrated among Republicans. I guess they're thinking "if Democrats like him, he must not be good for us."

-----

Schenck,

The problem with Kucinich is that voters equate his defense of constitutional rights and electoral integrity with being a fringe candidate who's just trying to make some headlines. I think Gore gave "recounts" a bad name, unfortunately, even though electoral integrity is obviously a very big deal. It's quite unfortunate.

-----

Nikki,

Thompson and McCain are personal friends. It would seem that Thompson helps McCain by tearing down Huckabee because that would pave the way for a McCain victory in SC. Nobody likes Romney, so he has no allies, and Giuliani is kinda on his own, I think. I did not watch the whole debate, so I won't write a post on that. I've been blogging a lot more than usual this month because of all the political events taking place, but I'll probably be back to my usual 2-3 posts per week starting next week because classes start up again. Obviously, I'd rather be blogging here instead if sitting in class, but such is life...

Thank you all for your comments.