As the vultures begin to circle over Herman Cain’s candidacy, one has to wonder where his supporters will go if, as the media speculation suggests, Cain will end his presidential bid. Early indications are that Newt Gingrich will be the primary benefactor if Cain drops out of the race. According to the pollsters at Public Policy polling Gingrich is the second choice of Cain voters at both the national level, and in key states. Discussing Gingrich’s ascendancy in the polls, PPP writes: “Gingrich’s leads are a result of Cain’s support finally starting to really fall apart. For an 8 week period from the end of September through last week Cain was over 20% in every single poll we did at the state or national level. Over that period of time we also repeatedly found that Gingrich was the second choice of Cain voters. Now that Cain has slipped below that 20% threshold of support he had consistently held, Gingrich is gaining.” This suggests that if Cain does suspend his campaign, a significant proportion of his support will move to Gingrich, bolstering his front-runner status nationally and, perhaps more importantly, in the early nominating contests.
If so, this raises an interesting possibility – as the pundits continue to debate whether Romney can deliver the knockout blow and clinch the Republican nomination within the first few primaries, or will instead have to endure a rather protracted battle before finally emerging as the Republican nominee, events are conspiring to put Gingrich, and not Romney, in the better position to close this race out. As this Gallup poll indicates, Mitt’s “positive intensity score” has declined, while Newt’s are on the rise:
In short, it’s not clear to me that Mitt is any position to even consider delivering a knockout blow, although the Republican establishment is desperately trying to make his nomination appear inevitable. In fact, based on the latest polling data, it is conceivable that if Gingrich can parley his recent rise in the polls into the resources need to put boots on the ground in Iowa, he might actually win that event come January 3. That, in turn, might give him enough momentum to finish a strong second to Romney in New Hampshire the following week, which the media might conceivably spin as a defeat for the Mittster. Then it is on to South Carolina, where Gingrich currently leads in the polls, and where he expects to do well. If he wins South Carolina, Mitt would go into Florida needing a victory. Should he lose there, it is possible that the Republican race would be over – with Newt, and not Mitt, as the nominee.
This is all speculative, of course, and as I have repeatedly cautioned, nomination races – unlike the general election – are inherently less predictable. Moreover, we need to keep in mind that the Republicans have changed the manner in which they allocate delegates; rather than the winner take all format that they have used in the past, they have opted to adopt a proportional allocation system this time around, at least for the early nominating contests. This should make it harder for a front runner to deliver a knockout blow, so conceivably Mitt can survive early losses and hope that he will prevail in the long run due to his superior resources. But I can’t help but think that events are far outstripping the conventional wisdom as embodied in the prevailing sentiment among the pundits that Mitt is the default nominee. While the pundits contemplate how Mitt’s inevitable march to the coronation will play out, Republican voters seem determined to write their own script. And right now Newt – not Mitt – has the leading role.