Huntsman, South Carolina and the State of the Race Before Tonight’s Debate

The only surprising aspect of Jon Huntsman’s decision to drop out of the campaign was its timing; as I noted during my live blogging of the New Hampshire primary, the results there showed little support for Huntsman among Republicans, making it clear that his days in this race were numbered.   Alas, his decision to drop out and endorse Romney will have at best a marginal impact on the race, most likely by giving a slight boost to Romney’s level of support.   In South Carolina, Huntsman was polling in the low single digits, and was even bested by faux candidate Stephen Colbert in one survey.  Most importantly, since Huntsman was largely competing with Romney for voters, his departure does little to solve the collective action problem that has prevented the Tea Party/fiscal conservatives from coalescing behind a non-Romney candidate.  Unless that dilemma is resolved along the lines I’ve suggested, Romney is likely to back into still another primary victory, thus lending further support to the media/party leader frame regarding Romney’s inevitable march to coronation.

Although polling in South Carolina remains fluid at this juncture five days before Saturday’s primary, with about a third of the voters still undecided, every recent poll shows Romney leading there, and Gingrich in second.  The good news for Gingrich is that fully 58% of South Carolinians surveyed by PPP don’t want Romney as the nominee.  Among those polled, moreover, Gingrich led as the second choice of 20% of respondents, beating out every other candidate.  Twenty-seven percent of Mitt’s supporters say they might switch to someone else – the highest of any candidate.  So there’s room for Gingrich’s support to grow.

The bad news for Gingrich, however, is that in a choice between Gingrich and Romney, Romney wins 48-37%, with 15% undecided.  Note that Gingrich does better in a head-to-head matchup with Romney than does any other Republican – except for Rick Santorum, who essentially matches Gingrich in the Romney matchup.  This suggests to me that Gingrich’s “baggage” is making evangelical Christians – who comprise more than 50% of likely South Carolinian voters – reluctant to support him, even as they oppose Romney. (In 2008 evangelicals constituted 60% of the Republican primary vote.)   If Gingrich is to close the gap, he has to win over these voters between now and Saturday.  But that is going to be very hard to do if both Santorum and Perry stay in the race.  Note that the social conservatives outnumber the roughly 30% who classify themselves as Tea Party supporters – a group with whom Gingrich polls well (keeping in mind that the two groups aren’t mutually exclusive).

So, where does the race stand, heading into tonight’s crucial South Carolina debate (on Fox News at 9 p.m., and yes, I’ll be live blogging.)   Santorum has seen his initial burst of polling support coming out of Iowa recede, and he’s now drawing about 12-15% in most polls, a distant third (with Paul who has similar polling numbers) to Romney’s roughly 30% and Gingrich’s 22%.  Note that the biggest issue for most social conservatives in South Carolina is the economy – not cultural issues, which Santorum has emphasized more than the other candidates. Perry, so far, is getting very little polling traction in South Carolina, with his numbers consistently in the single digits.  Despite this, he has more money than Santorum and has already vowed to continue campaigning in Florida, where he is already running advertising.

And so the basic problem for these three – Gingrich, Santorum and Perry – remains how to win over the support of the plurality of voters who oppose Romney.   Although Gingrich has previously described South Carolina as a must win state, my guess is he will back off that assertion if he finishes a strong second on Saturday.  He will use that to stake his claim as the primary non-Mitt alternative and hope that Santorum and/or Perry will aid his cause by dropping out before Florida’s Jan. 31 primary.

Keep in mind, however, that South Carolina is an open primary.  This means independents can participate.  Because there is no Democratic primary, I expect the percentage of independents who participate to easily eclipse the 18% who voted in 2008.  And those voters are largely backing either Romney – or Ron Paul.   And that’s why, once again, Paul is the potential spoiler in this race.  As I’ve noted in previous posts, he has expanded his coalition beyond his libertarian core and is drawing additional support from Tea Partiers concerned about the burgeoning budget deficit and government spending.  Polls show he is running about even with Romney among those who cite the deficit and government spending as the top issue, slightly ahead of Gingrich.

Bottom line?  Given the number of undecided voters, tonight’s debate is potentially critical to all the participants except perhaps for Paul, who seems destined to get his 15% from the Paulistas no matter what.  But I don’t expect it to resolve the core dilemma before Saturday that has enabled Romney to stay ahead of the field despite what appears to be lukewarm support.  For that to happen, at least two more of the three anti-Mitts need to be winnowed.

I’ll be on tonight, shortly before 9.  As always, I invite you to join in!

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