Somewhere on the road to inevitability the Romney caravan hit a bump. How big a bump remains to be seen.
First, the Des Moines Register is reporting that the certified results from the Iowa caucuses will show Rick Santorum winning that race by 34 votes, but with the results from 8 precincts likely never to be known. So much for Romney as the first non-incumbent ever to have won both Iowa and New Hampshire – one of the very weak pegs on which the media had hung Romney’s mantle of inevitability. Given the margin of victory initially reported in Iowa (8 votes!), and the fact that Romney actually did no better there than he did four years ago, it was a rather lame claim, but almost every news story I read used it as a lead after New Hampshire. It was a classic case of the media shaping perceptions through the way it framed election results.
More significantly, this morning CNN is reporting that Rick Perry , who is polling in single digits in South Carolina, will formally announce at 11 a.m. that he’s dropping out of the race. There is no mention as yet whether he will endorse another candidate. This is likely good news for Newt Gingrich – but perhaps not as good as you might think. In the PPP crosstabs from a survey conducted a week ago 37% of Perry supporters listed Gingrich as their second choice, compared to 28% who chose Romney. Given that Perry was only pulling in about 6% of the vote at the time, the marginal boost to Gingrich – based on this one survey – if Perry supporters move to their second choice is likely to be about 1%. However, this survey predates Monday’s debate, so it may be that Gingrich will pick up slightly more Perry voters now. On the other hand, it’s not clear that there are any Perry voters left in South Carolina.
Even that slight amount, however, could be decisive in a close race. And it looks like it is going to be just that. Today, in the only poll taken entirely after Monday’s debate, Insider Advantage has Gingrich leading in South Carolina, 31.6-28.8%, with Paul at 15.2% and Santorum fading fast at 10.9%. Note that Newt’s lead is well within the poll’s margin of error. Two previous polls, however, both of which were in the field at least in part before Monday’s debate, still have Romney ahead. First, a Politico/Tarrance poll in the field on Monday and Tuesday still has Romney clinging to a slight lead, 31-29%, over Gingrich, with everyone else polling in single digits (including Paul at 9%). Again, that is a lead well within that poll’s margin of error. In a poll taken mostly before Monday’s debate, however, NBC/Marist finds Romney still leading Gingrich by 10% – but the lead shrinks to 5%, 31-26%, among those surveyed after the debate. Collectively, these three polls testify to a Gingrich surge coming out of his debate performance last Monday and heading into tonight’s crucial CNN debate, and only two days before actual voting. As those of you who followed Monday’s debate with me know, the crucial turning point in that event was likely Gingrich’s riveting exchange with Juan Williams regarding race, food stamps and Obama – an exchange that elicited a standing ovation from the partisan crowd. Romney’s equivocal answer to the tax question, meanwhile, didn’t help his cause.
In looking at recent polls, several themes stand out. First, the Bain Capital attacks are a mixed blessing for Gingrich and Romney, with South Carolina voters narrowly split on whether these attacks are fair or not. My guess is Gingrich is going to pivot away from this topic and focus on the other elements of Romney’s portfolio, such as his taxes and off-shore investments during the next two days, in an effort to keep the focus on his opponent. Note that most of the surge in support for Newt is coming from the Tea Party crowd. Evangelicals, however, are still uncertain about him. Interestingly, given the attention the media has paid to the SuperPacs, less than 1/3 of those surveyed in the Marist poll say the ads are influencing their choices, but fully 70% say the debates do. Finally, in a sign that Paul can play a spoiler role, but no more, a substantial minority of likely South Carolina Republican voters say he is an unacceptable candidate. Consistent with my earlier post, he is doing particularly well among independents, but not among mainstream Republicans.
Clearly, events are breaking in Newt’s direction. Before anyone jumps on the Newt’s amphibian backside, however, keep in mind that the race moves quickly to Florida, which votes on Jan. 31, and where Romney has huge advantages in demographics, money, organization and – as of now – polling numbers. It’s hard to see him losing there – at this point.
A final thought. Throughout the fall, when badgered by friends and students to predict who would win the Republican nomination, I always made three points: First, I didn’t know, and no one did. It was too early to predict. However, if pushed, I thought Romney’s support was overstated, Gingrich’s understated, and that Perry was potentially the strongest candidate. Clearly I was wrong about Perry. I based my assessment of his strength on three factors: his record winning elections, his fundraising prowess, and his record as Texas governor, particularly on jobs. However, I made my assessment without ever seeing him debate! As it turned out, he never really recovered from those early stumbles and, in a crowded field of non-Mitt candidates fighting for the same slice of voters, the debate gaffes proved fatal. This is a reminder that, particularly in the invisible primary when first impressions matter, outcomes turn on more than resumes and issue stances. Candidate qualities count too.
Keep my Perry assessment in mind the next time I make a prediction.
In the meantime, however, in what is shaping up to be a potentially pivotal event, all eyes will be on South Carolina tonight. As always, I’ll be live blogging. The debate starts at 8 p.m. on CNN. Participation was up during Monday’s event, which saw some memorable exchanges. Tonight there will be only four candidates, the stakes will be even higher , and the potential repercussions from a Perry-like gaffe even larger. So please join in!
Addendum (11:00 a.m.): Several media outlets are now reporting that Perry plans on endorsing Gingrich. Stay tuned.