Tag Archives: New Hampshire primary

The State of the Republican Race: A View From the Ground In New Hampshire

Because I’ll be making a last round of New Hampshire campaign events tomorrow (I’m hoping to hit Cruz and Jeb! and will be live tweeting both events), I thought I’d post my assessment of the state of the Republican race in New Hampshire tonight. (The Democratic race, to me, has not been nearly as unpredictable.) As regular readers know, I’ve been fortunate to attend (and blog about) events held by every one of the Republican candidates so far (Lindsey – we hardly knew ye!) except for Cruz and Carson. (That includes Graham and Pataki – and I was witness to a “Where’s Jim Gilmore?” no show!)  Drawing on those experiences, here are my thoughts on the likely state of the race today.

As I predicted last night, there has been what I believe to be a media overreaction to Rubio’s admittedly subpar debate performance last night. While I understand the chattering class’ need to create a newsworthy moment from every debate, my sense is that Rubio’s shell-shocked initial response to Christie’s heavy-handed attack (I thought Rubio recovered and finished the debate on the upswing) won’t have nearly the impact on his support in New Hampshire as some seem to believe. This is because I thought he had already plateaued before last night’s debate took place. Although his events are well attended, Marco’s brand of social conservatism doesn’t play very well among many New Hampshire voters. The most recent Monmouth poll  finds that 55% of likely Republican voters surveyed say a candidate who shares their values is more important than electability when deciding how to vote. Unfortunately for Rubio, he has greater support among likely voters focused on electability (22%) rather than shared values (9%). Remember, Mike Huckabee received only 11% support in New Hampshire in 2008, and Rick Santorum did even worse, at 9% in 2012. Both were social conservatives coming off victories in Iowa. So while I expected that Rubio might get a momentary bump due to the media overreaction to his middling performance in Iowa, I didn’t think there would be any sustained Rubio surge in NH. This won’t stop pundits from claiming that Rubio’s debate performance caused his poll numbers to stall. Don’t get me wrong – Rubio attracts enthusiastic crowds, and he presents his socially conservative views in an easy-to-digest personal narrative sprinkled with plenty of feel-good human interest anecdotes, rather than through a fire-and-brimstone pulpit-pounding sermon. As I’ve noted before, he is the only candidate who can paint a picture of a nation going down the tubes, and yet audience members walk away feeling uplifted. But while he exudes a rock star quality that makes people wait in line to take selfies with him, I’m not completely convinced those pictures will translate into votes.

For similar reasons, I thought Ted Cruz never had much upside in this state either, Iowa victory notwithstanding, although I hesitate to say too much about his candidacy without first attending one of his rallies. Cruz has made only 26 visits to New Hampshire, has held less than half (84) the campaign events hosted by John Kasich (185) and Chris Christie (184) and, based on his debate performance last night, seems already to be looking beyond New Hampshire to contests down the road. Ben Carson, meanwhile, has been virtually absent here, with only 12 campaign visits and clearly seems to have staked his candidacy on doing well in South Carolina. On the other hand, Carly Fiorina, with close to 150 campaign events here so far, was clearly counting on a strong showing in New Hampshire. Despite drawing good crowds at her events, however, she has sagged of late in the polls and ABC (Anybody But Carly) essentially winnowed her from the race by excluding her from the debate stage last night. I expect her to drop out after Tuesday.

So who do I expect to do well in New Hampshire? Trump has led the polls for some time and he attracts the largest, most boisterous crowds I’ve seen here, rivaled only by Bernie’s. But it is hard to tell how well his big rally, fly-in/fly out southern New Hampshire campaign strategy will translate into votes. In what might be seen as a sign that his get-out-the-vote organization is not the best, he was the only candidate whose staff didn’t bother taking my name when I entered his rally. And he hasn’t engaged in the type of retail politics I’ve seen from Fiorina, Rubio and the governors Jeb!, Kasich and Christie. New Hampshire voters like to meet their candidates, preferably more than once. However, I’ve been wrong so often about Trump that I hesitate to say much more than that you should read my post about my visit to his rally.

I feel more confident touting the candidacies of Kasich and Jeb!, and I expect both to show late movement in the polls and to surprise a bit on Tuesday. As I noted in my post on my visit to one of his campaign events, Jeb! has really upped his game on the campaign trail, and he’s brought in the heavy artillery (his Mom) as well as some lesser guns (Lindsay Graham and former New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg) for the final push. He is likely to attract stronger support among older, moderate-leaning establishment Republicans who tend to turn out and vote. Of all the candidates, he is probably best able to survive finishing as low as 5th in New Hampshire, as long as it is a close 5th. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see him do better than 5th – polls indicate his support has solidified over the last few days, with 61% of his supporters now saying that they are definitely voting for him, up from 49% two days ago.

Kasich has basically camped out in New Hampshire for several months – his was one of the first campaign events I attended during this election cycle, and that was back in early September! In that time only Christie has made more visits to New Hampshire, and Kasich matches the New Jersey governor in total number of campaign events. Next to Trump, Kasich leads all Republican candidates among unaffiliated voters, and he does almost twice as well among the unaffiliated as he does among registered Republicans. (For Bush, the numbers are reversed – he does better among registered Republicans). Kasich is a true-blue conservative, but he has sought to soften that image with an optimistic, folksy demeanor in a transparent bid to win some crossover votes on Tuesday among the large chunk of unaffiliated New Hampshire voters. The more of them who decide to vote in the Republican race, the better he will likely do, but he is competing with Trump (and with Sanders!) for this vote.  Kasich is not quite a Jon Huntsman moderate, or a Ron Paul libertarian, so I’m not entirely persuaded he is going to attract the numbers he’ll need to to in order to get the media to begin giving him Rubio-like/he exceeded expectations coverage after Tuesday, but I do think he’ll finish in the top four.

And then there’s Christie. As his polls numbers began to sink, his rhetoric has become more apocalyptic, particularly on national security issues and – as his debate performance indicated – he has not been afraid to go on the offensive against his rivals. When I saw him back in November he spent a good deal of his talk discussing the opiate crisis in New Hampshire and came across as socially moderate. Since then, he has seemed to focus more on national security issues – or at least that’s been the emphasis in his campaign ads here. Like Kasich, he can’t afford to finish back in the pack on Tuesday because the road after New Hampshire only gets harder for his brand of politics. If forced to choose, my guess is that he is the most likely of the three governors to get winnowed after New Hampshire. If so, I expect most of his support to gravitate to Bush or Kasich. (This assumes Carly’s days are numbered as well.)

It’s been an interesting few months on the New Hampshire campaign trail – and it’s not over yet. A lot can happen in the next two days – according to one poll, less than 60% of those surveyed indicate their vote is completely locked in. I expect some reshuffling in the next 48 hours among the group of five candidates just below Trump, with Kasich and possibly Bush most likely to move up, and Cruz and Rubio to drop from their current polling averages. And if New Hampshire voters don’t have enough on their minds, they also have to grapple with a new voter ID law that may lead to longer lines at the polls. (Those showing up without a photo ID will have to fill out a voter affidavit and then get their picture taken.)

I’m back on the road tomorrow and then back to television thereafter. If I get a chance, I’ll chime in with my take on the Democratic side of the race before Tuesday. Stay tuned!

Bernie Leads In New Hampshire! (Or Does He?)

Bernie Sanders may be getting trounced in the national polls by Hillary Clinton, but you wouldn’t know it judging by his followers’ media presence. I was up yesterday on Los Angeles radio station KPCC’s AirTalk with host Larry Mantle (shortly before their segment on best dive bars in L.A.!) to discuss still another well-attended Bernie event, this one taking place in L.A. the night before, when about 25,000 people attended either in person or watched outside the LA Sports arena in which Bernie spoke. Every caller to the radio show was a Bernie supporter, and almost all raved about Bernie’s “electric” presentation to his passionate supporters.  I have written and talked previously about the fact that Bernie’s support among Latinos and African-Americans still lags relative to Hillary’s. Here’s a chart put together by Philip Bump based on Gallup polling that shows the relative favorable/unfavorable numbers of the various candidates among African-Americans.

Bernie has attracted large crowds before, of course, but they were in places like Portland, Oregon; Seattle, Washington; and Madison, Wisconsin – bastions of white liberalism that are not exactly cross-sections of the more diverse Democratic electorate. However, several of the callers to Mantle’s show took pains to point out the racially diverse composition of Bernie’s Los Angeles’ audience. This may be the hopeful among the #FeeltheBern crowd looking at the audience through rose-tinted glasses, of course, but it is clear that Bernie is making a concerted effort to reach out to non-whites in anticipation of competing in the contests beyond Iowa and New Hampshire. It is important to remember that although Bernie has lower favorable ratings than Clinton among African-Americans and Latinos, it is also the case that 60% or more of these groups don’t really know who he is. When you look only at those who express a favorable or unfavorable view toward Bernie, his percentage of favorable support comes closer to matching Clinton’s.

It will be interesting to see how much ground Bernie can gain among these voters in the months to come.

Meanwhile, in a reminder that no good deed goes unpunished, my last post cautioning readers to be wary of drawing conclusions based on one poll has been drawing its fair share of criticism in light of a more recent Boston Herald/Franklin Pierce poll that has Bernie leading Clinton 44%-37% in New Hampshire among 442 randomly selected likely Democratic presidential primary voters. The survey was in the field August 7-10, and has a margin of error of +/-4%.  Since I received a few emails after my last post asking me to clarify the difference between a “statistical tie” and what the New York Times mistakenly (in my view) called a “dead heat”, I thought it might be useful to present the latest poll results visually, using a nifty app developed by Nicholas Neuteufel that graphs the polls results, including the margin of error.

sanders tied

Once again, as the graph suggests, we can’t discount the possibility, given the margin of error, that Clinton and Bernie are tied, or that Clinton might even be slightly ahead. At the same time, however, based on this one poll, the odds are greater that Bernie is now ahead of Clinton in New Hampshire.  But, of course, as I reminded readers in my last poll, we shouldn’t rely on only one poll.  Not surprisingly – and my caution notwithstanding – Bernie supporters seem convinced that this latest poll is an accurate barometer of the current state of the Democratic primary race New Hampshire. Note, however, that both the RealClearPolitics and Pollster.com aggregate polls continue to have Hillary holding a slim lead over Bernie in the Granite state. Here’s the Pollster.com aggregate polling chart:

Nonetheless, the latest poll result ought to give Sanders’ supporters an additional reason to flood the airwaves, not to mention castigating wayward bloggers who have the temerity to focus on the data, as opposed to #FeelingtheBern. So, at the risk of inciting more ire, let me raise two more cautionary flags for Bernie supporters. The Boston Herald poll also indicates that the race in NH remains very fluid with fully 60% of respondents saying they could change their mind, and only 30% saying they are following the race very closely. As I found out in my stint on Mantle’s show, Bernie supporters are out in force this early in the race.   It remains to be seen how support plays out as more people begin paying attention to the race an attitudes begin to firm.  It may be that questions of viability will loom larger in the polling. Most of the respondents – 65%, to be precise – to the Herald poll still believe Clinton is going to win the Democratic nomination. Remember, Bernie’s big electoral test of viability is not going to be New Hampshire or Iowa – it’s going to be South Carolina, Nevada and the more racially diverse states that come later in the nominating process. In that vein, I was on the phone with a reporter today discussing why Bernie has yet to gain traction with the #BlackLivesMatter crowd. I’ll have more to say about that in a later post. For now, keep those critical comments coming but, please, don’t shoot the messenger!  And for Bernie supporters, I leave you with this image:


Are Bernie and Hillary in a Dead Heat in New Hampshire?

As the political pundits parse last night’s Republican debate – a topic I will tackle later – I want to return to a story that attracted quite a bit of media play earlier this week. Three days ago New Hampshire television station WMUR in conjunction with CNN released a poll that showed Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in a “statistical tie” in New Hampshire. Not surprisingly, the poll generated quite a bit of media coverage, with The New York Times headline for its story on the poll proclaiming that Clinton and Sanders were in a “dead heat.”  Other news outlets, citing the same poll, made similar claims.  In fact, the survey, which was in the field during the last week of July, showed 42% percent of likely Democratic primary voters saying they will vote for Clinton, with 36% saying they are backing Sanders. How can the New Hampshire race be a “tied” when the poll shows Clinton with a 6% lead? The answer is that because the two candidates’ numbers fall within the poll’s sampling margin of error (a measure of how confident pollsters are in their results), one can’t discount the possibility that Sanders is actually tied, or perhaps even ahead, of Clinton. Remember, surveys are simply estimates of the sentiments of an underlying population – in this instance, likely Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire – and one’s confidence in the results depends in part on how many people are surveyed and what confidence level we are willing to accept in evaluating the results. In this case, the WMUR poll’s margin of error at the 95% confidence level for the Democratic nominating race is +/-5.9%. In describing the race as a “statistical tie”, then, the WMUR pollsters are acknowledging the possibility that despite Clinton’s 6% lead, Sanders’ actual support might be at the upper end of the margin of error, and Clinton’s at the lower end. (Of course, it’s possible their support lies outside the margin of error, but this is even more unlikely.) Hence, WMUR’s decision to label the race a “statistical tie.”

At the risk of nitpicking, however, I would argue that a “statistical tie” is not the equivalent of a “dead heat”, The Times’ headline notwithstanding. To understand why, one should also ask: what is the probability that a purely random sample of 274 likely Democratic voters (the size of the WMUR poll on the Democratic side) would show Clinton ahead by 6% if in fact there is no difference in polling support between Clinton and Sanders in the underlying population – that is, that they really are tied? It turns out that it is not very likely – in fact, a simple test of the difference in survey sample results suggests there is a less than 10% probability that the race is actually tied, given the survey findings showing Clinton ahead by 6% (and making certain other assumptions about how the WMUR poll was conducted.) So, it is true that we can’t be sure that Clinton is ahead, at least not using the conventional 95% uncertainty level. But it is much more likely, given these poll’s parameters, that she is leading Sanders than that they are in a true dead heat. My quibble with most of the media stories reporting the WMUR poll is that they don’t make the difference between a “statistical tie” and an actual tie very clear.

“Fine,” you respond. “At least I can take comfort in knowing that Bernie is closing the gap with Hillary.” And, in fact, the first line of The Times story notes that “Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont continues to tighten the race with Hillary Rodham Clinton in New Hampshire, according to a poll released on Tuesday.” As evidence, the author notes that a previous WMUR/CNN poll of likely Democratic voters that was in the field from June 18 to 24 found Clinton leading Sanders by 43%-35% (with a margin of error of +/- 5.2%).  Based on these two polls, then, it appears that Sanders has gained 2% on Clinton – evidence that, according to the Times, “Mr. Sanders continues to gain momentum after months of negative publicity about Mrs. Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state.”

Well, maybe. Again, it is useful to put this claim in proper context too. If you parse the polling numbers, the one-month change from a 43%-35% Clinton lead in early July to 42%-36% margin this week comes out to approximately a handful of respondents expressing a preference for Sanders rather than Clinton this month compared to last month. Now, this might reflect an actual change in the sentiments of the underlying population. Or, it might just be the result of picking up a couple more Bernie supporters in the random sampling process, even though there’s been no actual change in voter preferences. The bottom line is that we should be cautious about extrapolating that Sanders is gaining on Clinton based solely on a 2% change in the WMUR polling results across a one-month period.

This doesn’t mean Bernie hasn’t gained ground on Hillary in New Hampshire. As this Pollster.com poll aggregation shows, if we widen our time horizon it’s clear that Bernie has closed the polling gap, particularly when Elizabeth Warren’s name was dropped from the survey options.

But there hasn’t been a lot of recent polls in New Hampshire. A NBC poll in late July had Clinton up by a larger margin, at 47%-34%, while a recently-released Gravis poll has it 43%-39% in Clinton’s favor. (I haven’t looked closely at the internals of either poll.) Right now the aggregate Pollster polling has Clinton up 43.3%-38.8%. RealClearPolitics, which uses a slightly different aggregating algorithm, has Clinton with a more substantial lead over Bernie, at 44.8%-31.6%.

The bottom line is that rather than a “dead heat”, Clinton is probably leading Bernie in New Hampshire, and that it is not even clear, despite an abundance of recent negative news coverage for Clinton and Bernie’s well-attended campaign events, that he has gained all that much ground over the last month. Alas, for a media with a vested interest in seeing a competitive race for the Democratic nomination, that narrative is probably a lot less interesting, even if it is likely to be a bit more accurate.

Who Really Won New Hampshire, and Why

The on-site comments* to my post yesterday for the U.S. News “debate club” remind me that perhaps the biggest story coming out of the New Hampshire primary was not Romney’s decisive win – it was Ron Paul’s unexpectedly strong second-place showing.  You will recall – and undoubtedly remind me in months to come – that I had Paul coming in a very close third, just behind Huntsman, with about 18% of the vote.  Although I nailed Huntsman’s vote totals, Paul did better than I projected, winning 23% of the vote to finish a strong second.

And yet despite his strong finish, very few if any commentators bothered analyzing why Paul did so well in New Hampshire.  That oversight is consistent with the more general media view that Paul is no threat to win this nomination, and that he has committed but relatively small support consisting of a core group of “Paulistas” who contribute to Paul’s moneybombs and lurk on every website, but who don’t constitute much more than 10-15% of likely Republican voters.

I think that characterization, while not completely inaccurate, fit Paul better in 2008 than it does this time around.  In fact, the New Hampshire exit polls suggest Paul has expanded his base of support beyond his libertarian core by attracting conservatives and Tea Partiers who are worried about the deficit and who want to reign in government spending.   Let’s take a closer look.

By now, it is clear that Paul does well among younger voters.  Interestingly, that support is not just among the very young; he edged Romney, 11%-10%, among all voters 44 years or younger who voted in New Hampshire’s Republican primary (based on exit polls).  Romney racked up his winning margin by relying heavily on the much larger 45 year and older vote.

But the most intriguing findings come when we look at the breakdown of the vote by income.  As the table below shows, Paul’s share of support in each income category drops in linear fashion as you climb up the income scale, while Romney’s is the mirror opposite – his support climbs as you go up the income ladder:

Income Paul 2012 Romney 2012
Under $30k (11%) 35% 31%
$30-50k (15%) 28% 31%
$50-100k (37%) 22% 35%
$100-200k (27%) 20% 47%
$200k or more (10%) 12% 52%

In the aggregate, Paul ties Romney at 31% support among wage earners below $50,000, but Romney trounces him, 41-20%, among those earning over $50,000.   If we look back at 2008, however, we see a slightly different pattern of support by income for Paul:

Income Paul 2008 Change In Share of Income Category from 2008 to 2012
Under $30k (10%) 8.4% +26.6%
$30-50k (14%) 8% +20%
$50-100k (39%) 6.5% +15.5%
$100-200k (29%) 6.4% +13.6%
$200k or more (7%) 7% +5%


Although Paul shows gains across the board from 2008 to 2012 in each income category, the gains are larger in the lower income brackets.  His coalition now has a distinct economic skew in a way that it did not four years ago. Much of Paul’s New Hampshire support in 2008 came among voters who strongly disapproved of the Iraq War, who thought the economy was doing very poorly and who were self-identified liberals.  This year he again drew heavily on self-identified liberals and moderates who formed a slightly higher (47% to 45%) proportion of the voting pool than they did in 2008.  But he increased his support among independents, winning 31% of that category, compared to in 2008 when he won only 13%, even as the percentage of independents voting in the Republican primary climbed 10% from 37% to 47% in four years.

Note that Paul’s overall support does not correlate very well with opinions regarding the Tea Party movement; among New Hampshire Tea Party sympathizers; he wins 22% of those who support the movement, 27% who are neutral, and 19% who oppose.  (Interestingly, Huntsman won the most – 41% – among the 17% of voters who opposed the Tea Party.)  What this suggests then, is that Paul was able to draw on a subset of Tea Party voters: those most concerned – particular lower and middle-income voters – with government spending and the deficit.  These are the economic populist voters that Santorum appeared to make some inroads with in Iowa.  My guess is that Santorum’s social views, particularly toward gay marriage, made him anathema to New Hampshire voters who might otherwise have backed him for his economic policies.

What does this mean as we head into South Carolina?  I think Paul is unlikely to fully replicate the success he had in New Hampshire, with its favorable mix of libertarian, middle and low-income fiscally-minded voters. But he could still do well – if the trio of Gingrich, Perry and Santorum let him.  There is an opening, I think, for someone who can reclaim the economic populist portion of the Tea Party vote and still appeal to social conservatives.  So far, Paul doesn’t seem to attracting much support among social conservatives, and his foreign policy views may play less well among South Carolina’s more traditional Republican voters.

The degree to which Paul can replicate his New Hampshire success, then, depends in part on whether someone contests his claim on the economic populist vote.  At this point, I think Gingrich is best positioned to do so. If he is to win back these voters, however, he needs to have a much better answer to the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac lobbying connection than he has given so far.  If he can provide one, and if he hones his Romney-as-job-destroyer campaign theme without appearing overly negative, he is going to give Mitt a run for his money in South Carolina.  The key to attracting the grass-roots Tea Partiers is for Gingrich to successfully paint Romney as part of the Wall St. banking crowd that benefitted from government bailouts and engaged in “predatory capitalism”.  Even then, however, Gingrich won’t beat Romney if Perry, Santorum and even Paul effectively appeal to the same Tea Party faction.

*The Paulistas were none too happy with my U.S. News piece because I dismissed Paul’s chances of winning the nomination.  Here’s a representative comment:

“Stopped reading this article after bracketed sentence in first paragraph. Author, you are an unpatriotic American, someone who will say anything as long as you can collect money for doing so. You have the integrity of Newt Gingrich.”

Why Mitt Romney Is A Weak Candidate

There is a growing consensus among the talking heads that with his victory in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney is on the fast track to win the Republican nomination.  That sentiment, judging by comments from Tom, Paul and others last night, is one that many of you share.  In response, I want to develop an argument I started in this U.S. News and World Report opinion piece suggesting why it is too early to anoint Romney as the Republican nominee.  In fact, I will go further here to explain why New Hampshire confirms that Romney may be one of the weaker candidates Republicans could nominate.

It is true that he won New Hampshire decisively, with his 39% share of the vote almost exactly matching the average winner’s share in contested primaries dating back to 1988.  That represents a gain of 7% over his performance here four years ago.  But that decisive win masks a second important point: Romney did not broaden his coalition at all in the intervening four years. Consider this graph put together by MIT Professor Charles Stewart that compares Romney’s support in New Hampshire towns yesterday (the left-hand vertical axis) to his support in those towns four years ago (the horizontal axis).  (Courtesy of the Monkey Cage website.)  Each circle is a town (bigger circles=bigger proportion of overall turnout).   What does it show?

Essentially, geographically speaking, Romney drew on the same voting coalition as he did four years earlier, but  his vote total was boosted about 5-7% in those areas.  (If he had exactly the same vote total in a town in both elections, it would be situated on the diagonal line running just below most of the circles.)  What explains the boost in his support?  I suspect it is mostly because Jon Huntsman, a much weaker candidate, was running in the place of John McCain and Rudy Giuliani this time around.  In short, there’s no evidence that he expanded his voting coalition geographically or widened his support to new voting blocs.

And, as Stewart shows, this is almost identical to what happened in Iowa; there Romney also largely drew on the same voting coalition in 2012 as he did in 2008.  However, his support actually declined in most areas of Iowa in the intervening four years, but that decline was almost offset by a substantial boost he received from voters in Polk County.

Pundits have seized on the fact that Romney is the first non-incumbent Republican presidential candidate to win both the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire’s primary.  Given the states’ dramatically different demographic pool, this is evidence, they suggest, that Romney has put together a broad Republican Party coalition capable of carrying him to the nomination.  But this is nonsense.  Never mind that he likely didn’t win Iowa (the votes there have not yet been certified but there is credible evidence that Santorum’s vote was undercounted.)  The voting results indicate he hasn’t broadened his support at all beyond the Republican banking/country club set that backed him four years ago.  In Stewart’s words, “Thus far at least, Romney has almost nothing to show from five years of presidential campaigning.  Romney stands at the top of the heap right now because he has the traditional Wall Street/Country Club wing of the party to himself.”

My point is simple: the reason Romney is “winning” this race has almost nothing to do with his gaining strength as a candidate, and everything to do with the fracturing of the non-Romney vote among several candidates.

In addition to overestimating Romney’s support in this election cycle, pundits have made a second mistake: underestimating the strength of the Tea Party movement. Ezra Klein, among others, suggests that Romney’s success indicates that a desire for moderation is driving Republican voters during the current election cycle. In fact, the center of the Republican Party has moved Right, driven by the Tea Party influence in the last four years, and not to the Center where the moderates reside.  Rather than losing influence, the Tea Party remains as potent an electoral force as it was in 2010.  The problem is that no single candidate has been able to unify the economic populists with the social conservatives, two voting blocs that live uneasily together under the Tea Party label.

As Stewart persuasively argues, some of the Tea Party strength has been siphoned off by Paul, which explains how he has gone from a fringe candidate supported by the small libertarian wing of the party to a second-place finisher in New Hampshire. Republican voters may be turned off by his isolationist/non-interventionist foreign policy views, but his argument against spending and corporate bailouts are exactly the issues that motivated the Tea Party movement in the first place, even if they don’t buy his more extreme views on ending the Fed or monetary reform.

Paul’s influence has expanded to fill the vacuum left by the implosion of the other Republican candidates who might have been expected to represent the Tea Party.  The most logical candidate to unite the anti-Mitt forces is Gingrich, but his candidacy wilted almost entirely because of his link to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – the government-backed mortgage giants that most Tea Partiers see as the Prime Movers behind the housing collapse.  Gingrich never came up with a satisfactory answer to the negative ads touting his lobbying for these firms, and it likely fatally wounded his candidacy.  The other possibility was Rick Perry, but he was simply unprepared when the spotlight turned on him.  Santorum’s success in Iowa had much to do with Gingrich’s and Perry’s collapse.  But he also tapped into the economic populism that fueled much of the Tea Party movement.  It’s not clear, however, that he is poised to build on his Iowa success.

My point is that Romney would be losing this race if any of the three – Gingrich, Perry or Santorum – had not stumbled out of the starting gate.  And he is still vulnerable if any of them can regain their footing – or if a new candidate with Palinesque stature enters the race. In this vein, the Republican establishment has been busy trashing Perry’s and Gingrich’s “attack on capitalism”.  But in fact the Bain-as-job-destroyer theme is precisely the one that should have been used against Romney from day one because it capitalizes on the original sentiment – opposition to crony capitalism – that fueled the Tea Party movement in the first place, and which may yet resonate in South Carolina, where unemployment is much higher than in Iowa or New Hampshire.

Romney is ahead not because he is a strong candidate. It is because his opponents and their supporters face a classic collective action problem: each would prefer any of the other non-Mitts as the nominee, but none are willing to sacrifice their own candidacy to make it happen.  There are only two ways Republicans are going to solve this problem.  One is to negotiate an agreement, one brokered by Tea Party activists and social conservatives, to back one of the three non-Mitts (perhaps in return for promises to be placed on the ticket or to have a place in the administration).  The second is to let the process play out and hope that two of the remaining three are winnowed by the voters in time to stop the media-induced rush to coronate Mitt.  The problem is that as long as the media buys into the Republican establishment’s mantra that Mitt is the One, the harder it will be for the non-Mitt’s to raise money.  And when the money goes, so does the candidate.

Mitt may yet win this nomination by default. If he does, I have no doubt many Tea Partiers and social conservatives will hold their nose and vote for him in the general election. But we ought not to overlook the reason why – it’s not because he’s the strongest Republican candidate. It’s because the majority of the Republican Party cannot make their mind up between three candidates – any one of which might beat Romney in a head-to-head matchup.

That’s my argument because I think that’s what the data shows. Now let’s hear your objections.

Meanwhile, Bert Johnson and I are up with our latest prognostications on the race.