USA 2012: Iowa and New Hampshire 2012
Happy New Year 2012 to all of this blog’s loyal readers. All the best in a year hopefully as rich as 2011 with fascinating elections.
The main election of 2012 – the American presidential contest – officially kicked off on January 3 with the Iowa caucuses and the first in the nation primary on January 10 in New Hampshire. Incumbent Democratic President Barack Obama faces no serious opposition in the Democratic primaries as an incumbent, meaning that the main contest is the one for the Republican presidential nomination. With unemployment still high, the American economy weak, the country’s debt a huge issue, a double-dip recession still a distinct possibility and popular anger over taxes and “ObamaCare” still lingering in some milieus; Obama is definitely not unbeatable and enters the 2012 contest as an incumbent hampered by the baggage of governing the world’s superpower in such hard times. Even if he wins reelection in November, it will likely be without the fanfare and enthusiasm (‘Obama-mania’) which accompanied his nomination and election in 2008.
Around the Western world, it seems as opposition parties – even those facing unpopular governments – are either terrible in their own right or are totally unable to provoke real enthusiasm around them in the wider electorate. The Republicans, after winning back the House in the 2010 mid-terms, are in such a position. They are hardly popular and their leaders are hardly inspiring to most voters. The GOP House’s leadership attitude of confrontation with the White House and the deadlock such attitude entails has not won them increased popular support. If Republicans can find comfort in Obama’s anemic approval numbers, they certainly cannot find further comfort in Congress’ terrible approval ratings which in part reflect the activities of the GOP House.
In the runup to 2012, Republicans have had a hard time finding themselves a credible champion to rally around and who is legitimately capable of defeating Obama in November. The Tea Party movement’s heyday has petered out somewhat and the movement has never been a cohesive force and it lacks a single leader. The one person who could have rallied parts of the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, did not run.
The one stable contender throughout the pre-primary season has been Mitt Romney, the Mormon businessman, former Governor of liberal Massachusetts (2003-2007) and unsuccessful 2008 presidential contender against John McCain. Romney is probably the one candidate who is the best positioned to win in 2012, but he carries along a lot of baggage. In a Republican primary where conservative values and ideological purity are increasingly important, Romney’s more moderate record as governor of Massachusetts and his liberal Republican image he had built himself in his unsuccessful 1994 run for Senate against liberal icon Ted Kennedy has created much unease about him and his conservative credentials (especially on issues such as abortion, where he was pro-choice in 1994 but is now pro-life) are often placed into serious doubt by the GOP’s right. Romney’s campaign has basically been that of a moderate Republican focused on the economy and flaunting his “businessman credentials” than on fighting the culture war. He has been the only candidate whose support has neither collapsed nor surged since he entered the race. But until recently, Romney had a glass ceiling of 25% in otherwise useless national primary polling. He has the support of GOP moderates and a good part of the more moderate establishment, and also has tons of money, but conservatives have traditionally loathed Romney.
While the moderates have their basically uncontested champion in Romney, the conservatives and the religious conservatives in the GOP have struggled to find their champion. The result has been the rapid emergence, surge and collapse of several non-Romney contenders in short succession. These ‘flavours of the month’ have all been unable – thus far – to become long-term rivals to Romney. In June and July, the first flavour was Michele Bachmann, the very conservative congresswoman from Minnesota originally hailed by some as the equivalent of Sarah Palin. Her surge was concentrated in Iowa but she never led Romney nationally.
Besides her being something of a gadfly with a penchant for inane statements, her collapse was prompted by the candidacy of Texas Governor (since 2000) Rick Perry, who announced in early August. Perry could very well have been the conservative answer to Romney: strong conservative record, Southerner, governor of a large state, running on a record of rapid job-growth in his state and with deep appeal to the religious right and family values crowd. He also had, unlike Bachmann, high-profile backers with some very deep pockets. His support surged in September, running away with a huge lead in Iowa and nationally by mid/late September. But by early October, his support in Iowa and nationally collapsed almost overnight. It was caused in part by his poor debate performances and his support for his state’s policy of allowing in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants which alienated his right-wing backers. Perry was unable to resuscitate his campaign with a flat tax proposal or a later much-parodied ad aimed at appealing to Christian evangelical voters. His campaign turned into a worldwide joke during a debate on November 9 when Perry was unable to remember the name of the third agency of government he vowed to eliminate.
As Perry’s campaign stumbled and collapsed, he was replaced a ‘flavour of the month’ by Herman Cain, a black businessman who has never held elected office. Cain surged into the lead in Iowa by mid-October and he quickly took a narrow lead nationally over Romney as well. As an “outsider” businessman with an appealing, catchy (and controversial) tax plan – the 999 plan – he appealed to conservatives and the Tea Party movement. Cain collapsed under the weight of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct. Unlike Bachmann and Perry who did not drop out after their collapse, largely in quixotic hope of a win or strong performance in Iowa, Cain suspended his campaign on December 3.
Cain’s polling numbers had begun declining in mid-November. On the heels of Cain’s collapse, Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House and conservative hero of the Republican Revolution of 1994, surged into frontrunner status after having been at the helm of a struggling campaign for months. Gingrich surged into the lead nationally and in Iowa in mid-November and peaked roughly in early December (after Cain’s withdrawal), but his support in Iowa would evaporate very quickly (mid-December) as his legendary martial infidelity made headlines and under the weight of attacks from Romney and Ron Paul. His lead in national polling, a lagging indicator, only disappeared after Iowa (more or less).
In Iowa, Gingrich’s collapse helped Mitt Romney, who gained some additional support, but more especially Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. Ron Paul, who had run for the presidency in 2008 as well, is the icon and hero of libertarians. His somewhat out-there positions on some issues (according to his critics), his long-standing isolationist foreign policy (anti-Iraq War and so forth) and perhaps his 1988 presidential run as the Libertarian candidate have never made him a favourite of the GOP establishment, but his isolationist foreign policy mixed in with a strong record as a “budget hawk” and more traditionally conservative positions on moral/social questions have allowed him to build a bigger base in the 2012 race than in the 2008 race, in which Republicans are more isolationist than in 2008 and far more concerned about the debt and deficit than in 2008. Paul had won a strong 9.96% in Iowa in 2008, and it has always been a state where he found a more or less favourable crowd. Iowa Republicans are very conservative, but they have something of an independent or isolationist streak. Paul appealed to the Tea Party movement, especially the traditional ideological core of the movement which was at its root libertarian and anti-tax, not a wide portmanteau term for the whole right of the GOP staffed by less libertarian and more opportunistic Sarah Palin types.
Rick Santorum, a Senator from Pennsylvania first elected in 1994 but defeated in a landslide by Bob Casey Jr. in 2006, formally entered the contest back in June and had long been a potential contender. Santorum is well known for his social conservative positions most notably his vocal opposition to gay marriage. His name is well-known, especially in liberal circles, in part because Dan Savage turned his last name into a sexual neologism which would make people throw up. But he was little known outside those circles, and despite basically living in Iowa since Day 1, had a hard time making any headway until very late in the race. His strategy paid off late, as he surged in Iowa first outside the 3-5% range (around Christmas) and then into double digits in the final days of 2011. Appealing to the same type of socially conservative, often evangelical Christian, voter who had won Iowa for Mike Huckabee in 2008, he became Iowa’s top “anti-Romney” conservative contender and picked up votes from Gingrich, Bachmann and perhaps even Ron Paul. His emergence stopped Rick Perry’s mid/late December “mini-surge” in Iowa, which had seen Perry inch back up to 12% to the point where some had considered that his candidacy might re-appear on the forefront of the scene.
The final main contender in the race is Jon Huntsman, former Governor of Utah (2005-2009) and Obama’s ambassador to China (2009-2011). Huntsman is the most ‘liberal’ candidate in the race, noted for his far more liberal positions than the rest on social or environmental questions. He has a strong record as governor of Utah, and has strong moderate credentials which might appeal to the small minority of liberal Republicans who might find Romney too conservative or more likely too ideologically opportunistic for their tastes. Unsurprisingly, Huntsman totally ignored Iowa and has instead focused his campaign entirely around New Hampshire, whose open primary and more moderate electorate in general favours Huntsman. While potentially a strong candidate against Obama, Huntsman is too liberal for the current GOP electorate to go anywhere outside of New England.
Iowa turned out to be very closely fought contest. Paul and Romney fought for the lead in the last stretch, as Gingrich collapsed and Santorum surged into high double-digits at the very last moment. Unfortunately, I missed the excitement of Iowa on January 3. Here is a late summary of what happened. Around 122 thousand Republicans showed up to caucus in Iowa, up a bit from the 119k of 2008.
Edited final results; January 19
Rick Santorum 24.56%
Mitt Romney 24.53%
Ron Paul 21.43%
Newt Gingrich 13.30%
Rick Perry 10.33%
Michele Bachmann 4.98%
Jon Huntsman 0.61%
Romney originally defeated Santorum by only 8 votes in the entire state, making these caucuses the closest in Iowa’s history. After a long-winded recount, the Iowa GOP finally certified Santorum as the winner by 34 votes. Measured against RCP’s final average, Paul performed smack where RCP’s average pegged him and Romney did about 1.5% better than predicted (Perry did about 1% worse, Gingrich did marginally less well than predicted). However, Santorum beat the average by about 8% and even beat his best polls (18%) by a full 6%. His surge most certainly came from fledgling Gingrich, Perry and especially Bachmann supporters – Bachmann was pegged at 6.8% by RCP, she won only 5%. For some reason, Huntsman had polled 2-4% in the last polls in Iowa despite ignoring the state by not even campaigning there. Reality hit and he won just 0.6%, and the bulk of the fake 2-4% Huntsman support likely explains Romney’s slight over-performance compared to RCP’s expectations.
Romney’s original win was a boost for his campaign and he certainly is the one candidate most likely to win the nomination. Romney has finally broken through his glass ceiling of 25% and has been able to gather more and more support from conservatives who have come around to seeing Romney as the pragmatic option of the candidate most able to defeat Obama, whom they certainly hate more than any of the GOP candidates when push comes to shove. However, Romney’s performance in Iowa is not particularly great: only a handful more votes than in 2008, and less percentage-wise than in 2008 (it is true, with a much narrower and stabilized field). Romney’s win in Iowa likely gave him a small momentum boost, but his entrance into likely-nominee territory was probably not caused directly by his victory in Iowa.
The main winner in Iowa was definitely Santorum, who as we saw defied all expectations and pulled out a delayed win. If Gingrich’s support erodes further, it is likely that conservatives interested more into an ideologically pure candidate rather than a candidate able to win in November will turn to Santorum as their final hope to block Romney. However, it is unlikely that Santorum will be ultimately able to do this, as he has little money and basically no organization outside Iowa. While Iowa gave Santorum a huge surge in national polls and in crucial conservative battlegrounds such as South Carolina (where he previously had minimal support), Santorum’s campaign was just too heavily focused on Iowa and basically absent outside of Iowa to be able to truly turn Iowa’s near-win into major momentum. Furthermore, Gingrich still has a surprisingly resilient core which is surprisingly hard to swing (seemingly) at this point. However, a moment will soon come – likely after South Carolina – where only one of Gingrich or Santorum will be in a position to fight. But it might be too late to fight at that point.
Michele Bachmann dropped out after her terrible showing, and her remaining support will probably flow to Santorum. Perry put up a face-saving performance in Iowa, but it was nowhere near the second or strong third he would have needed to save his trainwreck campaign and put him back into contention. He has not dropped out and seems to be banking it all on South Carolina (where he polls 5%), but Perry simply has no base in the contest and will be pushed out sooner or later, and his conservative support should flow to Santorum/Gingrich, assuming of course that Romney hasn’t simply run away with the nomination by that point.
The entrance polls provide an interesting base for analysis of the results in Iowa. Young voters from 17 to 29 heavily backed Paul (48%), who has a rock-solid cohort of young libertarian/online libertarian support. College graduates also backed Paul (25%) in large numbers. Paul and Romney’s support show an interesting trend related to income: the lower your income, the more likely you were to back Paul while the higher your income, the more likely you were to back Romney. Santorum’s support was highest (29%) with those earning $50-100k. The more interesting data is in terms of partisanship and ideology. Independents, 23% of the caucus electorate, gave Paul 43% and Romney 19% – while Santorum got only 13%. Republicans backed Santorum by a 2% margin (29-27) over Romney. In 2008, Iowa’s caucus electorate had been the most conservative in the country: eight in ten voters were conservatives. This year, 83% were conservative and only 17% were moderates or liberals. Conservatives backed Santorum 28-22 over Romney, with Paul pulling 18%. Those who described themselves as “very conservative” (47%) gave Santorum 35%. Those who were somewhat conservative backed Romney with 32%. The moderates gave Paul 40% and Romney 35%, but only 8% to Santorum.
64% of voters had a positive opinion of the Tea Party, and they backed Santorum with 29% against 19% apiece for Paul and Romney. Evangelical Christians, 57% of the electorate, heavily backed Santorum: 32% against 18% for Paul and 14% for Romney (tied with Gingrich and Perry). In terms of issues, the 13% who felt abortion was the most important issue supported Santorum, predictably, with 58%. The 34% who felt the deficit was the top issue backed Paul 28-21 over Romney. The 42% who said the ‘economy’ as a whole was the top issue backed Romney 33-20 over Paul.
31% of Iowan GOP voters felt that a candidate’s ability to defeat Obama was the most important quality. A sign of Romney’s support being in good part previously uneasy conservatives who pragmatically back him as the most electable option, those voters backed Romney with 48%. However, only 1% of the 25% who said being a ‘true conservative’ was the top quality and 11% of the 24% who said ‘strong moral character’ was the top quality backed Romney. Paul, interestingly, won 37% of those who said being a ‘true conservative’ was the top quality.
Rick Santorum’s typical voter seems to be middle-aged, middle-class but politically very conservative, Republican and a Tea Party supporter, as well as likely an Evangelical or born-again Christian. Santorum’s voter, it goes without saying, decided very late and voted for Santorum not because they feel he is the best candidate to beat Obama but because of his strong conservative and moral credentials.
Mitt Romney’s victory was propelled in large part by his support in urban Iowa: Romney won 29% in Polk County (Des Moines), 28.8% in Linn (Cedar Rapids), 34.1% in Johnson (Iowa City) and 33.5% in Scott (Davenport). He also won 33% in high-growth suburban Dallas County, which includes the bulk of Des Moines’ affluent high-growth Republican suburbs. Romney won 27.8% in Woodbury County (Sioux Falls), but Santorum won 33% there. Paul did well in Johnson County (30.7%) and won Black Hawk County (23.9%), two counties which include college towns (Iowa City and Cedar Falls). His best result, however, was in Jefferson County – which he had won in 2008 – and in which he took 48.6% this year. Jefferson County’s claim to fame, and in large part the base for Paul’s strong support, is being the home of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation movement, which has attracted many followers of the movement to the county. It has been a stronghold of the Natural Law Party: John Hagelin won 14.7% of the vote in Jefferson County in 2000.
Overall, Romney and Paul’s support was generally concentrated in eastern and central Iowa, which are the most urbanized regions of Iowa and often the most Democratic-leaning ones as well (it also has a larger number of Catholics, often Irish or German, and liberal Lutheran Scandinavians). However, Santorum won the bulk of western rural Iowa, often the most Protestant and conservative areas of the state. Besides Howard County (which Huckabee won in 2008), there seems to have been no decisive Catholic boost for Santorum in Catholic-majority counties, most of them located in eastern Iowa. Instead, Rick Santorum’s best performances – by far – came in the northwestern corner of Iowa (Lyon, Sioux, O’Brien Counties), which is Dutch Calvinist (Reformed Church, generally ultra-conservative) country and is Iowa’s most socially conservative (and Republican) part. Santorum took 61% in Lyon County, he broke 45% in Sioux and O’Brien Counties. Those had been the only three counties won by the social conservative standard-bearer Gary Bauer in the 2000. Rick Perry won two random rural conservative counties, one of which at least (Taylor) has a sizable Baptist population.
Compared to 2008, Romney seems to have shed support in the areas where he had done best in 2008 – while gaining or shedding slightly less votes in the areas (largely the ‘inland’ areas of rural Iowa) where he had not done as well in 2008.
John McCain’s victory in New Hampshire in 2008 did not wrap up the nomination for him, but it gave him a huge momentum boost which was certainly indispensable in presenting him as the electable frontrunner and allowing him to rake in important victories in South Carolina and Florida later in the month. In that primary, McCain had defeated Mitt Romney, and while Romney’s defeat had not been a mortal blow it certainly did not help his campaign which had started focusing heavily on New Hampshire at Iowa’s expense following Huckabee’s surge. Since his 2008 defeat, Mitt Romney has basically made New Hampshire his de-facto home state and has been able to turn New Hampshire into a safe firewall for him which, no matter what happened, would give him a big win and a big momentum booster. Even during the FOTM surges of Bachmann, Perry, Cain and Gingrich, Romney’s big lead in the state was never put into jeopardy.
Similar to McCain in 2000 and 2008, Romney (in his 2012 incarnation) has a natural appeal to the state. New Hampshire’s primary is open, and moderate and liberal independents proved crucial to McCain’s victory in 2000 and 2008. And New Hampshire’s registered Republicans are otherwise some of the most moderate in the nation – in 2008, if I recall, New Hampshire’s primary electorate was the most moderate (nearly half were moderates or liberals). While Romney in his 2008 incarnation was a standard-fare non-evangelical conservative with appeal concentrated mostly to wealthy suburbanites, in his 2012 incarnation he takes up the 2008 McCain spot: an electable moderate. The 2012 Romney is thus pretty perfect for New Hampshire’s electorate. Its Republicans are largely native libertarians or older and newer Boston suburbanites who are both concerned far more about low taxes than about gays marrying or abortions. The economy is the main issue for them, and that is something on which Romney is generally strongest. Two other candidates also have a natural base in New Hampshire. Ron Paul, who won about 7% in the state in 2008, has a natural appeal to one of the most libertarian states in the country – the ‘Live Free or Die’ crowd, following the state’s motto. Jon Huntsman has basically been living in the state since he kicked off his campaign, and New Hampshire’s moderate electorate provides him with his strongest base.
As per the NYT, results with 100% reporting:
Mitt Romney 39.3%
Ron Paul 22.9%
Jon Huntsman 16.9%
Rick Santorum 9.4%
Newt Gingrich 9.4%
Rick Perry 0.7%
Unsurprisingly and with little suspense – if any – Romney won by a large margin (perhaps not a ‘landslide’) in his firewall state. His victory is historic in that it is rare for a GOP primary candidate to win both Iowa and New Hampshire, but given how certain his victory had been it is not quite a spectacular victory and it is unlikely to give him a huge momentum booster. In an ironic way, his uninspiring victory in Iowa was a bigger triumph than his big win in New Hampshire as Iowa was never the safe state that New Hampshire was. However, with two wins and no loses, Romney is still the big favourite to win the GOP nomination.
Ron Paul placed a very strong second, a great showing for him. New Hampshire is fertile ground for Paul, and he managed to exploit that to its fullest extent. However, Ron Paul simply cannot win the nomination: he is too despised by the establishment, be it pro-Romney or not. He also has a harder time than Santorum or Gingrich in being the final conservative alternative, as Paul has basically no appeal to the South (states like South Carolina, for example) which is likely where the last-ditch efforts of the GOP’s right will need to be concentrated in full strength if they are to stand a chance at stealing the nomination away from Romney who is beginning to run away with it.
Jon Huntsman won 17%, which is a good result for him and probably the best result he could realistically expect in these circumstances. It comes from months of being on the ground in the state and tailoring his message to the state, but in this regards it could also be considered as pretty underwhelming: basically living in the state for months to get 17%? Reminds me of Rudy Giuliani in Florida back in 2008. Huntsman is an electable general election candidate, but he is a totally unelectable GOP primary candidate. His showing in NH, certainly not bad, strikes me as something of a ‘woohoo!… but what now?’ type of thing. Huntsman has basically nowhere to go outside NH and New England. He is seemingly determined to keep fighting, atleast until SC, but he is deluding himself if he thinks he can go anywhere there. He might win 4% and be a nuisance to Romney, but there is simply no fertile ground for Huntsman to emerge as a strong primary candidate somehow.
Gingrich and Santorum, the remaining top conservative candidates, ended up all tied up with Santorum finally edging out Gingrich by 130 votes. Considering how Santorum had focused all his campaign on Iowa up until the caucuses there, it is a good result for him in New Hampshire and shows the effects of his post-Iowa bump – similar again to Huckabee’s post-Iowa bump which won him 11% in New Hampshire despite having been virtually absent from the state in the pre-primary season. But Santorum (and Gingrich for that matter) failed to score the knock-out blow to the other which could have sped up that candidate’s withdrawal and the chance for the unification of the conservative movement behind one candidate. Rick Perry, who ignored the state entirely – especially after the Iowan cold shower – won 0.7% but did beat former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer (0.4%) who had focused a lot of his small campaign’s efforts on NH.
Exit polls again provide us with interesting bases for analysis. Unsurprisingly, Ron Paul rumped the ground with the 18-29 crowd (46%) but more interestingly did better with those with lower education than those with higher education, as well as low-income voters – the lowest income earners (under $30k) were the only category to back Paul over Romney, whose support once again increased as voter income increased – peaking at 52% with those earning $200k or more.
Independents were 47% of the electorate, and they split pretty evenly: 31% for Paul, 30% for Romney and 22% for Huntsman (Huntsman also won 41% with the 4% of Democratic voters who voted in the GOP primary). Romney dominated with Republicans, 49% against 15% for Paul. Conservatives made up only 53% of the primary electorate: overall they backed Romney with 42% against 19% for Paul, 15% for Santorum and 14% for Gingrich. Moderates, 47% of voters, gave Romney 38% against 26% for Paul and 24% for Huntsman. Romney even won the very conservative crowd (24%) with 29% against 25% for Santorum, and won 41% from those who support the Tea Party (51% of voters). The economy was the top issue for a full 61% of voters, and Romney owned the field there with 46% support against 20% for Paul. Among the 24% who felt the deficit was the top issue, Romney edged up Paul by 2 points. As in Iowa, finally, most of Romney’s support came from voters who judged candidates first on their ability to beat Obama, not conservative principles (35% of the electorate). Romney’s traditional voter seems to be wealthy, more optimistic about their personal economic situation, cares more about the economy than the deficit in general, is a somewhat generic centre-right Republican and supports Romney more because of his personal qualities and his ability to beat Obama than because of anything else.
Looking at a geographic analysis, complemented by the NYT’s interactive map of results by town, Romney’s base forms a very cohesive and homogeneous bloc concentrated along the coast and the state line with Massachusetts (Rockingham and Hillsborough Counties). These counties, which concentrate the bulk of NH’s Republicans and contribute to its purple state status (out of whack with solidly blue Vermont, Massachusetts and Maine) are basically affluent conservative exurbs of Boston whose residents are either old or new Boston commuters who live in New Hampshire for reasons often related to tax rate differences between the two states. Needless to say, affluent conservative exurbanites who care a lot about taxes (and not much about gays or abortions) are core Romney voters, both in 2008 and 2012. Romney actually improved the most vis-a-vis 2008 in these areas, but on a pure geographic basis he also somewhat extended his support into more rural, sometimes less conservative parts of New Hampshire. But it was Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman who found the most support in more liberal parts of western New Hampshire, closer to Vermont in terms of politics. Besides leaning Democratic in general elections, they also have lots of independents and a fair number of New England college towns. Huntsman won Hanover, a major college town and won 23% in Kenne. However, it is somewhat surprising that Paul did not perform better in Kenne and Hanover. His support was heavy in liberal Grafton and Cheshire Counties, but heaviest in the North Country (Coos County), which is more conservative (though leans Democratic, because of its French-Catholic population and working-class traditions) and whose GOP primary electorate seems more conservative (Huckabee did best there, and Gingrich and Santorum both won double-digits) than the rest of the state but also has a strong libertarian lean attributed to its geographic isolation in the White Mountains. Paul actually won Coos County with some 30% of the vote against 28% for Romney.
The next primary contest will be on January 21 in South Carolina. South Carolina will likely be the decisive battleground, and once again it is likely that it could make or brake the nominee. In 2000, McCain’s defeat in the bloody contest at the hands of Governor Bush had sealed his fate. In 2008, McCain’s narrow victory over Mike Huckabee had not sealed the deal just then but it certainly put McCain on a winning spree which would result in his eventual nomination. In Republican contests, South Carolina appears to be a much better determinant of the winner than either Iowa or New Hampshire.
South Carolina is a Southern conservative state with a large part of the electorate (60% in 2008) being Evangelical or born-again Christians, meaning that the primary electorate is predictably rather conservative (69% in 2008). This year’s contest might be different in the presence of an Evangelical Southerner, but in the lack thereof it is far more open. South Carolina is a test of any Republican candidate’s ability to appeal to the party’s increasingly powerful and important Southern religious base.
Romney is making minor inroads with conservatives because of his ability to win in November, but his performance in Iowa – especially with the conservatives in the caucus attenders there – was not particularly strong and there remains a lot of unease among conservatives about Romney. Romney will be looking for the knockout punch in South Carolina. If he wins such a conservative state, it will likely come close to sealing the deal and render the final efforts of the anti-Romneys futile. He would then win Florida in a landslide and pretty much end the race right then and there. At the same time, the conservative anti-Romneys (Gingrich, Santorum, Perry; Paul is in a different category and can be expected to fight even if Romney has the nomination) all know that South Carolina is their last chance to derail the Romney train. Which entails a bloody contest. Gingrich will need to win South Carolina to remain in the race. If he wins South Carolina, he likely knocks out Santorum (and Perry) and stands a slightly better chance at beating Romney in a contest which would probably become a two-man race between him and Romney with Paul probably sidelined. However, Santorum would probably be the strongest candidate in such a two-man matchup against Romney. Santorum also needs to win or at least place something like an extremely close second behind Romney to stand any chance in future contests. Chances are Perry will drop out after getting creamed.
The current RCP average in SC gives Romney a 9.3% lead over Gingrich (29.3% vs. 20%, Santorum at 19%). But a recent poll by Insider Advantage had the gap between the two down to only 2 points in Romney’s favour with Santorum at 14% and Perry (5%) trailing Huntsman (7%) and Paul (13%). Gingrich, despite his paltry showings in the first two races, seems to have a Southern advantage in the state (and an organizational/financial one as well) which has helped him stay strong and weather the seemingly short-lived Santorum surge. It seems as if the contest will come down to Gingrich vs. Romney, with Gingrich ready to inject large amounts of cash into a bloody fight with Romney. The favoured line of attack against Romney by Gingrich and others (Perry especially) seems to be a populist one: attacking Romney on his business past and shady investments at Bain Capital. Given the state and the nature of this year’s GOP electorate, this could prove to be a very fertile ground to attack Romney on.