Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Newt's Challenge & Problem: Becoming Huckabee+

On the heels of the South Carolina primary, FHQ speculated that one of the main questions that emerged from the Gingrich win/Romney loss was the Southern question. Romney did not win the South Carolina primary and even if could win in Florida -- It is something of a foregone conclusion at this point that the former Massachusetts governor will win tonight in the Sunshine state. -- and use that as a springboard to wins in contests in hospitable areas in February, that Southern question remains. Romney will not have another opportunity to win in the South until March 6.

[Sidenote follow up to that Southern question:
The way that post seemed to be interpreted by those that built off it was that FHQ was saying Romney couldn't wrap things up until that point at the earliest. I suppose that is part of it, but it is deeper than that. What I meant was that Gingrich and Santorum could use that as a rallying point for voters and more importantly donors. But that has a shelf life. If Romney wins in the South -- and he's guaranteed at least one win in Virginia where only Paul is on the ballot opposite him 1 -- then that argument disappears. Support and contributions to the campaign also likely disappear or at the very least begin to drop off at that point. And keep in mind, FHQ is discussing this without accounting for any intra-party pressure on the candidates to drop out. In the past, those three things -- waning support, lower fundraising totals and pressure from the party -- often happen nearly simultaneously. That may happen this time as well. But it isn't about Romney wrapping things up so much as the way in which the others start to drop out, or arguments to stay in begin to disappear.]

The Gingrich campaign is mindful of this Southern question. In fact, the memo the campaign circulated on Monday about how a protracted primary battle might look was very heavy on the former Speaker doing well in the upcoming March contests in the region. And therein lies the trouble for the Gingrich campaign. Their hope is that a series of wins across the South evens the delegate total heading out of the contests. That may happen, but if that is the case, the Gingrich folks are going to run full on in a stiff wind. How is that any different than the strategy Mike Huckabee had in 2008? The former Arkansas governor came close to sweeping the region in 2008 and that got him nowhere. It had him out of the race in early March when McCain won on Huckabee's turf in Texas and in the process crossed the 50% plus one delegate threshold to become the presumptive nominee.

Now sure, the Gingrich folks would counter that the calendar is vastly different in 2012 than it was in 2008. There is no mammoth Super Tuesday a week from today's Florida primary like there was four years ago. However, Gingrich is going to have to find a way to win in a Romney state to effectively brush off the Huckabee comparison. February's line up of contests does not seem to offer too many opportunities for Gingrich and if Romney sweeps them all, the pressure is going to increase on the non-Romneys in that scenario to consider bowing out (...in the face of the Southern question for Romney).

If we are trying to game this out moving forward look for Gingrich wins in Romney states (as a signal of a protracted battle) and Romney wins in the South (as a signal that the process is winding down). As it is, Romney is playing the McCain part from 2008 and if the South is the only thing standing in the way, it won't be enough to stop a Romney nomination. The goal for Gingrich is to become Huckabee, but Huckabee plus.

1 This will be an interesting test case of the Romney/not-Romney theory that has been floated around about this Republican nomination race. If there is a significant protest/anti-Romney movement within the Republican primary electorate, and the field has not winnowed anymore by that point, then that two-person Virginia primary becomes the best possible test.

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