Saturday, January 21, 2012

Predicting South Carolina ... and Beyond

Before the Iowa Caucus I pointed out that predicting primary and caucus outcomes is usually a fool's errand but I'll do it again anyway. My prediction is ...

Gingrich - 37
Romney - 30
Paul - 15
Santorum - 15
Cain - 3

Let's start at the bottom. I think a few people will come out to vote for Stephen Colbert (Herman Cain). That means that, in percentage terms, Colbert will have had the biggest surge in South Carolina.

On to the serious stuff. The latest PPP polling showed Gingrich's momentum continuing to build, not slowing down. They had him up by 9 overall but up by 14 in the last night of polling. So why do I think Gingrich's win will be a little smaller than that? 1) PPP does not do live interviewing and I think that means they under-poll cell-phone only households ... and those are not Gingrich voters. 2) Gingrich does not have much of a ground game so Romney will gain on him a bit there as well. 3) There is rain in South Carolina and that will make things worse for a candidate who does not have a ground game. I do think there is much potential for Gingrich to outperform my prediction as well, particularly if the sizable number of Santorum voters move to their second choice (Gingrich for half of them) knowing Santorum can't win. But 37 seems about right to me.

Romney is really a mess right now. PPP has him at 28 and I'll give him a 2-point boost for turnout operation and perhaps a gag reflex among some voters who liked Gingrich's debate performance but just can't pull the trigger for the former Speaker.

The battle for third place between Santorum and Paul should be close. I give Paul the edge on the basis of voter enthusiasm and the fact that some Santorum voters may defect to Gingrich.

The interesting question about Santorum is whether he'll stay in the race after tonight. He shouldn't. He can't win. His small bank account will dry up after this Gingrich surge and there is just no path to victory for him ... unless Gingrich's support collapses. That could never happen, right? Right. So, Santorum will probably stay in.

So, let's say I'm right. What happens next? The polls have Romney well ahead in Florida and most in the media seem to think Romney will hold steady there. In addition, the demographics of Florida are different than South Carolina (fewer evangelicals, lower unemployment rate) and Romney has more money to compete in the expensive media markets of Florida. I think there's three big problems with that line of thinking: 1) Gingrich will get a huge free media boost out of South Carolina if he wins as I predict. 2) Gingrich will raise more money as a result of a South Carolina victory and his SuperPAC supporters will likely double down if he wins South Carolina. 3) Romney is now planning to debate in Florida and that means he'll either have to release his tax returns (disaster), not release his tax returns (disaster), or continue to say "maybe" on releasing his tax returns (disaster). Put all that together and it seems possible Gingrich could win Florida. I don't know that it is likely as Gingrich has his own problems that Romney will bring into sharper focus but it is possible.

So what happens if Gingrich wins South Carolina AND Florida? Panic in the GOP. The establishment is not going to be okay with Gingrich as the nominee. And the establishment is going to be uncomfortable with the guy who can't beat Gingrich. Messy, messy. Here's hoping for a mess.

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