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South Carolina Rules the World?

January 22, 2012

As observed by the great eminence of fact-driven political punditry, Nate Silver, the winner of the South Carolina Republican primary has been the Republican nominee every time since 1980.  Newt Gingrich just won the 2012 South Carolina Republican primary.  QED, Newt Gingrich will be the 2012 Republican nominee.  Or, as Newt himself would say, the NOM-inee.

Not so fast.  As statistician Nate would be the first to remind us, correlation is not causation.

Republicans have voted in just three states that collectively account for just 65 Republican convention delegates.  That leaves 47 states and 2,161 delegates.  And Gingrich has some real problems ahead.

His first problem is Florida.  As of yesterday morning – meaning, before the South Carolina vote was counted – FiveThirtyEight’s Florida tracker was projecting a thumping 17-point win for Mitt Romney in Florida, giving Romney a 93 percent chance of winning the Florida primary.  And the Florida primary is just 11 days after the South Carolina primary, giving Gingrich not a whole lot of time to overtake Romney.

There’s no question that Gingrich will get a bump in Florida from his win in South Carolina.  And his big come-from-behind win in South Carolina is a good precedent for a repeat in Florida.  But there are a number of key differences between South Carolina and Florida.

Gingrich won big with evangelicals in South Carolina, but evangelicals aren’t as important in Florida.  And the Social Security and Medicare constituency, which was Romney’s best age group in South Carolina, is more important in Florida than it is in South Carolina.  Jewish and Hispanic Republicans were negligible forces in the South Carolina primary, so there appears to be no meaningful exit polling on those groups, but Florida Republicans include significant blocs of Jews and Hispanics.

Gingrich got a big South Carolina boost from his attack on CNN for bringing up his marital past “in a Presidential debate.”  (I mean, who can imagine stooping so low as to try to make political gain of a President’s infidelities?)  But there are hints in the South Carolina exit polling that Gingrich’s signature attack-style campaigning won’t wear so well in the longer run.

Gingrich and Paul have both opened gender gaps, appealing more to men than to women.  (Conversely, Santorum polled six points better among women than men, and Romney polled three points better.)  Rick Santorum clobbered Gingrich among voters who said that “moral character” was the most important quality in a candidate.  Not surprisingly, Gingrich voters said that Romney ran the most unfair campaign and Romney voters said the opposite, but significantly Ron Paul voters gave that honor to Gingrich by a two-to-one margin.  This suggests that voters not already committed to Gingrich may find his aggressive style to be a little much.

Gingrich’s second problem going ahead is going to be the super-PAC.  Negative campaigning has a long history (“Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the State of Maine”; “rum, Romanism and rebellion“).  Republicans are still smarting from the LBJ ad that suggested that President Barry Goldwater would annihilate us all in a nuclear war.  But thanks to the Supreme Court, mass-market negative campaining can now be done independently of the beneficiary candidate – so the down-side of negative campaigning is less than it used to be.

The pattern this year has been when a candidate gets ahead, the other candidates’ super-PACs take him down.  Romney is constrained here, given the general discomfort with his family’s polygamous past.  But Santorum, he of the superior moral character, is well positioned to make this an issue.

A third problem for Gingrich going ahead is the importance of organization and discipline in a long primary battle – neither of which is Gingrich’s strong suit, and both of which are Romney assets.  A good illustration of this is the fact that Gingrich couldn’t even get on the ballot in Virginia, which will select well more than twice as many delegates as Gingrich’s current total.

So South Carolina’s past may not be prologue.  Even if Gingrich wins Florida – watch FiveThirtyEight over the next few days to assess Gingrich’s post-South Carolina bounce – he still has to sustain that momentum through February to get to Super Tuesday on March 6.

I can’t close this post without addressing the red herring of a brokered convention.  I’ve been following presidential politics since 1968, and a perennial favorite of political pundits is predicting a brokered convention.  (Nelson Rockefeller fans said that Richard Nixon wouldn’t win on the first ballot, and that Nixon’s support would “erode” on subsequent ballots, leading to a Rockefeller nomination.  Anyone remember President Rockefeller?)

Today, pundits are taking Gingrich’s South Carolina win as an opportunity to bring out the deadlocked convention talk – this based on the allocation to date of something like three percent of the convention delegates.

It’s true that the three-way split of delegates allocated so far leaves no candidate with a majority.  But that’s probably more the rule than the exception at this stage of the game.  A deadlocked convention requires at least three viable candidates, each with substantial delegate blocs.  Today, there are three such candidates – Gingrich, Romney and Santorum.  (Paul has only three delegates, all from New Hampshire, and his delegate count isn’t likely to get any more significant as time goes on.)

As of today, I see absolutely no reason that the primaries will not do in 2012 what they have always done, starting even before the 1972 reforms that gave primaries their modern importance – the primaries will eliminate at least one of the three viable candidates, and one of the remaining two will have a majority on the first ballot.  So let’s get through Florida, then February, then super-Tuesday on March 6.  Only on March 7, if there are still three viable candidates with substantial delegate blocs, should any pundit even mention the possibility of a brokered convention.

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