If you like horse races you’ve gotta love Florida. The polls are showing three candidates jockeying for the lead in the January 29th primary with another within striking distance. Of course, if we’ve learned one thing this election season it’s that the polls are so fluid they can only be taken as a snap shots of possibilities. It’s the political equivalent of the uncertainty principal: the mere observation of an event alters it.
So, even though the polls don’t mean much: the latest survey (conducted on January 20th) from Rasmussen Reports shows former Governor Mitt Romney (25 percent) with a slight lead over Seantor John McCain (20 percent) and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani (19 percent). Former Governor Mike Huckabee (13 percent) is not far behind. With a week to go, anything can happen, but things are looking up for Governor Mitt Romney. Only a week ago, he, Senator McCain, Governor Huckabee and Mayor Giuliani were in a statistical tie in the Rasmussen Reports telephone survey.
Other surveys have slightly different rankings. For example, the SurveyUSA poll, also conducted January 20th, places Senator McCain in front (25 percent) followed by Mayor Giuliani (20 percent), Governor Romney (19 percent) and Governor Huckabee (14 percent).
What to take from these differing results? It’s a close race. And with Senator Fred Thompson withdrawing from the field today, the roughly 12 percent of GOP voters supporting him are up for grabs. The polls are likely to scramble a lot more between now and Florida’s election day.
But on January 29th, one candidate will win, the others won’t. (That’s why election days are often referred to as the only poll that counts). The impact on the presidential campaign will be enormous, but I don’t expect it will drive any of the four major candidates from the race.
No one has more at stake in Florida than the former mayor of New York. His campaign strategy of “ignoring” the early events resulted in him being all but ignored over the past few weeks. His poor showing in the initial contests was een more devastating because he didn’t really ignore all of them. He invested considerable time and money in New Hampshire for example, yet finished a distant fourth there with just nine percent. All these early defeats will be (mostly) forgotten if he wins in Florida and he’ll be a legitimate contender come Super Duper Tuesday on February 5th.
If he loses, however, Mayor Giuliani’s campaign will be low on funds and pretty much futile. With New York and New Jersey, his home base, holding primaries on February 5th, however, he’ll no doubt stick around for at least one more week, hoping he can earn enough delegates to be a factor at the convention — and have something to show for the roughly $50 million he will have spent.
Senator Thompson pulled 15 percent of the evangelical Christian voter in South Carolina. Governor Huckabee earned the support of over 40 percent of this constituency. He’ll be spending considerable effort in securing more than his fair share of those who had been supporting the former Tennessee Senator. Governor Huckabee will also benefit from this being a Republican only primary — independents can’t participate in the Florida GOP election. Exit polls show Governor Huckabee would have won South Carolina but for independents who showed up to support Senator McCain. Without their participation in the Florida election, Governor Hucklebee’s chances of winning or coming in a strong second significantly improve.
He needs, however, to come in first. The results from Iowa are receding into distant memory — they were, after all nearly four weeks ago. If he’s to replenish his war chest and compete seriously in the nearly-national primary on February 5th, Florida is where he needs to shine.
If he loses, the odds of his gaining the nomination drop to near zero. Losing South Carolina was bad news for the former Arkansas Governor. Anything less than a second place showing in Florida and his chances at the nomination go from slim to none. He too, however, may want to stick around one more week to see if he can add to his delegate total. He should, for example, do well in states like Alabama and Arkansas. Whether he’ll have the funds to campaign in many of the states voting on February 5th, is another question.
His win in Michigan meaningful, but Governor Romney’s fourth place finish in South Carolina didn’t help much. A win in Florida, however, could well turn the remainder of the campaign into a two-man battle against Senator McCain. Pitted one-on-one, the Governor’s massive war chest and strong organization will be most potent. And his conservative positions, although relatively recent, may do well against the more maverick policies of the Arizona Senator.
A loss here, however, sucks a lot of wind out of the Romney campaign. Anything less than second place marks his candidacy as erratic, unable to consistently pull from any constituencies long enough to seize a winner’s momentum. Of course, with his money and resources, even a poor showing in Florida won’t drive him out of the race. He’ll remain a factor until the convention or someone earns more than half the delegates needed to win.
New Hampshire and South Carolina were sweet victories, personally and politically. A win in Florida would establish Senator McCain as the clear front-runner heading into the February 5th, especially since it would be a victory “untainted” by independent voters — proof he’s appealing to party stalwarts. The result should be the money and momentum he needs to succeed come Super Tuesday.
A loss, however, would muddle the picture sufficiently to put the Senator back into the pack. If he comes close, even if he finishes third, Senator McCain will remain a top tier candidate. Raising sufficient funds to stay there, however, will become much more challenging.
Clearly, the Florida GOP primary will be critical in determining the party’s eventual nominee. The winner will receive a significant boost. The chances of those candidates finishing third or lower will be greatly diminished. However, with hundreds of delegates up for grabs one week later no candidate is likely to drop from the campaign. The chance of stumbling forwarding and harvesting a few more delegates to the convention will be too strong.
Continuing beyond February 6th? For some of these candidates, that wil be a wholly different matter.