The Fallout from the Florida GOP Primary

by on January 31st, 2008

How did the Florida Republican primary change the race for the nomination? Let’s assess the fallout from that crucial contest conducted two days ago.

John McCain got the big win in Florida that he so desperately needed. McCain is now the clear frontrunner and is in a commanding position to secure the nomination. The race is now McCain’s to lose. In the vernacular of his campaign, he might well be “unstoppable” at this point. However, he will have to wait until next week to see if he can become the presumptive nominee. The litmus test will be whether or not he can get more than half the delegates that are up for grabs on Super Tuesday. More than likely, McCain will reach this plateau. However, anything less would leave the outcome of the nomination race still very much in doubt.

He probably doesn’t have much money left on hand, but should now be able to raise a lot more. However, with less than one week until Super Tuesday, he’ll have to act quickly for it to be of any help to him in all those simultaneous primaries and caucuses. And although he finally broke through in Florida by winning a primary in which only Republicans were voting, he still has yet to win a majority, or even a plurality, of those describing themselves as conservative. Despite these problems, though, McCain will have some major built-in advantages over his rivals on Super Tuesday, which will likely result in his acquisition of the lion’s share of the delegates.

First, his name recognition and current momentum will likely overcome any disadvantages he might have when it comes to money. Second, all four of the states he’s most likely to win that day (Arizona, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut) are winner-take-all, while those states his opponents are most likely to win (Massachusetts, Utah, and Colorado for Mitt Romney; Arkansas, Georgia, and Tennessee for Mike Huckabee) are mostly proportional. That means he will get all the delegates in the states he’s most likely to win, while getting a portion of the delegates in most of the states he’s most likely to lose. Third, places like California, Illinois, Missouri, and Minnesota will be the major battleground states on Super Tuesday and he is currently leading in all of them.

For Mitt Romney, it was a disappointing loss, but he still has plenty of his own money at his disposal in order to fight on and compete on Super Tuesday, if he so chooses. As was the case in Iowa and New Hampshire, he expended far more resources than his opponents, only to finish in second place. A win in Florida would not have guaranteed him the nomination nor would it have even made him the clear frontrunner, but it would have transformed the GOP nomination race into a whole new ball game and all bets would have been off. Romney would have had an advantage in that wide open game because his superior finances.

As it was, he did manage to win a plurality of the conservative vote in Florida and can continue to market himself as the only viable conservative alternative to McCain (although I’m sure Mike Huckabee would have something to say about that). Romney is fully capable of going into delegate acquisition mode — campaigning and running ads in every state holding a contest that day except for the winner-take-all states that he feels he cannot win. The question remains though: How much of his money is he willing to spend?

Mike Huckabee will stay around to see how many delegates he can gain by winning or performing well in the following Super Tuesday states: Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Minnesota, North Dakota, West Virginia, and Alaska. Since the California primary is mainly just a series of smaller primaries by congressional district, he will also compete in selected areas of that state, especially those that are more socially conservative. I believe his magic number is five, i.e., if could win as many as five states on Super Tuesday, I believe he would be back in the game as the third viable Republican challenger. Three or four wins would allow him to stay in and continue to collect delegates just in case there is a brokered convention. Less than three wins would probably knock him out of the race.

I’m getting so tired of hearing members of the mainstream media speculate that Huckabee is staying in the race just to siphon votes from Romney and play some kind of “tag-team wresting” game with McCain. This is completely untrue. Huckabee believes he can still be the nominee and, looking at the delegate math, it is still quite possible, although not probable. And besides, a majority of Huckabee voters in Florida indicated that they would have voted for McCain, not Romney, had Huckabee not been in the race. This would seem to refute the conventional wisdom of the media (which we all know is always proven accurate).

Rudy Giuliani, who staked his entire campaign on Florida and came in a distant third, has now dropped out. As many had previously suspected (this writer included), Giuliani’s strategy of waiting until the Florida primary to go all out ultimately backfired on him. The clear frontrunner and heavy favorite throughout much of 2007, Giuliani lost too much momentum by sitting out the earlier states and could never recover it. Of course, once could reasonably argue that his loss of momentum actually began before he decided to sit those states out, hence his decision. That decision just exacerbated his problem instead of correcting it.

The mainstream media pundits are making a big deal about his endorsement of McCain, but I think McCain would be better off had Giuliani just stayed on the sidelines. Giuliani didn’t get many votes (and won only one delegate) in the primaries and caucuses, so he doesn’t bring much to the table there. In addition, every time GOP voters (especially those of the southern conservative persuasion) see Giuliani and McCain together, they are going to be reminded that McCain is more of a centrist on many of the issues that are important to them.

Ron Paul brought up the rear in Florida, but his expectations weren’t very high there. He will now use the multiple primary and caucus format of Super Tuesday as an opportunity to cherry-pick delegates from the smaller states. Under such a format, the major candidates cannot give their full attention to every state, so they will likely pay little attention to states like Maine (which actually holds its caucuses during the weekend before Super Tuesday), Alaska, Delaware, North Dakota, and Montana, which are not as delegate-rich as many of the other states that are up for grabs. That’s where Ron Paul comes in. He could devote all of his time and money to these states and end up with a large share of their delegates. He will then hope for a brokered convention in September, at which time he might be able to wield some influence in picking the eventual nominee.

Terry Mitchell