With the Iowa and New Hampshire contests out of the way, the race for the Republican nomination remains as unclear as it ever was. Senator John McCain now has the most obvious path to a clean-cut momentum victory, but this race could instead become a delegate hunt that drags on for another month without resolution.
‐Even a win in Michigan next Tuesday cannot guarantee McCain anything further. He will probably do poorly in Nevada next Saturday and South Carolina will at least be a challenge.
‐Although it appears unlikely, no one can yet rule out a Florida resurrection by Rudy Giuliani.
‐Mike Huckabee could win Michigan and South Carolina, and then dominate the South on February 5, but is likely to lose badly throughout the West and the Northeast.
‐Mitt Romney could still win in Nevada next Saturday — a state with more delegates than either Michigan or South Carolina. He could keep it close or even stay ahead in the delegate count with a “second-place-everywhere-until-Super-Tuesday” strategy, since most of the early states award delegates proportionally or by congressional district.
‐And while it seems doubtful, it’s conceivable that Fred Thompson could win South Carolina after his debate performance.
In other words, the race remains uncertain. So many unsatisfactory candidates, and so many that remain potentially viable even now. This, plus the geography of the upcoming primaries, could be a recipe for continued turbulence.
Let’s assume that only one of the four top candidates will drop out before Super Tuesday on February 5 — a plausible prospect. The poorer candidates (McCain and Huckabee) could keep winning, and the wealthy candidate (Romney) recognizes that the long-haul race will be less a momentum contest than a delegate hunt. The possibility of continued uncertainty in the race could prompt Romney to stick around for another month at least.
Then there is Giuliani. With his late-state strategy, he will probably not exit the race before February 5. We argued last month that, even under favorable conditions, Rudy would have a hard time getting 50 percent of the convention delegates. But even a short-lived revival for Rudy could create extra confusion on and after Super Tuesday.
As of today, the delegate count runs as follows, including the CNN estimate for Iowa and the Wyoming results:
Note that this count includes five ex-officio delegates from states that have not voted yet.
Here’s a look at what comes next:
January 15: Michigan Primary (30 delegates after penalty, awarded by congressional district)
Rudy’s free-fall in Michigan has created a three-way race there between McCain, Romney and Huckabee. Romney may fall off a bit after New Hampshire, but he will not disappear. If there is a close finish, then the winner and second-place finisher might end up with roughly the same number of delegates. Huckabee, Romney, and McCain are almost certain to walk away with a few delegates each.
Although a first-place finish will give some momentum to the winner, there is no reason for the losers to despair. Romney may still lead the delegate count by the time it’s over. Huckabee, McCain, and Romney have good prospects in the races that immediately follow.
January 19: Nevada Caucus (34 delegates)
Let’s say Romney finishes second in Michigan — or even a close third. He still has a chance to win here, and thanks to party sanctions on South Carolina — one of the five states stripped of half their delegates by the RNC for moving up their primaries — there are more delegates at stake.
The early caucuses will be an odd, first-time experience for Nevadans, and turnout will probably be low. Who can amass and organize supporters for something like that? There is no large Evangelical base in Nevada, as there is in Iowa. And many Nevadans loathe John McCain, an outspoken advocate of nuclear power and of the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste storage facility.
But the Mormons are here in force, and they can organize. Romney could come away with most of the delegates and claim that his victory keeps him relevant.
January 19: South Carolina Primary (24 delegates after penalty, awarded by district and statewide)
Right now, it looks like a McCain-Huckabee dogfight, although it could be the spot of Fred Thompson’s revival now that Romney is backing out. McCain leads in at least one poll, but this is natural Huckabee territory.
January 22: Louisiana Caucus (47 delegates, proportional/convention)
No one has paid much attention to this contest. Most of the candidates will already be campaigning for the bigger, winner-take-all prize of Florida. The Protestant piney-woods region is natural Huckabee territory. The Catholic Bayou will be less clear. Turnout will be very low at the state’s eleven (yes, only eleven!) caucus sites. Delegates will be split between more than one candidate. Louisiana isn’t going to break anyone, but it could give someone momentum for Florida.
January 29: Florida (57 delegates after penalty, winner-take-all)
This state will be pivotal, because Giuliani — who will probably have won zero delegates through voting by the time it takes place — is staking everything here. The state is among the five penalized with the loss of half its delegates, and in response the state party has changed its method for awarding them. All 57 will now go to the statewide winner. A Giuliani win prolongs the multi-candidate campaign. Only a dreadful third-place finish (or worse) would force him to exit, bringing a bit more clarity to the race.
February 5 — “Super Tuesday” (23 states, 1,226 delegates)
By February 4, only 258 of the 2,380 total delegates will have been awarded. Unless one of the candidates is winning everything by then, the broader contest will remain in doubt on the morning of February 5. In that case, it will probably still be in doubt when the returns come in.
Why? Because each state’s voters will act on Super Tuesday in ignorance of the broader national results. A victory in New York (101, winner-take-all) won’t generate any momentum for Rudy in Georgia (72, awarded to the statewide winner and by congressional district), where he’s likely to lose badly, probably to Huckabee (or even Thompson).
Does a Rudy victory in Florida translate to several other big victories on February 5? Not at all. We can spot him New York, New Jersey (52), and Connecticut (30), maybe even Delaware (18) perhaps — all winner-take-all states, giving him a floor of 201. Beyond that, Giuliani will need to make a huge move in several states where he probably trails right now. That would be difficult to do in less than a week.
In California (173 delegates, nearly all awarded by congressional district), polling from last month put Rudy between 25 and 28 percent. At that level, he would be very lucky to get 60 of the 173 delegates. If this more recent poll of dubious origin is to be believed, he might not even get 30 of them. Provided that all three are still in the race, Romney, Huckabee, and McCain will all have regions where they perform well. California will consist of 53 small races, not one large one. But McCain may get the upper hand.
Oklahoma (38) and Missouri (58) are winner-take-all. They will be competitive, with Huckabee in first and McCain in contention. Arizona (53) will go for McCain. Utah (36) goes to Romney no matter what.
Illinois (70) uses a slightly different system, but still awards most of its delegates by congressional district. It could prove to be fertile ground for McCain or Giuliani, but Huckabee could snap up a few delegates as well.
Arkansas (34), Alaska (29), Massachusetts (43), Tennessee (52), Texas (140), and Alabama (48) award most or all delegates proportionally, unless someone manages to get 50 percent — which is unlikely, unless two of the major candidates have dropped out by that point. These will probably be a wash. The North Dakota (26), Montana (25), Minnesota (41) and Colorado (46) caucuses are very complicated — like the Iowa system — and will split delegates. So will Maine (21), and Hawaii (20), which hold week-long caucuses. These 12 states will account for 525 delegates.
The fact is, anyone could produce an overwhelming February 5 surprise: Rudy, Huckabee, McCain, or — if he does well before then — Romney. Alternatively, there may be no big surprise, in which case political journalists’ dreams of an exciting brokered convention could become a reality.
After Super Tuesday, 1,484 of the 2,380 delegates will have been awarded.
What to make of all these numbers? Unless someone runs the table through February 5 — probably McCain, but possibly Huckabee — there will be a logjam on the Republican side after Super Tuesday.
If McCain and Huckabee trade a few victories in the coming weeks, Romney can remain viable. He can win congressional districts in Georgia, California, and Illinois, and then come in second in all or most of the proportional states that vote on February 5 — they count for 500 delegates overall. He could amass just under 300 delegates by February 6. Giuliani will likely have no fewer than 250, no matter how badly he does, and perhaps more. The remaining 800 or so delegates would be split between Huckabee and McCain.
At that point — with no clear leader or momentum — money becomes the main consideration. Romney has an endless supply of it. McCain and Huckabee, both short of cash as a rule so far, may find themselves in the lead with delegates, but begging for cash to clinch the nomination.
At that point, we’ll be hearing about the “crucial” winner-take-all primaries in Maryland (37 delegates), Virginia (63), and the District of Columbia (19) on February 12. The candidates could even go back to Iowa to influence delegates at the county conventions on March 15.
In short, the Republican race could very well start all over again on February 6.
— David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.