Sunday, January 20, 2008

Nevada, South Carolina, and caveats for all

It's morning in America, after another long night of political news. Clarity remains an elusive commodity. Welcome to the Yes, But presidential race:

Yes, Hillary Clinton scored a popular vote victory yesterday in the Nevada Democratic caucuses (which was really no surprise, since she had topped the Nevada polls for many months), but due to the vagaries of the state party's caucus rules, she actually split the delegates with Barack Obama, each winning about half - which should remind us that these primaries are ultimately about the competition for delegates, a fact that will become even clearer if this race turns into a protracted war of attrition. It's worth noting that the Democrats generally award delegates in acordance with the proportion of primary votes that candidates receive - which means that the losers can still win delegates and thus have a strong incentive to stay in the race.

Yes, Hillary clobbered Obama among Hispanics - a burgeoning constituency that will be crucial to national Democratic hopes in the fall - but next Saturday she will have to compete with Obama in South Carolina for African-American voters. And as I wrote today in a Sunday print column, the Clintons have been steadily losing black support to Obama in South Carolina and nationwide. Unless Bill and Hillary can reverse the trend, Obama will stay competitive in a number of primaries (on Feb. 5 and Feb. 12) where traditionally blacks vote heavily.

Yes, Obama escaped Nevada with a virtual split on the delegate count, and heads to friendlier turf in South Carolina, where a victory would send him into the Feb. 5 contests with a 2-2 record. But in the wake of his popular vote losses in New Hampshire and Nevada, he absolutely needs that South Carolina victory, or else he'll risk being perceived as a potential one-hit wonder (Iowa). Indeed, his crossover appeal to white voters (again, Iowa) is already at risk, since Hillary won white voters in New Hampshire, by three points, and won them in Nevada by 18 points. He needs white voters in order to buttress his autumn electability argument, but the irony is that he'll be mainly relying on black voters to carry him to victory in South Carolina.

On the Republican side:

Yes, John McCain posted a win last night in the South Carolina GOP contest (finally expunging the ghosts of 2000, when George W. Bush's minions successfully slimed him behind the scenes), thus strengthening his candidacy for the next big contest, in Florida one week from tomorrow. But it was a narrow win (three points), made possible only with the strong support of participating independent voters; according to the exit polls, independents favored McCain over runner-up Mike Huckabee by 17 points. Among voters who identified themselves as Republicans, Huckabee defeated McCain by one point. In other words, McCain still has yet to demonstrate that he can command the strong allegience of the party base. And, lest we forget, some of the marquee GOP primaries on Feb. 5 - in New York, New Jersey, and California - are open only to registered Republicans. The McCain-friendly independent voters need not apply.

Yes, Huckabee ran a strong second last night, and can likely stay in the race indefinitely, living off the land (as he will again this week, in Florida), garnering free media coverage, and tapping volunteer help from his evangelical supporters and home-schoolers. Indeed, among evangelical voters in South Carolina, he defeated McCain by 16 points. But Huckabee has yet to demonstrate that he can break out of his base and appeal to the rest of the GOP electorate - particularly those voters who are less then charmed by his incessant invocations of God. In the exit polls last night, he lost the non-evangelical voters to McCain, by 54 points. He seems fated to continue onward as basically a niche candidate, diverting evangelical votes from those rivals (Mitt Romney, for instance) who are trying to rebuild the traditional GOP conservative coalition.

Speaking of Romney, yes, he can also stay in this race indefinitely, simply by writing himself a personal check ($17 million thus far), and by making himself the default choice of the restive Republican establishment. He also garnered the most GOOP delegates thus far. And yes, maybe he can cite yesterday's meaningless Nevada GOP caucuses victory as a reminder that he lives and breathes, but one of these days he's going to have to win a primary that features direct competition from all his rivals. In that sense, the Nevada and Wyoming caucuses don't qualify. Nor does his home-boy win in Michigan. Florida would qualify, assuming that Mitt can get past McCain and Huckabee and Fred Thompson (assuming Fred, having finished a distant third in South Carolina, doesn't drop out and endorse his pal McCain)...and the guy lying in wait, Rudy Giuliani.

And yes, it would appear that Giuliani (having skipped every contest thus far) might be well positioned to smother McCain's presumed South Carolina bounce, score a big Florida victory, and thus catapult himself to the top of the slippery pole. After all, he's been working the Floridians (especially the ex-New Yorkers) for weeks now. But his strategy assumes the Floridians live in a bubble and pay no attention to what McCain and the rest of the gang have been doing up north. And the fact is, Rudy has been steadily slipping in the Florida polls as his rivals have been posting victories elsewhere. Now the state surveys show a virtual four-way tie. If Rudy loses to McCain in Florida, and especially if he loses to Romney, it's hard to see how Rudy can remain viable, no matter how often he runs TV ads (such as his latest) showing him covered with heroic 9/11 dust.

One last point: Republican grassroots enthusiasm continues to flag. The turnout last night in South Carolina (with 97 percent of the precincts reporting) was 430,919. By contrast, the turnout for the same primary eight years ago (Bush vs. McCain) was 565,991. That translates into a 24 percent drop in attendance. We all know the reasons.

By the way, Inauguration Day is exactly one year away.