January 21, 2008

TIME: A Split Decision on Super Tuesday?

Check out this article from TIME magazine about Super Tuesday:

For as long as anyone can remember, Republicans have wired their presidential primary process in order to produce strong and unstoppable frontrunners at a very early stage in the election calendar. But this year, all that intricate circuitry is going haywire.

Already, of course, the GOP race has given new meaning to the term "up for grabs." After holding primaries and caucuses in six states, no clear frontrunner has emerged. Mitt Romney has won three; John McCain has won two; Mike Huckabee has won one. If Rudy Giuliani, who has banked his entire campaign on a late entry in Florida, somehow prevails next week, Round 7 will only add to the confusion.

And then, at long last, comes the moment in the GOP race - Super Tuesday, or Tsunami Tuesday, as it has been christened this year — which is supposed to winnow the field and bring some clarity.

But what if it doesn't? What if, as is suddenly becoming clear, the rules which were designed to produce a sturdy frontrunner could conspire to produce the opposite?

On February 5, primaries and caucuses in 21 states will award more than 1,000 delegates to the Republican National Convention — almost half of the amount needed to secure the nomination.

But a four man field, in which each candidate has roughly the same momentum and factional strength (if not the same war chest), raises the distinct possibility that several candidates will split those delegates, postponing further the emergence of a frontrunner. And that means the GOP race could go on much longer than anyone imagined. It might even result in no candidate getting a majority of delegates when the primaries are over, a prospect that Republicans are starting to take very seriously.

Consider the 21 GOP primaries and caucuses approaching fast on February 5. Of the group, 11 of the states are winner-take-all contests, meaning, in general, that whoever gets the most of votes in any given state gets all of that state's delegates. February 5 isn't just an effective national primary; it is supposed to work like a booster rocket to the nomination. Win big on February 5 and you never have to look back.

But that booster effect tends to work best when there are only one or two candidates in the race for the nomination. If three or four candidates are still in the fray on February 5, the arrangement could have the effect of further splintering the race rather than consolidating support for a winner.

The likelihood of a split decision is enhanced by several other factors:

First, so many big and expensive states are in play on February 5 that no single Republican contender has the cash to compete in them all. Which means every Republican is likely to concentrate his time and money on their five or six most favorable targets.

Second, regional identities could hasten the divide-and-conquer approach. Under this scenario, each candidate plays — for reasons of time, money and simplicity — to his geographical strength. That has happened in the past in big, multi-candidate, multi-state primaries. Given the nature of the field - one candidate from New York, another from the Southwest; a third from the heartland and a fourth who's got both cultural links to the intermountain West and a record in New England - it could well happen again.

As polls stand now - admittedly a useless indicator - the candidates are poised to split the spoils on February 5, even if we assume everyone contends for the trove of GOP delegates at play in California, which is not a winner take all state.

There are already signs that Mike Huckabee has his eye on the heartland arc of Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama, Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee. If Huckabee won all of those (and they are almost all winner-take-all states), he would take home a surprisingly large 308 delegates. (This assumes Fred Thompson retires from the field between now and then, and Huckabee does poorly in California.)

Of course, things will surely turn out differently than the rough sketch above. And if this primary season has already taught us anything, it's that there's no way to predict how millions of voters will behave. "A big split probably won't happen," said a top delegate hunter for one of the GOP candidates. "Momentum has always kicked in before. But the possibility is there this time like it has never been there before."
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