Let’s do a little interpolation. It is widely said that Mitt Romney is stuck at 25% of the vote. That’s reflected in the national polls, which have shown him with an average of 24% since Thanksgiving (throughout I’ll be looking at only post-Thanksgiving polls). It’s underlined in the fact that he won 25% in the Iowa caucuses last night, identical to the 25% he won there in 2008.
But that doesn’t mean he runs the same in every state or region. In pre-Christmas December polls in Iowa he was averaging 19% and in post-Christmas polling there 23%--perhaps a significant uptick that enabled him to just barely stay ahead of Rick Santorum’s surge. The pre-Christmas numbers I think can reasonably be taken to reflect his relative weakness among evangelical voters, who turned out to form 58% of caucusgoer electorate according to the entrance poll. That’s a higher, indeed much higher, percentage of evangelicals than we will see in just about any Northern state primary this year.
In New Hampshire polling Romney has done much better: 36% pre-Christmas, 41% post-Christmas. Clearly his heavy campaigning and local ties are giving him better numbers here than in most other states. But interpolating from the Iowa and New Hampshire numbers, keeping in mind the special factors I have mentioned, it seems reasonable to suppose that Romney is running significantly ahead of his national average in the 36 Northern states (I classify as Southern the 11 Confederate states plus West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma).
In contrast, in South Carolina polling, all pre-Christmas, he averaged 21%. That’s below his national average even though he has put some significant campaign effort in there and has gotten the endorsement of Governor Nikki Haley. And in Florida polling, also all pre-Christmas, he has been averaging 26%, just slightly above his national average.
The South Carolina Republican primary electorate is culturally very Southern; the Florida Republican primary electorate very much less so. It includes many voters with Midwestern or Northeastern roots, while many voters in Dixified north Florida who are solid Republican voters in the general election are nonetheless still registered Democrats (party registration tends to lock parties into the politics of the past). Interpolating from the South Carolina and Florida numbers, I conclude that Romney runs significantly behind his national average in the 14 Southern states. This is now the nation’s most Republican region, but it does not constitute a majority of the Republican electorate.
If these interpolations are correct, it’s entirely possible that Romney can and will win considerably more than 25% of the vote in the large Northern states which start voting on February 28, with the primary in Michigan where Romney grew up and his late father is still fondly remembered by many Republicans. And many of those contests starting April 1 will allocate delegates by winner-take-all rules.
To get to the point of harvesting these delegates, Romney must navigate the next three contests. His New Hampshire state director, asked whether Romney’s supposed firewall is holding, says “We’re ready.” There will surely be some surge for Rick Santorum, but Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul will also be campaigning there, and Jon Huntsman who is staking everything on New Hampshire will split the vote further. Romney will likely win even if he loses one-quarter of the 41% who now say they’re for him. His prospects are dimmer in South Carolina. Rick Santorum has done a lot of personal campaigning there, and his surge and virtual tie in Iowa will surely propel him there however he does in New Hampshire.
But with Rick Perry declaring he’s going to fight there, Rick Newt Gingrich determined to do so in a state where he held a big pre-Christmas lead and Ron Paul having nothing to lose, opposition to Romney will again be divided. A Romney defeat by a disastrous margin does not appear to be a likely outcome. As for Florida, it’s a state of 19 million people where retail campaigning cannot have much impact. The Romney campaign is putting ads on the air now and says they’ll remain up until the January 31 primary. Current polling, as noted, shows Romney just slightly above his national average there. It’s not clear how big the Florida field will be, but it seems likely to include Santorum, Gingrich and Paul.
From then on, Romney will have to win more than 25% of the vote to prevail. But if my interpolations are correct, he seems capable of doing so.