- The combination of Sen. Barack Obama‘s (Ill.) unexpected landslide in South Carolina and Sen. Teddy Kennedy‘s (Mass.) dramatic endorsement mean real trouble for Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.). This is not what she expected on a smooth run to the nomination. Her name ID may be enough in Super Tuesday states, but she can no longer be so certain.
- Sen. John McCain‘s (Ariz.) successive wins in South Carolina and Florida mean he clearly is the front-runner in a two-man race with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Everything is in his favor in the high population states, and he could come close to wrapping up the nomination because of winner-take-all Republican rules. Time is growing short for the right wing of the GOP to stop McCain or even wrest concessions from him.
- Republican political leaders are split over whether they would rather run against Clinton or Obama, but the big majority of them see Clinton as a more beatable foe. There is no difference of opinion among Democratic political leaders. They see McCain as the most difficult Republican to defeat.
- Progress in fighting earmarks is more apparent than real. The half-measure approved by the House Republican retreat requires the Democrats to act and is far short of a self-imposed moratorium. President Bush’s proposed earmark reforms are more complicated than effective.
State of the Union: In his final and least significant State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush did relatively little in the way of laying out an agenda.
- On the domestic front, Bush picked two fights: his “growth package” and making permanent the 2001 tax cuts. The growth, or stimulus, measure he negotiated with House leaders is hardly a conservative measure. But senators, who were left out of the negotiation, likely will append more Keynesian and big-government add-ons. An unpopular lame duck’s tough talk on this issue is not terribly intimidating to senators of either party. (The House passed the package on Tuesday, and the Senate moved its vote up to later this week, after realizing that next week is Super Tuesday. The quicker vote aids Bush.)
- Bush’s other fiscal issue was earmarks, where he again had tough words not backed by much. He announced his executive order to block any earmarks slipped into the conference reports that were not in the final bill. This does not impose any meaningful restrictions on pork-barrel spending, does not worry congressional spenders, and does not satisfy fiscal conservative activists.
- Partisan divides shone through on issues of healthcare and embryo research. Democrats refused to applaud for the ideas of keeping healthcare out of government hands or for biomedical research that does not destroy human embryos. In 2004 and 2006, Democrats considered embryonic stem-cell research a winning wedge issue for them, and the party’s presidential candidates are united on increasing federal control over the healthcare sector.
- On two issues, the parties appeared to be closer than in the past: Social Security reform and global warming. Whereas in 2004 Democrats loudly booed the President for suggesting Social Security might be in danger, many Democrats, led by Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), agree on the problem and the need for some sort of change. Bush’s comments on “global climate change” showed that he thinks the Republican Party should surrender on the issue and move towards federal curbs on greenhouse gases or at least heightened subsidies for low-greenhouse gas energy sources.
- While proposing a handful of new spending initiatives, this was probably Bush’s least expensive State of the Union.
- On the foreign front, Bush used this as an opportunity to paint a rosy picture of the situation in Iraq. Because of the decreased bloodshed and political advances since the beginning of the surge, the war has disappeared from the front pages of the newspapers. The State of the Union — to the extent people actually watched it — allowed Bush to lay out the significant advances there over recent months. His talk on Iraq was almost unequivocally positive. Bush holds out hope that Iraq will be a bright point, and not a stain, on his legacy.
- The talk of troop withdrawal was new for Bush, and, although, couched in refusal to draw down troops faster, reflected the desire the American people have to end this war quickly.
- The Wilsonian language of spreading Democracy in order to make a safer world was prolific, but not as strident as it has been in years past. His tough talk on Iran was shy of the “axis of evil” talk from 2002.
Overview: Sen. Hillary Clinton (N.Y.) is still the front runner, heading into Super Tuesday, but the race could certainly swing in Sen. Barack Obama‘s (Ill.) direction.
- The endorsement of Obama by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Caroline Kennedy, and just about the whole Kennedy clan was not just the best political theater seen in Washington in some time. It was a dagger through the heart of the Clintons that they tried hard to prevent. The sense of entitlement and inevitability for Sen. Clinton continues to decline.
- If the Clinton strategy of elevating race as an issue (see South Carolina section below) works for her in other states, she could win handily on Super Tuesday February 5 and put herself in a commanding position for the nomination. The recent bad press for her campaign and the flood of endorsements for Obama gives him momentum coming out of his South Carolina victory.
- Because the Super Tuesday primaries for the Democrats all award delegates proportionally, it will be impossible for either candidate to come even close to clinching the nomination mathematically. A big sweep for Clinton, however, would resurrect the idea of her inevitability and could all but end the race.
- Former Sen. John Edwards‘s (N.C.) withdrawal will probably help Obama, but the full effect is not clear. Because of the complexities of delegate allocation (many states award delegates by congressional district, and all states, at the district and statewide level, have a 15% viability threshold), Edwards’ continued presence likely would have hurt Obama wherever Edwards was not viable. Not all of his supporters will go to Obama, but on net, the withdrawal helps the Illinois senator.
- Clinton handily won the Florida primary, which was technically boycotted by the Democrats for violating party rules. Hillary, however, had some fundraising stops in the state and says she’ll fight for Florida’s delegates to count.
- Looking ahead to Super Tuesday, the Democratic race is difficult to read. Most of the 22 states do not have reliable polls conducted in the past week, and the shifting landscape following Obama’s South Carolina win and his flood of endorsements could move things in either direction. In general, though, Clinton was leading in most states. She is the favorite to win the nomination, though the battle is far from over.
South Carolina: Obama’s huge win kept the contest alive but also may have advanced the Clinton race-based strategy.
- A Clinton victory or even a close contest would have basically ended the nomination battle by confirming the pattern of New Hampshire and Nevada, where she overcame deficits in the polls and distinct disadvantages to win. Now Obama and Clinton each have two victories.
- The role of former President Bill Clinton, combined with Hillary’s abandonment of the state, made it look like they were throwing the primary in South Carolina. The Clintons focused on race in a state where such focus could not help, and Bill never stopped talking about race. Cloaked as a campaign to win the black vote, it was, in truth, an effort to paint Obama as “the black candidate.” Bill Clinton made this explicit the day after the primary when he painted Obama’s win in the same light as Jesse Jackson‘s South Carolina caucus victories in 1984 and 1988.
- On the merits, Jackson and Obama could hardly be more different. Where Jackson relied on racial differences and resentments for his support, Obama has run the opposite sort of campaign. Indeed, nearly every mention of race in this primary contest has come from Bill or Hillary Clinton. They succeeded to some extent, as the exit polls showed Obama pulling 79% of the black vote and 24% of the white vote (though the latter was better than the 10 percent reflected in polls).
- Edwards’ third-place finish in his native state confirmed that this is a two-way race, as it has been since at least New Hampshire. His withdrawal today was probably overdue.
Florida: Sen. John McCain‘s (Ariz.) win in the winner-take-all primary solidifies his position as the GOP favorite.
- Spending a fraction of what former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney spent, McCain outperformed the polls and won Florida’s 57 delegates. This shows he has broad popularity in the GOP and that moderate voters are a significant bloc.
- Romney was gaining on McCain last week, helped along by a fierce barrage from conservative talk radio. McCain rallied, partly thanks to endorsements from two key Florida Republicans: Sen. Mel Martinez (who solidified the important Cuban vote) and the popular Gov. Charlie Crist. Martinez was infuriated by what he called Romney’s demagoguery on the immigration issue. Crist’s final decision was influenced by former Gov. Jeb Bush‘s unofficial backing for Romney.
- Once again, exit polls suggest that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney split the bulk of the conservative vote. McCain picked up some of the conservative vote and most of the moderate-to-liberal vote.
- Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani ended his race here with a distant third-place finish. Across the country, once voters got to know him and the other candidates, they didn’t like Giuliani.
- Giuliani’s weakness was McCain’s windfall. Where Romney competed with a spirited Huckabee for the conservative vote, McCain was competing with a lackluster Giuliani for the moderate vote.
- Romney’s second-place finish here highlights his shortcomings. He is not nearly as appealing personally as either Huckabee or McCain, and his conservative credentials are not strong enough to carry him on ideological grounds.
- Exit polls and county results suggest that Huckabee again was unable to reach outside his evangelical base. While his voters are ideologically closer to Romney’s voters, it’s unclear if many of them would support Romney.
Overview: McCain does not have the nomination wrapped up yet, but it is undoubtedly his to lose.
- Giuliani’s withdrawal leaves Super Tuesday looking very promising to McCain, even aside from Giuliani’s endorsement of McCain. Giuliani’s presumably strongest states — New York, California, and New Jersey — all likely will shift to McCain now.
- Romney simply has not shown a broad appeal. His three wins have been in his native state and two basically uncontested caucuses. He tends to finish second quite a bit, but now that the field is basically narrowed down to two men, that’s not worth much.
- Romney’s ability to mount a comeback based on anti-McCain sentiment is crippled by the short timeframe. If Super Tuesday were in a month, conservatives might have time to rally behind Romney.
- Huckabee does not have a realistic chance of winning the nomination. He can take votes away from Romney (though this is an open question) and collect delegates, while also bolstering his case to be a running mate.
- McCain cannot coast to a victory, but barring a major misstep, he should be the nominee.
Super Tuesday: On the Republican side, reading Super Tuesday is a bit easier than on the Democratic side. One startling, but possible outcome: Romney could be in third, behind McCain and Huckabee, in the delegate count after next Tuesday.
- Twenty-one states will hold Republican contests next Tuesday, with 1,033 delegates at stake. To win the nomination, a candidate needs 1,191 delegates, meaning it is impossible for a candidate to clinch the nomination next week.
- Seven states have winner-take-all primaries, and McCain is likely to win some of the biggest — New York, New Jersey, and Arizona — as well as Connecticut. Romney should win Utah. The others — Missouri and Delaware — are unclear, but Romney is not likely to carry Missouri. From those seven states, Romney’s best-case scenario is winning two, while Huckabee carries Missouri. This would give McCain 230 delegates from four states, Romney 54 delegates from two states, and Huckabee 58 delegates from one state.
- The other 14 states all allocate their delegates through some combination of proportionality and congressional districts, except for Illinois and Colorado, where all the delegates are unpledged and the February 5 contest is more or less a “beauty contest.”
- The proportional or district-by-district states are largely in the South — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. While McCain and Huckabee battle over these states, Romney likely will run third across the South, further extending McCain’s lead.
- Romney’s best hope is to win a bunch of congressional districts in California, where each is worth 3 delegates. He also will do well in Massachusetts, but McCain will also win delegates there.
- It is very possible that Huckabee will pick up more delegates on Super Tuesday than will Romney. If Romney is in third place in delegates on February 6, that could end his bid.
- In short, Super Tuesday looks to be a McCain blowout, putting him on the threshold of the nomination.