The Kingmakers in the 2008 Presidential race at this juncture are Fred Thompson, Ron Paul, John Edwards, and Rudy Giuliani. None of the four candidates have a realistic chance of winning the Democratic party or Republican Party nominations at this point. But the timing of their decisions to drop out of these races (particuarly in the next few weeks) and in Ron Paul's case, his decision about whether or not he seeks a Libertarian Party nomination, could decisively impact the outcome of the overall Presidential race and the race for the nomination in each of the major parties.
The Democrats had their third primary that counts, in Nevada, over the weekend. Clinton did slightly better than Obama, while Edwards secured just 4% of the state delegates and Kucinich was trounced by uncommitted.
This leaves the score at Iowa Obama-Edwards-Clinton; New Hampshire Clinton-Obama-Edwards; and Nevada Clinton-Obama-Edwards. The only other Democrats still formally in the race of Kucinich and possibly Mike Gravel. Neither has a prayer of winning the nomination, and Kucinich himself, as a superdelegate, is his only spot on the delegate board. In Michigan which had a primary that didn't count where candidats didn't campaign and only Clinton and Kucinich of still in the race candidates were on the ballot, Clinton obviously won, but uncommitted received a healthy minority of the vote.
Next up for the Democrats is the South Carolina primary this Saturday. Polling of that contest shows Clinton and Obama neck and neck for the lead, while Edwards trails well back in third place despite the fact that he was born there. Super Tuesday state and national polling also show Edwards firmly in third place in the race, and unlikely in most cases to make the 15% threshold needed to earn delegates in each Congressional district and states.
Another Democratic primary that doesn't count in the Presidential race will be held in Florida on January 29. Its clouded status makes it a poor forum for Edwards to regain momentum going into the Super Tuesday contest on February 5.
Thus, the race for the Democratic nomination is likely to result in a win for either Clinton or Obama. It is still a horse race, and in South Carolina that race will be mostly about gaining momentum for Super Tuesday, particularly for Obama who is currently, ever so slightly, the underdog in the race.
The bulk of the Democratic delegates will be selected during a period with two dominant, reasonably equally matched candidates, and a proportional representation system with a threshold that eliminates neither lead candidate in any state, but disregards eliminated candidates, mitigates spoiler effects when it comes to obtaining a majority of the delegates. The balance would have to be very fine between Obama and Clinton for the rest of the primary and caucus process for there to be a brokered convention in Denver in August at this point.
A pre-Feb. 5 withdrawal by Edwards, should he be unsuccessful in South Carolina and perhaps also Florida, would probably help Obama, quite possibly enough to tip the balance in his favor by incresing the number of delegates awarded to Obama on Super Tuesday with supporters whose vote otherwise wouldn't count at all due to the effect of the 15% threshold. (This Daily Kos diary has data suggesting that 60-65% of Edwards voters would break for Obama, but that Edwards may help, or at least not hurt, Obama by staying in Southern states with a strong racial divide in voting patterns and large black populations). But Edwards hasn't telegraphed in any way an intent to do so in advance of these last firewalls for his campaign, and Markos has indicated that Daily Kos polling suggest that more Edwards supporters than expected might favor Clinton as a second choice.
Romney secured majority support in Nevada, in large part on the strength of the Mormon vote, followed by Ron Paul with about 14%, McCain with about 13%, Thompson and Huckabee (not necessarily in that order, I don't recall) at about 8%, and Giuliani with a rocking 2% of the vote. McCain's finish deep in third place was a bit embarassing, considering that he hails from neighboring Arizona, even if he didn't campaign too hard there.
In South Carolina, McCain edged out Huckabee 33-30 on the strength of the veteran's vote. Romney and Thompson each got about 12% give or take a point, I don't recall in what order. Giulani got 2%.
The outcome of the earlier Republican races are: Iowa Huckabee-Romney-Thompson-McCain . . . Giuliani; Wyoming Romney (dominant); New Hampshire McCain-Romney-Huckabee-Giuliani; Michigan Romney-McCain . . . . Giuliani.
Polling shows Giuliani in second place far behind McCain in his home state of New York. In Florida, McCain leads Giuliani who leads Huckabee and Romney, but all four men are in a statistical dead heat.
Analysis of these facts, confirmed by the delegate count to date in the Republican race so far, shows McCain, Rommney and Huckabee in a tight contest for the nomination with no close runners up.
Giuliani seems very likely to wash out and is probably losing momentum in Florida in the wake of his poor showings in Nevada and South Carolina as I write. I suspect that Giuliani will withdraw from the race after a disappointing showing in Florida. A pre-Florida withdrawal would help Romney significantly, but seems unlikely. A post-Florida Giuliani withdrawl would help Romney in the Mid-Atlantic states.
Thompson had stated that he would make his stand in South Carolina. His failure to make it into the top two in any race to date, and poor polling on the horizon in Florida could push him out of the race. The likely beneficiaries of a Thompson withdrawal would be Huckabee, first and foremost, and McCain to a lesser extent. A Thompson withdrawal now would likely vault Huckabee into a solid first place in Florida and give Huckabee momentum going into Super Tuesday, while a second or third place showing in Florida behind McCain, would deflate Huckabee's candidacy going into Super Tuesday and quite possibly finish him off on Super Tuesday where he already faces the problem that his popularity is decidedly regional.
So, if Huckabee stays strong, the GOP race will be decidedly a three way race even after Super Tuesday with a brokered convention in Minnesota a strong possibility for the Republicans. But, if Huckabee weakens in Florida, it will likely become a two way race between McCain and Romney with Romney serving as the "anti-McCain."
The General Election
Current polling shows neither Clinton nor Obama with a strong electability edge in head to head races against likely Republican nominees. Both would have tight races against John McCain, and trounce all other likely Republican nominees given current polling. Opinions, of course, can change, something that New Hampshire taught all who are too reliant upon polls.
Turnout was high in Nevada with about 110,000 Democrats to roughly 42,000 Republicans. Democrats also had very strong turnout compared to the Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire. This is despite the fact that the Republicans have more and more varied choices in their races, and in Iowa, at least, a less time consuming process to participate in. This suggests to me that Republicans are far less excited and mobilized to support their candidates than Democrats.
Democrats also have options to unify themselves at the national convention, such as having the winner name the runner up at VP that aren't nearly so viable for the Republicans. Clinton and Obama don't represent fundamentally different ideological wings of the party, although they do have nuanced of ideological differences. A Clinton-Obama or Obama-Clinton ticket could heal over sour wounds from the primary and caucus process.
In contrast, the Republican candidates represent isolation fragments of their coalition, and makes it hard for them to develop majority coalitions in the general electorate if nominated.
Huckabee's Christian conservatism makes him the darling of the evangelical wing of the party, while his populist stances on economics and granting pardons, and utter ignorance when it comes to foreign policy, makes him a candidate that many Republicans who have a hard time holding their noses to vote in favor of in the general election.
Many of the Republican Party's Evangelicals, in turn, aren't comfortable with a Mormon like Romney, and also don't trust the big money wing of the party that he represents, or his history of flip flopping on issues like abortion and gay rights. New England is not the cultural center of the Republican party.
McCain's willingness to break with his party on campaign finance reform and to buck the President on torture has alienated Republican party purists. McCain's ardent support for the Iraq war won't help him with independent voters once his stances get more attention in a general election fight -- this is the guy who wants to send more troops to Iraq and stay there for 100 years. McCain's support in the Rocky Mountain West, which should be strong, is very soft. And closed primaries in places like California, hurt McCain whose maverick stances and character have impressed independent voters more than partisan ones.
Also looming over the Republicans is the question of Ron Paul. Ron Paul has done decently as a second tier candidate for the Republican nomination but clearly isn't going to win that nomination. But, Paul could spurn Minnesota and come to Denver instead for the Libertarian Party Convention, which would surely nominate him for their ticket. As a fairly strong libertarian candidate, yet not moderate enough socially to win over many Democrats, Paul could easily become the GOP's Ralph Nader in 2008. In a year where even the strongest Republican possible nominee electorally, McCain, is running neck and neck with the possible Democratic nominees, the spoiler effect of a Paul campaign, even if it was modest enough, could tip the balance to the Democrats.