NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Don't worry, Gingrich supporters -- despite the falling poll numbersin Iowa over the last week, your guy remains most likely to win theRepublican nomination. Let me explain why and how.
First of all, let's stipulate that this race isn't about the issuesanymore. Newt Gingrich's positions are mostly similar to Mitt Romney'spositions, both of whom are to the left of most of the othercandidates, such as Perry and Bachmann in particular.
A few days before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, people have come topeace with the candidates' ideological positions, and it's all aboutelectability and willingness of primary voters to cast the ballot.The conventional wisdom is of course that Romney is the most"electable" candidate, and that is probably true in some sense. Butonly in some. Romney clearly has many fine merits, including years ofbeing vetted, having a distinguished business background, afirst-class family, and he is a generally very smart and polished man.
So why am I still so convinced Romney isn't going to get theRepublican nomination?
Do the Math
It's simple, really. At this stage of the game, Romney's problem isthe same mathematics that he faced already a year ago -- or for thatmatter four years ago.
Romney just can't seem to break 25% in the national Republican polls.The composition of the other 75% has shifted around enough times tomake our heads spin, with many candidates hitting 20% to 35% somewherealong the way, however briefly: Donald Trump, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Gingrichand Ron Paul.
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Short of Rick Santorum and Jon Huntsman making the round to the top of the polls, we are now at the end of the rope. All the other candidateshave taken their turn. The voters have seen them all. And yet,Romney doesn't break 25% on a national level. Obviously, he gets ahigher percentage in his semi-home state of New Hampshire, but that'sto be expected no matter.
Romney's luck at this stage is that the 75% opposition remains sofragmented that he looks like a winner at 25%. The conventionalwisdom now is simply that "success will breed success." Let's sayRomney wins Iowa, and obviously also wins New Hampshire. Romney thenmoves on to win all the other contests. Done deal, right?
Not at all.
Romney actually has a lot more in common with Ron Paul from a pollingperspective, than he has with most of the other candidates. Both Pauland Romney have a solid base of enthusiastic support -- Paul around10% and Romney around 20%. But both candidates also have a ceiling --Paul perhaps at 15% to 20% and Romney perhaps at 25% to 30%. In afragmented race, that makes these two candidates look very strong,because their relatively tight ranges put them at or very near thelead.
However, just like Paul is essentially un-electable by a majority ofRepublicans when given the choice, so may also be the case withRomney. In survey after survey, an alarmingly large percentage ofRepublicans just will not consider Romney when given the choice. In2008, not only McCain but also Huckabee finished ahead of Romney. ARepublican candidate unable to beat either McCain or Huckabee --despite spending more money -- cannot be a strong candidate.
Basically, when the music stops, if Romney can't attract more than 30%or so of Republicans, one non-Romney candidate will occupy more than50% of the chairs. Carve 10% for Paul in the middle, plus few spoilerpercentages for someone who hasn't yet realized who is still in therace.
So how will the race shape up?
Let's say either Romney or Paul wins Iowa. It doesn't matter if Paulwins, because he has zero chance of winning the nomination. ManyRepublicans are very sympathetic to many of Paul's views, especiallyabout the government budget and regulations, but almost nobody agreeswith him on how we should treat Iran and some similar situations.Sadly, after the experience with 72-year-old McCain, the Republicanshave a high hurdle against the notion of nominating 76-year-old Paul.
Ron Paul was born in 1935, just like Elvis Presley. And Mr. Paul,you're no Elvis Presley.
With Romney or Paul having won Iowa, and Romney easily sailing awaywith New Hampshire, South Carolina is next. By then, only one or twocandidates -- such as Huntsman -- may have dropped out. Some of theconservative candidates, such as Perry, but perhaps also Bachmann andSantorum, may still be in the race come South Carolina. It's theirlast stand, with the possible exception of Perry.
South Carolina is likely to be a tight race between Gingrich andRomney. Some of the anti-Romney vote will go to Perry. It's a 50/50whether Gingrich or Romney wins South Carolina. But after SouthCarolina, there will only be three or four candidates left: Romney,Gingrich, Paul and perhaps Perry. The next stand comes in Florida, onJan. 31.
In Florida, Gingrich is in the lead already, close to 40%. Romney hasa ceiling near 30%. Paul is unlikely to draw more than 10% to 15% topsin Florida. With all the other candidates out of the race, with thepossible exception of Perry, Gingrich is likely to take very close to50% of the vote, and immediately put him in the lead in terms of thedelegate count, which is the only count that counts.
After Florida, there will only be three candidates left: Romney,Gingrich and Paul. Gingrich gets close to 60% in most of theremaining states. Case closed.
The key to realizing who will win and who will lose the nomination isthat once you conclude that Romney has a ceiling of probably somewherenear 30% of the Republican vote, it's just a matter for the rest ofthe field to whittle down to the candidate who is most acceptable inmost of the states. And that clearly is Gingrich, who has anestablished national track record.
Where could my thesis be wrong? There are two possibilities:
Gingrich says or does something that was previously unknown or is so outrageous that he disqualifies himself. Everything is possible,of course, but Gingrich is already well-known for the things he saysand how he says them. Remember his "gaffe" a month or two agoregarding "abolishing child labor laws?" The left immediately jumpedon this and thought it would be end of his campaign. Instead, itincreased his support. Only inside the Washington, DC establishmentecho-chamber did such a common-sense remark seem like an obviousnegative.
Perry or Bachmann cling on beyond South Carolina and Florida,splitting the non-Romney vote. The conventional wisdom is thatcandidates such as Perry, Bachmann and for that matter Santorum haveto exit the race unless they're in the top two, Paul excluded ofcourse, by the time South Carolina or even New Hampshire are over.Perhaps the dynamics of the race, financing, etc., cause them to raiseenough money or lower expenses sufficiently to keep on fighting. Atthat point, the non-Romney (and non-Paul) vote can continue to splitfortuitously for Romney, enabling him to win the nation-wide delegatecount with only 30% or so.
Especially with this second scenario, we could end up with the race beingdecided at the Republican convention in Summer. Historically, thishas been a rarity. Relatively early in the race, all but the top twocandidates depart the race by February, once it has become obviousthat they will not win. This time around, everyone expects Paul tostay around until the bitter end, and he will get 10% of theRepublican vote no matter what. The other candidates will be finewith that and largely ignore Paul, only caring about eventuallygetting the votes from the Ron Paul portion of the electorate inNovember.
In conclusion, what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire will matter verylittle, other than to Huntsman who will drop out of the race unless hefinishes a close third or better in New Hampshire. All that matters isthat when the bulk of the non-Romney candidates consolidate down toone person (again, plus Ron Paul, who will remain in his own littlebubble), this candidate looks to gather many more votes than Romney.
And the only one such candidate who can consolidate the Republicanvote will be Gingrich. If he just stays in the race and doesn't makeany mistakes, he is therefore likely to win. It is the inevitabledynamic after New Hampshire is over.
Anton Wahlman was a sell-side equity research analyst covering the communications technology industries from 1996 to 2008: UBS 1996-2002, Needham & Company 2002-2006, and ThinkEquity 2006-2008.