A Look Forward To The US Primaries

by Jackie_South on December 22, 2011

It’s been a while since we have had a look at next year’s US Presidential race.  So, as the first contest is now less than a fortnight away, let’s see how things are going.


Obama‘s polling still isn’t good, if on a slow upward trend at the moment, but no serious challengers are throwing their hat into the ring and he will have a smooth nomination process.  He only has three challengers registered on any state ballots, and of these one is a pro-life nutter and another is a performance artist who is fond of wearing a boot on his head.  The third candidate is a blogger who has never held any elected office.


The Republican race is far more interesting, with it still very uncertain how things will pan out.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Iowa caucus on Tuesday 3 January will be a lot more important than in previous Republican contests – I’ll explain why in a bit.  But first, a quick overview of the early states that will hold their primaries before Super Tuesday on 6 March.  These eleven states account for 345 of the total 2,286 delegates to their party’s August national convention.  A candidate will therefore need the support of 1,144 of these delegates to win.

The states in gold are holding primary elections: voters (usually registered Republicans, but sometimes there is a more open contest) go to vote for their preferred candidate at their usual polling station.  The Republican National Committee tried to stop states jumping the gun on their primaries, stating that no contests should happen before February, and that only those for the states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina could happen before 6 March.  All five states in gold are therefore being penalised half their delegates for breaking the rules.

Those states in purple are holding caucuses instead of these primary elections.  These are meetings held in venues such as school sports halls and community centres where supporters of the candidates will speak and try to entice the people who attend to back them.  These can take a long time, as there are quotas for candidates support to count and the numbers get tallied together across all these venues.  As the results are non-binding on pledged delegates, these states have not been penalised for going early.

2008 showed that caucuses and primary elections respond to different tactics: Obama’s campaign gained critical momentum from understanding the tactics needed to win caucuses whilst the Clinton campaign treated all the elections as if they were ballots.  The ground campaigns for the Republican candidates in Iowa and the other caucus states will therefore be crucial in deciding who gets ahead there.  Simplistically, money matters more in primary elections than caucuses, organisation more in caucuses than primary elections.


Below are a chart showing the polls for the support for the Republican candidates in Iowa this month (thanks to FiveThirtyEight for the data). 

As you can see, the picture is fairly confused as to who is really ahead.  Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul and potentially even Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry have a chance (I’ve excluded Herman Cain from all the graphs).

The story of the race so far seems to be which right-winger will be in pole position to challenge the more moderate Mitt Romney.  Although Iowa tends to vote Democrat in presidential elections (2004 was the only contest since 1988 when it did not) its Republicans tend to be very conservative.

As a result, if Romney wins here, he is put in a very strong position to become the Republican candidate. 

If Gingrich wins here, he becomes the right-wing champion to stop Romney winning.  However, as you can see, his polling has declined over the last month as the other candidates on the right have targeted him to prevent this happening.  This is Michelle Bachmann’s best chance of getting into the race, who may have been written off by pundits but did after all win the Ames straw poll in the state in August.  Similarly, a lucky win for gaffe-prone Perry reignites his chances.

But the leader in most polls at the moment is Ron Paul, a rightwing figure but a libertarian one.  Whereas the other rightwing candidates could use a victory in Iowa to help them in the contests in rightwing socially conservative states like South Carolina, Ron Paul is unlikely to have the same momentum.

As I write, FiveThirtyEight gives Romney and Paul an equal chance of winning Iowa. 

New Hampshire

New Hampshire, in contrast, looks a lot clearer.  Romney, hailing from next-door Massachusetts, has what looks like a comfortable lead.  This might change if he loses badly in Iowa, but if he wins there he has a great one-two with New Hampshire that will probably see him through.  FiveThirtyEight currently gives him a 74% chance of winning this contest.

Gingrich and Paul seem to be vieing for second place, with the (relatively) more liberal Jon Huntsman in fourth.

The downside for Romney comes in two parts.  The first is that delegate penalty: New Hampshire is only producing 12 of those 2,286 delegates thanks to the penalty it has taken for going in January.  It will send fewer delegates to the convention in Tampa than any other state as a result.  In pure electoral numbers, it is practically irrelevant even if the result there is an important part of the narrative. 

The second part is the reversal of an old truth.  When I first started taking an interest in US elections in the late eighties, it was said that no-one had won the presidency without first winning the New Hampshire primary.  However, the pattern now appears that the reverse is true: no president elected in the last two decades won the New Hampshire primary first.  As New England becomes less typical of the States, it appears that New Hampshire has become worse at picking winners.

Assuming Romney wins here but doesn’t win Iowa, the other two January primaries will be critical to how the Republican primaries pan out.

South Carolina

Newt Gingrich has a healthy in-built advantage here, coming from neighbouring Georgia and holding many of the socially conservative mores that chime well with the Palmetto State’s voters.  This of course could all change if he crashes and burns in Iowa and New Hampshire. 

Romney is a long way back, but in clear second place.  None of the others is polling over 10% at the moment.


Gingrich’s Georgia also borders Florida, the largest state to have a contest until April, by which time things are likely to be fairly cut and dried.

Again, this gives him a clear advantage.  It is worth noting, however, the improvement that Romney has been making here: from 17% at the end of last month to 29% in the latest poll.  Given strong results in Iowa and New Hampshire, it is not impossible that he could win in the Sunshine State. 

Again, no other candidate is above 10%, although Ron Paul does appear to have made a little progress.


Iowa is going to be critical.  Assuming it can go one of three ways – Romney, Paul or Gingrich – things will play out very differently dependent on the outcome.

A Romney win means that he is likely to have sufficient momentum to become the Republican candidate, and the polls show that he is probably the best placed to challenge Obama.  February’s contests play out better for him than South Carolina and Florida, so he would then lead well into Super Tuesday.

A Gingrich win puts him in a strong position to challenge Romney, not least because he would then be likely to win in South Carolina and Florida.  The votes from those states plus Iowa total 103, compared to the 12 from New Hampshire.  Whilst these are not winner takes all elections, the Republicans weight them so that the winner takes a larger share than a proportional system would give them.  Romney would then be the underdog at the start of February.

A win for Ron Paul will probably be written off as a one-off in the same way that Huckerbee’s win in 2008 did not determine the candidate.  It would leave the contest wide open.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

George_East December 23, 2011 at 12:00 am

The Republicans almost always go for the favourite. Romney’s to lose I think. He’s an awful candidate (though probably less awful than the others) but he could still win in November given the terrible economic fundamentals.


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