In Trench-Warfare Season, Toss Old Campaign Rules
By: Wall Street Journal
Republicans hold their Michigan primary today, but it doesn’t figure to decide much, except perhaps whether Mitt Romney can survive the state where his father’s auto company died. Then it’s on to South Carolina.
On Saturday, Democrats hold caucuses in Nevada, but that won’t settle anything either, except perhaps whether the Culinary Workers Union, which is backing Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, has somehow become the state’s most important political force.
Still, this week’s voting marks an important turning point in the presidential race: It signals the end of the Momentum Primary season and the beginning of the Trench Warfare season. And when that happens, different rules apply.
The Momentum Primary is the one in which a single candidate can build up such a head of steam in the early states that he or she emerges as the party’s consensus choice. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, among the Democrats, and former Massachusetts Gov. Romney in the Republican field had the chance to do so, but neither did. Nobody won the Momentum Primary.
WSJ Washington bureau chief Jerry Seib says the presidential campaign is now entering a phase where the candidates will engage in hand-to-hand combat.
So, it’s on to the Trench Warfare phase. Here, the fight for the nomination becomes a state-by-state slog — from Florida on Jan. 29 through contests in 20-plus states, ranging from New York to California, on Feb. 5, and probably beyond. Not since 1976, when Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan fought all the way to the Republican convention in Kansas City, Mo., has there been such a likelihood of a prolonged nomination fight.
At this stage, four significant new rules come into play:
Money matters more. The country will come as close as ever to holding a national primary on Feb. 5. Campaigning in that many states, spanning every region and the country’s most costly media markets, is an expensive proposition.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who was able to prevail in Iowa over foes spending 10 or 15 times as much, will find it nearly impossible to replicate such a feat. Even well-funded candidates are starting to show signs of financial strain. A key event to watch comes on Jan. 31, when the campaigns release figures on fund raising and cash on hand through the end of 2007.
Party rules count. It isn’t time yet to start counting delegates one by one each primary night, but it might come to that. If so, the quirks of how each party allocates delegates will matter. The parties’ rules read with all the clarity and simplicity of a multinational corporation’s 10K filing. To make it easier, remember just two things:
Democrats award delegates on a proportional basis, meaning candidates get a share of a state’s delegates based on their share of the vote in that state. Thus, it’s hard for a second-place Democrat to catch up, because the front-runner keeps picking up at least some delegates in each state, even if losing the overall vote.
The Republicans, by contrast, award delegates on a winner-take-all basis in some states. Winner-take-all rules in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut may help Republican candidate Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, in his backyard. “That’s what I’ve been saying all along: It’s strictly a numbers game,” says Anthony Carbonetti, a top Giuliani strategist.
Second, it’s important to look at how the two parties round out their rosters of delegates to the nominating conventions. Democrats have lots of “super delegates” — elected officials and party leaders — who can align with the candidate of their choice. That’s why endorsements from Democratic leaders matter, and is an advantage right now for Mrs. Clinton.
Republicans award a big bloc of “bonus” delegates to states that reliably vote Republican. These states tend to be in the South, the mountain West and the nonindustrial Midwest.
Bill Lacy, manager of former Sen. Fred Thompson’s campaign, notes that this means North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Kentucky — not normally considered electoral giants — have almost as many Republican delegates combined as do traditional giants like New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Southern conservatives should benefit most, which is one big reason the Thompson campaign thinks it can stay in the game.
The economy matters more. As the year’s campaign drags on, more economic clouds are likely to gather. Nobody guessed six months ago that the Democratic candidates at this stage would be unveiling “economic stimulus” packages to keep the economy out of a recession, but they are. As the economy matters more, the Iraq war matters relatively less.
The wounds go deeper. In Trench Warfare season, candidates have to engage in hand-to-hand combat to advance. And in hand-to-hand combat, the wounds are nastier, and harder to heal.
You see it already. Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama seem to be developing an unhealthy dislike for each other. Mr. Thompson went hard after Mr. Huckabee in last week’s South Carolina debate. The danger for Democrats is that racial and gender rifts may be opening, and for Republicans that the debate over what it means to be a conservative ends up splitting the party.
Write to Gerald Seib at firstname.lastname@example.org
* Content From the Wall Street Journal supplied by Elva Ramirez:
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