When you bear in mind that presidential nominations are determined not by how the candidates fare in national polls of their party's voters, but rather by how they perform in the earlier primaries, you come to some interesting conclusions as to the situation facing Republicans in 2012:
- The first primary (technically a caucus, although that makes little difference insofar as the vital task of establishing perceived political momentum is concerned) will be held in Iowa on January 16th. Early polls have consistently shown Mike Huckabee with a solid lead there, and there is little reason to think he won't be able to keep it over the next year, given that (a) he won that state in 2008 and (b) he is considered to be the most electable of the candidates who appeal to that ideological section of the GOP (which dominates the Iowa Republican party), making it unlikely that potential alternatives like Palin or Gingrich will be able to cut into his support. Should he win, it will automatically give him much-needed national attention and establish his status as one of his party's chief contenders for the nomination. Meanwhile, Romney will probably place a reasonably successful second (which is perfectly fine for him, since he isn't expected to win that state anyway) and thus continue to be in a position of strength, while Palin, Gingrich, and the other far right candidates will find themselves in considerable trouble, as the desire of their movement to unite around one candidate (and ideally the strongest one) will cause much of their support to leak over to Huckabee.
- The second primary will be held in New Hampshire on January 24th. Early polls here have shown Romney winning by an overwhelming margin, with all of the other candidates posting returns so small as to be politically inconsequential. Once again, the chances are strong that Romney will able to keep this lead, given both the Granite State GOP's comparatively moderate character and Romney's own geographic proximity to its borders. This victory will prove extremely significant for Romney, as it will (a) establish him as a viable political contender on par with Huckabee for the GOP nomination and (b) solidify his status as the candidate for Republican moderates. Huckabee is unlikely to be hurt by his poor showing in New Hampshire for much the same reason that Romney won't be hurt by Iowa (i.e., he isn't expected to do well there), although it is likely that this state will deal a death blow to the chances of every other prominent Republican contender. Even if candidates like Palin and Gingrich don't drop out after this state, it is unlikely that they will be major factors in the primary process after this point.
- This is where things get tricky. Once the nomination contest has effectively narrowed down to a battle between Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, supporters of the other candidates will begin flocking to one of the two camps en masse, something that has to be taken into account when looking at polls for the remaining states. My suspicion is that Huckabee will try to win the remaining primary voters by appealing to them as a champion of the Christian Right, as someone who has actively courted the Tea Party (unlike Romney, which I will get to in a moment), and as a more reliable conservative than Romney, whose support of an Obamacare-esque health care reform program in Massachusetts, flip-flopping on abortion, coldness toward the Tea Party, and Mormon faith will all be liabilities among much of his party's right-wing base (the last variable will be less explicitly stated, of course). Romney, on the other hand, will try to present himself to these voters as being both sufficiently conservative to deserve a Republican nomination (primarily by citing his fiscal record as Governor of Massachusetts) and yet better equipped to win the general election than Huckabee. This latter claim will be backed up by Romney's biography (which, given his career as an extremely successful business fixer-upper, will be very appealing in an election that focuses on economic issues), his superior standing in match-offs against Obama in polls, and his overall image as a moderate whose distance from the party's controversial groups (mainly the Tea Party and the Christian Right) will make him more palatable to swing voters in the general election.
How will Republican voters decide? Some may cite a recent poll which found that 68% of Republicans feel it is more important that they choose a candidate who can beat Obama, compared to only 29% who place a priority on having one who "agrees (with them) on every issue." While that seems to bode well for Romney, it's important to note that the people surveyed were only asked this question on an abstract level, which makes the likelihood of them choosing pragmatism much greater than it would be if they had concrete examples of ideological incompatibility in front of them (viz., Romney's record on health care reform or abortion rights).
More telling is the fact that the primary voters who didn't initially support either Huckabee or Romney - i.e., the ones who Romney and Huckabee will have to actively court - didn't lean toward candidates like Tim Pawlenty or Mitch Daniels before their options were whittled down, which would suggest moderate inclinations on their part; instead they leaned toward candidates like Palin and Gingrich, thus suggesting a radical bent in their leanings. This is significant because it means that their ideological sympathies are much more closely aligned with Huckabee than Romney, suggesting that their votes (which, when combined, are considerable enough to put him over the top in most of the remaining primary states) would be most likely to go to him.
At the same time, Republicans are well versed enough in history to know the dangers of nominating an unelectable radical, be it with Barry Goldwater in the presidential election of 1964 or with a flurry of Tea Party candidates in the 2010 midterms who lost states that had otherwise been in the bag (viz., Christine O' Donnell, Sharron Angle, Joe Miller). The question will thus ultimately boil down to this: Will the doubts that the remaining GOP primary voters have about Huckabee's be strong enough to prompt them to support a candidate for whom they are at best lukewarm and at worst downright suspicious?
There are numerous variables that will come into play as that question is resolved. My suspicion is that, although Huckabee doesn't fare as well as Romney in polls against Obama, his comparative standing isn't so poor that it will become the decisive factor. This, combined with Romney's aforementioned weaknesses among grassroots conservatives, will probably move the key bulk of Palin and Gingrich supporters to Huckabee, delivering him the next two primary states (South Carolina on January 28th and Florida on January 31st) as well as a critical mass of the Super Tuesday states on February 7th. While Romney may win enough Super Tuesday states to stay in the game for a little longer, I doubt it will do more than put his campaign on life support. Republicans have a long history of closing ranks around the perceived winner once he has built enough momentum (the last time they didn't do this, not coincidentally, was with Goldwater in 1964), and I suspect Huckabee would be a similar beneficiary of this.
In the end, I thus foresee an election in which Barack Obama and Joe Biden (who, despite rumors that he will be dropped from the ticket, is likely to be retained in the name of political expedience) run against Mike Huckabee and Jon Huntsman, a former Governor of Utah and Ambassador to China who will be chosen by Huckabee because (a) his resume can balance out Huckabee's inexperience in foreign policy, (b) his image as a moderate and bi-partisan record (thanks to working for Obama) can help win over moderate swing voters wary of Huckabee's extremism, and (c) and his Mormonism can help Huckabee win back voters from that faith who rightfully resent Huckabee for his bigoted comments about their religion.
In this contest, I see Obama-Biden resoundingly defeating Huckabee-Huntsman. For more on that, see the article preceding this one: