My U.S. News column this week is a reminiscence of past campaigns and election nights. But we had quite an election night (and afternoon) last Saturday, as Mitt Romney notched up a big victory and Hillary Clinton a narrow victory in the Nevada caucuses and John McCain squeaked out a 33-to-30-percent victory in the South Carolina primary. I was at Fox News headquarters in New York, with the Decision Desk, which called the Romney victory quickly (there was no doubt whatsoever) and the Clinton victory pretty quickly (she carried Clark County and lost in most of the rest of the state, but Clark County has 71 percent of the state's population). Fox called McCain the winner in South Carolina at 9:17 eastern time (by my watch), before the other networks. It could have been called much earlier except for the fact that the voting machines in Horry County (Myrtle Beach area) weren't working and its totals (it was one of McCain's two best counties in the 2000 primary against George W. Bush) weren't being registered either in the exit poll or in the tabulated vote.
Where are the two parties' races going from here? The Democrats seem headed toward more acrimonious division, while the Republicans seem headed toward something more like not entirely unacrimonious closure.
The Democrats. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are now in a rock 'em, sock 'em battle. The astute liberal columnist Michael Tomasky characterizes Clinton's victory as "downright ugly." A push poll in Nevada four times identified Clinton's opponent as "Barack Hussein Obama"—imagine the cries of bigotry that would ensue if a Republican had done that! Bill Clinton was in Las Vegas charging the Obama forces with unfair tactics, and pro-Clinton forces were prosecuting a lawsuit against the caucuses held at nine casino worksites where it was assumed that the 60,000-strong Culinary Workers Union would pitch votes to its endorsed candidate, Obama. Turned out the lawsuit wasn't necessary and the Culinary Workers couldn't deliver: Seven of the nine casino voting sites went for Clinton over Obama.
The reason: ethnic politics. Previous contests didn't have appreciable numbers of black, Latino, and Jewish voters. The Nevada Democratic caucuses did (the fact that many blacks and Latinos could vote was Nevadans' strongest argument to the national Democrats for having an early caucus there). The entrance poll showed that blacks favored Obama over Clinton 83 to 14 percent, while Hispanics favored Clinton over Obama by 64 to 26 percent and Jews favored Clinton over Obama by 67 to 25 percent. Blacks and Hispanics were 15 percent of the sample, Jews 5 percent (enough to be statistically significant given the large number of respondents). We saw the pattern familiar from the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary results, with Clinton favored by older and more downscale voters and Obama favored by younger and more upscale voters. But the ethnic split has important implications for Florida on January 29 (where the Democrats are not supposed to compete but are on the ballot) and some of the big February 5 primary states (New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and California). Obama seems likely to have a huge advantage in southern states with large black percentages in the Democratic primary; that's why he's leading by solid margins in polls for the January 26 South Carolina contest, where blacks will account for about 50 percent of Democratic primary voters. And the ethnic split may not make much difference in New York and New Jersey, where Clinton is heavily favored, and in Illinois, where Obama is. But consider California. There are many more Latino than black voters in the California Democratic primary. And there could well be more Jewish voters than black voters in the California Democratic primary. California is the big prize of the February 5 contests, and it has been assumed that its upscale/young electorate favors Obama. But Latino and Jewish voters could pitch it toward Clinton.
Footnote on the Democratic side: John Edwards got 4 percent of the state convention delegate votes (the Nevada Democrats score their contest much as the Iowa Democrats do theirs). His numbers were pitched downward from the 8 percent he got in the entrance poll by the Democrats' viability rule, which says that candidates who don't get 15 percent at any caucus site don't get any votes there. But Edwards faces the same problem everywhere. Democratic rules tend to favor proportional representation, but they also tend to have 15 percent viability rules at every stage, and Edwards doesn't seem to have enough support to meet the 15 percent threshold in many, many venues. Whether he knows it or not, his campaign is over. Take a look at the South Carolina polls, and you will notice that in the state where he was born and whose primary he won in 2004, Edwards is getting just about zero support from the half of the voters who are black. I have regarded Edwards's campaign as intellectually feeble and politically opportunistic. Evidently, Democratic primary voters have reached something like the same conclusion. There's speculation about what would happen if Edwards dropped out and endorsed another candidate (or simply dropped out). I think that speculation is idle. He doesn't have any votes to hand over. No significant number of Democratic voters are looking to John Edwards for guidance as to whether to support Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Edwards's day as a major national candidate is gone.
The Republicans. Let's look at where they stand.
Rudy Giuliani. He has let his fate entirely hinge on Florida and on whether the other candidates knock themselves out of contention before he gets there. His standing in national polls has fallen dreadfully, but he still seems competitive in Florida, and Floridians have been voting absentee for some time now while he's been campaigning visibly around the state. Who knows? He might actually win there and be in good shape for the February 5 contests—though if I had to bet $1,000 on it, I'd bet against.
Fred Thompson. His campaign (and his much longer precampaign) had its moments, but he seems gone. He spent a lot of time and effort in South Carolina and came in a poor third. Arrivederci, Fred.
John McCain. His South Carolina victory gives him the clearest flight path to the nomination. Clearest or, rather, least unclear—certainly not uncluttered. He hasn't been winning self-identified Republicans by any significant margin even where he has won, in New Hampshire and South Carolina. He has been running behind his 2000 percentages everywhere (though then he was in what was essentially a two-candidate race). He doesn't have to win Florida to be competitive on February 5, though it would certainly help him if he did. It's especially important for him to finish ahead of Giuliani. This would leave him in a strong position in New York, New Jersey, and California on February 5.
Mitt Romney. He's got three wins, in the Wyoming and Nevada caucuses (don't scoff too much; somebody could have tried to compete with him there) and in his native Michigan. Still, each one carries an asterisk. In Wyoming, he was the only candidate who competed. In Michigan, 41 percent of primary voters said his roots in the state were important, and his plan for bailing out the Big Three automakers was a big plus in metro Detroit, where he got almost all of his margin over McCain. In Nevada, 25 percent of the caucusgoers were Mormons, and they cast 94 or 95 percent of their votes for him. That means almost half his Nevada votes came from fellow Mormons. None of these three factors will be present in Florida or in the big February 5 states. His advantage: He has more money to spend than the other candidates. Disadvantage: Heavy media buys didn't buy him victory in the Iowa caucuses or New Hampshire primary.
Mike Huckabee. He can keep running, but he can't win. His 30 percent in South Carolina looks more like a ceiling than a floor. After Iowa, he hasn't come close to monopolizing evangelical/born-again Christian voters and hasn't broken through to double digits among the voters who don't classify themselves as such.
Bottom line: Depending on the Florida results, there will be only two or three candidates who will be capable of winning on February 5: Giuliani (if he shines in Florida), McCain, and Romney. All have significant weaknesses; each appeals to different segments of the Republican electorate. But Republicans seem headed toward the same kind of binary race, between two candidates, that Democrats are already in. And the degree of rancor between different party constituencies, while fairly high on the Republican side, threatens to become even higher on the Democratic. Let's all stayed tuned.