Monday, February 4, 2008

Summing up the Republican Picture

Edmund F. “Ned” Brown, IV

Why should NYSD write about politics?
Yes, it is primarily a social event venue, but it is read by intelligent and successful people. And as we are in the political season, when people congregate, the conversation is likely to turn to the presidential primaries. NYSD doesn’t take sides. As a contributor, I try to give an insider’s perspective. And being as I don’t make my living as a political pundit (I advise major corporate clients on government affairs) my political observations can be more definitive.

Last week, NYSD gave you the inside story on the Kennedy/Obama endorsement that scooped the mainstream media. Nobody got the sequence and the background as accurate as NYSD. How? The simple answer is that we knew the players on all 3 sides (Kennedy, Clinton and Obama). So as you head out for dinner or parties on Monday and/or Super Tuesday, here is some additional perspective on the Democratic and Republican primaries.

Gov. Mike Huckabee  
On the GOP side, Tuesday will likely not be a good day for Mitt Romney. Why? To understand strategy in this year’s GOP primary, you could learn more watching the television show, Survivor, than listening to the political pundits. The strategy in the GOP primary is 3-fold: eliminate the most vulnerable contenders early on, get them to support you (Sen., John McCain), and finally build a coalition with the major remaining also-ran (Gov. Mike Huckabee) to knock-off your major competitor (Gov. Mitt Romney). The primary could effectively be decided by Tuesday, February 5th. How?

The GOP set up a primary structure with a number of major states having winner-take-all primaries for delegates (e.g. California, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut to name a few). After John McCain’s nascent presidential campaign hit the rocks last June, he brought in an experienced brain trust to revive it. One of the key advisors was Washington insider Charles Black, Jr., one of the most experienced, shrewdest and successful political strategists around. Charlie’s credentials start with helping Ronald Reagan get elected President, George Bush (#41) largely owes his success to him, and he and former Secretary of State James Baker III salvaged the Bush (#43) campaign to their favor in Florida. On top of the presidential politics, Charlie Black has successfully advised a minimum of 16 U.S. Senatorial campaigns. A little disclaimer here: Charlie and I work for the same firm. Although we are on opposite sides politically, he is a master to watch.

  Charles Black, Jr.
A little side story here about Charlie Black’s election record, which could be prescient about a future match-up. He and I were talking one day about the Clinton camp and their bare-knuckled campaign tactics.  Charlie said, “They are the only crew in presidential politics that have beaten me, and they did it twice.” Clearly he has professional respect for them, but I got the sense that he does not want there to be a third occasion.

Back to the McCain strategy of focusing first on New Hampshire. Hoping they could be successful there, they turned their attention to South Carolina, and recruited the support of the state’s Sen. Lindsey Graham. As with anything in business and politics, luck played into the equation. Mike Huckabee won Iowa after Mitt Romney, who spent millions there and was the presumptive leader, lost. The job for McCain in New Hampshire suddenly became easier because Huckabee had no natural base there (except for a small group of conservative evangelicals), and Romney suddenly showed his vulnerability in Iowa.

Flash forward to wins in NH and SC; the next test was Florida. With momentum on McCain’s side, and Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Huckabee in the race to siphon off votes from Romney, McCain won. It also didn’t hurt that Florida Gov. Charles Crist (who has a 70+ percent approval rating) surprised McCain at a primary rally with his endorsement. Crist knows that Florida will be a key state in the general election, and he may have just secured his spot as the #2 on the McCain ticket.

Rudy Giuliani  
Here is where shrewd politicking came in. I believe that before the Florida primary occurred, and knowing that Huckabee would do no better than 3rd or 4th, the McCain camp had already reached out to them to get Huckabee to stay in the Florida primary. The McCain strategists also believed that Giuliani’s “inside straight” bet (meaning that he avoided the preceding primaries and bet all on Florida) would fail miserably. If Giuliani pulled from the campaign, then the three remaining candidates would be: McCain, Romney and Huckabee.

If you play blackjack, and in the world of politics, McCain getting Huckabee to stay in the race through Tuesday is the equivalent of “insurance.” The McCain strategists (largely Charlie Black) knew that keeping Huckabee in would freeze the conservative vote - more conservatives could like split for Romney than McCain if Huckabee was out. Here is where the math comes in: even if McCain gets less than 50-percent of the vote in the winner-takes-all primary contests, he could end up garnering over half the number of delegates needed to win the nomination.

After Super Tuesday, Huckabee will likely drop out of the primaries and throw his support behind McCain. All that remains for McCain is delegate clean up for the nomination. I spoke with a Romney state chairman on Friday. He knew what had happened to his guy and was clearly depressed. That’s how the Republican Party set up the primary structure, and looks like the McCain camp has played the system masterfully.

Stay tuned tomorrow for the Democratic assessment and why Barack Obama likely wins regardless of the primary outcome.