California Dreamin'

Romney is surging in Florida. A Florida victory will help him in California, where he’s also got positive momentum. But a third or fourth place finish by Giuliani will hurt him in New York and New Jersey, giving McCain an opportunity to win there without spending a lot of money – money he’ll need to fight Romney in California, Illinois, Minnesota. Meanwhile, Huckabee is shoring up his position in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, all states where he’s competing with McCain for the top slot.

This is not only more fun than the credit markets: it’s reminiscent of the battle at the end of The Hobbit.

If Romney wins all the delegates in Florida, Massachusetts and Utah, that’s 136 delegates. If McCain wins all the delegates in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Arizona, that’s 236 delegates. Assume Huckabee wins all the delegates in Georgia and Arkansas. That’s 106 delegates. Of the 1159 delegates at stake through Feb 5th, that’s 478 allocated, about 40%. There are 3 other winner-take-all states: Missouri, Montana and Delaware. They have 101 delegates, and all three strike me as up-for-grabs, with Huckabee in the strongest position in Missouri, the largest of them. Tennessee, Alabama, Oklahoma and West Virginia seem likely to split their delegates between Huckabee and McCain; I’ve only seen recent polling in Alabama and Georgia, and McCain is tied with Huckabee in the former and lags badly in Georgia, but Romney is weak across the board in the south, so the real question is how strong two underfunded candidates (McCain and Huckabee) will be across the region. Huckabee, with no chance of winning in New York or California, will likely spend all his energy campaigning here, largely without opposition, so it makes sense to assume he wins the majority of the delegates. These states have 174 delegates between them. That leaves 406 delegates for Romney and McCain to fight over in California (173), Illinois (70), Colorado (46), Minnesota (41), Alaska (29), North Dakota (26) and Maine (21).

If I were McCain, I’d be spending much of my precious cash in California, where I cannot afford to lose to Romney, and where he has the best chance of taking a big-state victory from me. But since Romney isn’t cash-limited, he can run hard in Illinois and Minnesota, as well as in winner-take-all Missouri, and if he’s successful there he could actually capture more delegates than McCain even if McCain wins California by a small margin. McCain’s biggest fear, meanwhile, must be that Giuliani survives, because if McCain has to spend money and time to lock down New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, then he’ll be in a worse position to compete everywhere else, and in California most especially.

I still think there will be a nominee decided before the convention. Either McCain will win California, New York, and chunks of the Midwest, and will move into a decisive lead in states like Washington and Pennsylvania that vote later on the calendar, or Romney will win Florida, California and chunks of the Midwest and he’ll move into a decisive lead in states like Ohio and Indiana that vote later on the calendar. In other words, I still think the winner in California is the nominee. But it’s not hard to spin a scenario where Romney wins Florida, Huckabee dominates the other Southern states, McCain wins in the Northeast, and McCain and Romney split the delegates across the West and Midwest, and after Feb 5 nobody has won more than 50% of the delegates needed to take the nomination.