Rick Perry’s decision Wednesday to remain in the race (which he made by tweeting the above picture of himself, with the words “Here we come, South Carolina!”) seemed to surprise everyone, even members of his own staff.
The conventional wisdom is that Perry’s move will ultimately help Mitt Romney - ensuring that the conservative vote will continue to be fractured, and possibly even allowing Romney to win in South Carolina, where he has been trailing in the polls. But - playing devil’s advocate here - we can think of at least a few ways in which having Perry in the race could actually be a negative for Romney.
Obviously, if Perry should manage to pull off a win in South Carolina, that would be bad news for Mitt. And while that seems highly unlikely, given Perry’s struggles throughout the campaign, it’s not totally impossible.
As Nate Silver writes in Thursday’s New York Times, there are two plausible explanations behind Perry’s decision: Either it was based on emotion and his desire to end his campaign with a less ignominious finish than his fifth-place showing in Iowa. Or it was a strategic decision based on an analysis that he could still conceivably win. (Most likely, it was some combination of those two.)
Perry is effectively skipping New Hampshire, putting all his efforts into South Carolina, which votes Jan. 21 (though he’ll be in the Granite State for this weekend’s debates). He still has money to run ads, and his profile - Texas governor, evangelical Christian, served in the military - is a better fit for South Carolina than any other candidate’s. With Newt Gingrich now making it his mission to tear Romney down at all costs, Perry has the opportunity to be a third-party beneficiary of that spat.
Moreover, New Hampshire’s results are unlikely to have much of an impact on Perry. If Romney wins, as expected, it won’t change the political calculus for Perry at all. Ditto if Ron Paul wins. If Santorum should somehow pull off a win or even a surprisingly strong second, it could give him a boost heading into South Carolina, which could make Perry’s path there harder. But if Santorum does well enough to weaken Romney (with some help from Jon Huntsman) but not well enough to become the clear sole alternative, it could actually wind up indirectly helping Perry.
And even if Perry doesn’t win South Carolina, his presence in the race for the next few weeks isn’t necessarily to Romney’s advantage. Yes, the conservative vote is split. But there’s a good argument to be made that Romney might actually benefit at this point from having the field winnowed to him and a sole conservative alternative - since those alternatives have all been pretty weak candidates. Romney could potentially pick up more conservative support with fewer candidates in the race, which would make him look stronger.
None of this is meant to argue that Romney is in any real danger. If Perry doesn’t win South Carolina (or come as close as Santorum did in Iowa), then he’s probably officially done. Still, it’s not a given that his presence in the race for the next few weeks will be entirely to Romney’s advantage.
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