Romney's final stumbling block?

Latest polling shows a dirty fight in South Carolina may be all that's holding him back from Obama.

Having squeezed through Iowa by 8 votes and won convincingly in New Hampshire, the road ahead looks pretty clear for the former Massachusetts Governor. He has campaigned pretty much ever since 2007, and now it seems as though Mitt Romney has finally seen off all of his challengers and is focussing his sights on the presidency.

One by one, Republican candidates ranging from former Speaker Gingrich, through Herman Cain the CEO of a pizza chain, Congresswoman Bachmann and Texas Governor Perry to former senator Santorum have each had their own surge (and decline) in the polls as Republicans tried to find someone that is not Mitt Romney. The problem with Romney -- or so think many Republicans -- is that he is not seen to be conservative enough for them. He's a moderate. And so they courted Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Paul and Santorum. All the while, Romney's ratings remained fairly constant. That was another criticism: despite having the most money and arguably the most name recognition, Romney was not "energising the base" and there was no groundswell of support for him. It was said he was Mr 25 per cent.

Our Ipsos poll for Reuters of Republicans, released on the day of the New Hampshire primary, had Gov Romney on 30 per cent -- his highest since we began tracking in June 2011. The poll also shows that he has the best chance of defeating Obama in November. In a match up of Romney v Obama, the Republican is just 5 points behind the President. Ron Paul is the next closest but trails Obama by 7 points.

So what does Romney have to do now to seal the nomination? The answer is simple, and the same as it has been for a while: Don't mess up. The fabled "big mo" (momentum) is clearly with him, as is the money which is vital if the race drags on. South Carolina -- the next Primary -- poses a threat in a few ways. First, voters there are more conservative than in New Hampshire and this is a demographic in which Romney suffers. However, South Carolina tends to be more "establishment" in its taste, preferring well-known and established politicians unlike "outsiders", as preferred by Iowa.

Second, campaigns have a history of turning dirty in South Carolina and you can be pretty confident that Gingrich, Santorum and Paul campaigns are preparing attacks to bring down Romney in South Carolina. They'll attack him for "being liberal", flip-flopping on abortion, the similarities of his Massachusetts healthcare plan to that of Obama's controversial reform, and the current popular attack is to highlight his time at Bain where they say his job was to fire people; with high unemployment a big issue in the US that does not look good. It is unlikely, however, that these attacks will do enough to stop his move to becoming the nominee. Losing South Carolina may not even be too damaging to his campaign -- especially as he is financially and organisationally the best equipped for a long race of attrition.

Rick Perry will need to do very well in order to stay in the running. Having almost dropped out after placing fifth in Iowa and focussing his attention on South Carolina -- a state in which the more conservative Texan should feel more comfortable -- his fortunes lay heavily in the results of the next primary. Speaker Gingrich too will need to think long and hard about his chances if he misses out on the top spots. Ron Paul and Rick Santorum are more likely to stay in and make this race last that bit longer before we can call Mitt Romney the Republican Presidential candidate for the 2012 race to the White House.

Tom Mludzinski is Deputy Head of Political Research at Ipsos MORI

Tom Mludzinski (@tom_ComRes) is head of political polling at ComRes

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.