Three elections are happening tonight: The Republican primary in South Carolina and the dual party caucuses in Nevada. Nobody disputes that the South Carolina primary will have the largest impact. If Fred Thompson doesn't come in at least a strong second—that is, if he doesn't rise to about 75 percent as high as he was when he belly-flopped into the race—the clock will start on when he drops out and endorses John McCain. If Mike Huckabee beats John McCain and stops his surge, the water gets a lot warmer for Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney. If McCain wins, he gets a story he's been craving since 2000, and that the media will tenderly and lovingly report.
1. Mitt Romney (37 percent)
He's the only frontrunning candidate who's put in an effort, and will claim his third "gold." By the end of the day he'll have more delegates than John McCain, but no one will notice if McCain wins South Carolina.
2. John McCain (23 percent)
He's taken the admirable (and correct) position on Yucca Mountain: It's a great place for nuclear waste! But he made an early, correct calculation that this race wouldn't matter.
3. Ron Paul (12 percent)
I'm betting this will be his best state yet: Sizable libertarian vote, low turnout, super-excited (and excitable) base. Only shoddy organizing could keep him from performing well, and from what I understand Vijay Boyapati of Operation Live Free or Die is trying to correct that potential problem. (It's what he told me in New Hampshire.)
4. Rudy Giuliani (11 percent)
Just a guess, here. How many ex-New Yorkers are in this state? How many have been paying attention to Rudy's piss-poor run so far?
5. Mike Huckabee (9 percent)
He's not doing that well outside of farm states and the South.
6. Fred Thompson (6 percent)
He's not doing well, period.
7. Duncan Hunter (2 percent)
The Kucinich of the Right has put in enough effort here to only partially embarrass himself.
1. Hillary Clinton (38 percent)
She's winning ugly, but she's winning. It would be a close to double-digit win if not for the culinary union backing Obama.
2. Barack Obama (35 percent)
I wouldn't be shocked if he pulled it out: He's had a good run since New Hampshire, and the Clintons have looked a little ridiculous in their blitzkrieg against the culinary union.
3. John Edwards (25 percent)
I've already got a press release about his "Ol' Timey Back Home, Back Roads Barnstorm" of South Carolina, co-starring Danny Glover and Ben "Cooter" Jones. He'd make a better T-1000 than Robert Patrick: He just won't go down.
4. The others (2 percent)
But Kucinich and Gravel will never, ever drop out. I feel a little bad about Gravel.
1. John McCain (29 percent)
Eight years after getting skunked by George W. Bush in a campaign that's been mythologized everywhere from National Review to Vanity Fair, he'll get his comeback story. He's spent the longest time wiring the state and the weather is good in areas with big clumps of current/ex-military votes. One thing I'll be watching, even though it won't be relevant, is the vote total. McCain won about 231,000 votes in 2000 while losing the election by 12 points.
2. Mike Huckabee (25 percent)
Enough to keep him grinding on into the Southern primaries. He'll make a big play for the Fred! vote after the big guy drops out.
3. Mitt Romney (17 percent)
The bronze! The bronze! *Cue the National Anthem*
4. Fred Thompson (16 percent)
The most humiliating, false-starting campaign since Phil Gramm '96 will come to an end. Doubling down in this state is one of the few things Thompson didn't do wrong, but it's too late. It'll be good for McCain, though: After he drops out Fred will probably endorse him and bolster him in Florida and the Feb. 5 states.
5. Ron Paul (7 percent)
At least he'll beat Rudy again.
6. Rudy Giuliani (5 percent)
Four months ago he was leading in the polls.
7. Duncan Hunter (1 percent)
I think this is the last time I'll even bother predicting.
UPDATE 1:20: Romney's won Nevada. With basically nothing counted, Paul is running in the top four.
UPDATE 1:29: OK, I may have blown this call. The entrance poll has Paul running a very strong second with about 19 percent of the vote.
UPDATE 7:00: I want to share this email I got from a very optimistic, very happy Vijay Boyapati. (The e-mail was titled "It's not who votes that counts; it's who counts the votes" and he got happy after he sent it.)
So taking Stalin's epigram to heart, I decided to volunteer to be one of the folks overseeing the caucus vote in one of Clark County's districts.
The vote was, at least in my district, done in a completely open manner. The Republican party volunteer handling the vote count had people from each campaign sit around a table and directly observe each ballot as it was counted for each precinct. We each tallied the precincts to arrive at a final total. Any discrepancies between counts for each precinct resulted in a recount that everyone was able to observe.
Here are the totals for my district:
Speaking with other Paul volunteers across Clark county reflected that we had a strong second place in a number of large districts. Based on my observations I'd be very surprised if we don't come in with second in Nevada. I'll be extremely suspicious if McCain beats, or even comes in a close 3rd.
UPDATE 7:50: The friends I'm watching with are convinced Romney's delegate rack-up will help him eventually win at the convention. I don't think so. If Thompson goes out, he endorses McCain. If Rudy goes out, he endorses McCain.
UPDATE 9:00: Duncan Hunter dropped out tonight, finally justifying one of my predictions. Thompson seems intent to stagger on and play wingman for John McCain against Mike Huckabee, although sounding ever more obvious when he does so.
UPDATE 9:08: The Ron Paul Forums sound pretty jazzed about Nevada, although I see Romney has probably won every county in the state. (WRONG: He's won Nye County. Add that to Jefferson Co, Iowa, and thus far he has won two.)
UPDATE 9:21: McCain wins South Carolina in a squeaker. Turnout is way, way down from 2000, when McCain lost while winning 240,000 votes.
UPDATE 9:46: Steve Gordon has a screenshot that's going to harsh the mellow among Paul fans…