The GOP Candidates’ Final Paths to the Nomination
With 39 days between Black Friday and the Iowa caucuses, Republican candidates are finalizing their home stretch strategies. How will Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman, and Ron Paul fight it out (and why don’t the others matter)?
After the eleventh (!) Republican nomination debate and a big old Thanksgiving dinner, we’ve reached that bleary-eyed point in the political season where voters look at one another and ask, as the Strokes did in the opening minutes of their only good record, “Is this it?” There will be almost daily revelations of stories that may or may not have “legs” in the popular imagination (Herman Cain not knowing anything about Libya seemed like a refreshing prelude to his total incompetence on anything foreign-policy related; Newt Gingrich lying about the extent of his involvement with Freddie Mac is still burning like an oil slick on some minor ocean), but there will be no new candidates, no primary calendar jostling, no existential crises within the Republican Party (until the nominee becomes clear, anyway).
In the media frenzy that surrounded the end of the occupation at Zuccotti Park, the candidates had what was probably their last chance to finalize their strategies to win the nomination. Tuesday night’s debate was the opening salvo in presenting their closing arguments before people started heading home to talk with their families at Thanksgiving. Now, from Black Friday onward, they’ll actually be presenting those arguments in the early-voting states, particularly Iowa (which votes on January 3) and New Hampshire (which votes on January 10).
The final odds also seem to be snapping into focus. Despite his continued front-runner status, various pretenders have been nipping at Mitt Romney’s heels throughout the grueling nomination process, and a couple of them have the potential to drag him down. Right now, I see five candidates with viable paths to the nomination. How will they get there, and why won’t any of the others? Let’s rank them and discuss each in detail.
1. Mitt Romney
The man, the Mitt, the legend. Spurned in 2008 and now back with a less-apologetic fast-talking refreshingly-insincere-about-his-insincerity persona that makes him look far more comfortable on the all-important debate stages, Romney has always been the man to beat this election, and, like the similarly-insincere Richard Nixon in 1968, regional and ideological attempts to knock him off his front-runner perch have all flamed out thus far.
Strategy: Finish strong in Iowa, win New Hampshire, play down South Carolina in favor of Florida, win Florida, cruise to nomination using money advantage to mop up resistance in February contests and win Super Tuesday in March by default.
Romney is caught in something of a conundrum in that Iowa likes him just enough to vote a little bit for him, but not enough to give him a win. He suffered an embarrassing defeat to “authentic conservative” (and marvelous retail campaigner) Mike Huckabee in 2008, despite sinking millions of dollars into a state-wide organization. There’s a perception that Iowa likes to vote for the little guy (see: Obama, Barack), but in reality, since almost no candidates have dropped out by the time of the caucuses, the “flavor of the moment” has a much stronger shot at winning Iowa simply by dividing all the votes against him or her equally amongst the other contenders.
Now, however, given how little retail politics have mattered in Iowa up till this point (Herman Cain is still hanging onto voters there despite returning to the state last week for only his second visit since August), Romney seems to think the environment is a little more credible. He doesn’t even have to win, because he’s kept expectations low enough and the conventional wisdom has been turned on its head so many times already. He could come in second to Gingrich or even Rick Perry and still come out of a New Hampshire win claiming he has “momentum.”
Importantly, Romney has the money to do it. He reported $14.2 million in third-quarter fundraising, and his ability to pull in the old Bush and McCain “bundlers” (established moneyed individuals who secure donations from other moneyed individuals and present it as a “bundle” to the candidate’s campaign) means that, unlike Rick Perry, he’s probably still pulling in cash. He also hasn’t had to spend a lot of it yet, in contrast to Perry, who’s had to go up with a number of early ad buys in an attempt to shore up his image after his repeatedly terrible debate performances.
Eventually Romney will stop behaving like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Smaug the Dragon on top of his horde of gold and start spending it on what’re sure to be lovely positive ads about what a nice guy “Mitt” is and how he ‘s the only one who can beat Obama in the general election (which is probably true). Then his shadowy supporters in their largely-unaccountable “Super PACs” can run the few devastating hit ads against pretenders to the throne.
Of course, when Smaug the Dragon finally flew out to defend his treasures, he took an arrow in his weakest point and died, leaving his many adversaries to fight a nasty battle over his spoils.*
Weaknesses: Ever played a game of Monopoly with a bunch of people, noticed someone setting up a few hotels and vastly out-raising his/her opponents, and resolved amongst the rest of the players not to trade with or otherwise help that person out, even trading beneficially in the hopes that they will somehow land on your Boardwalk with two houses on it and be forced to start bulldozing real estate? That’s Romney’s position now. He has gotten as far as he can on his own in terms of a firm base of support (around 25% of the Republican voting populace, it seems). He now needs to pull enough of the various leaners and fence-sitters into his camp to win. The problem is, nobody really wants to help that Monopoly front-runner, and if some flavor-of-the-month candidate wins in Iowa while another keeps Romney down in third place or worse, the momentum of those leaners and fence-sitters will swing into the “anyone but Romney” camp.
Unlike in 2008, there’s enough time between contests in 2012 that Romney could employ some damage control if he loses badly in Iowa and can’t put the nomination away after New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida vote in January. The few contests in February are generally in places that favor Romney (namely, Mormon country and the Northeast).
But if you bloody the nose of a candidate viewed as inevitable, it can really wreck your future chances (see: Clinton, Hillary). Romney is holding most of the cards in this race. The problem is he’s just not well-liked enough by the rank-and-file to cruise to the nomination. If, for some reason, Iowa drags him down and New Hampshire doesn’t resuscitate him, he could see his campaign turn into a miserable re-run of 2008.
Also, when voters were just beginning to get over your insincerity, lying about your first name in a debate isn’t a good way to move forward, Willard.
2. Newt Gingrich
The current harder-right flavor-of-the-month, Gingrich has a chance to capture the “please-not-Romney” hearts and minds, and, unlike Herman Cain, has the political acumen to keep them there. He just needs to parlay the money he’s almost certainly raised this quarter into a quick organization and hope people don’t remember the many reasons not to like him.
Strategy: Win in Iowa (or finish a convincing second behind anyone other than Romney), place second in New Hampshire, win in South Carolina and use that momentum to carry Florida. Weather a tough February with Romney likely still in the race and get a majority of the Super Tuesday delegates to force the party to close ranks.
Gingrich, as we discussed earlier, has had the luxury of having his campaign fall apart very early on in the process. Now, as Herman Cain’s initially strong debate performances have fizzled out into a morass of sexual harassment allegations and clear demonstrations that Cain doesn’t actually know what he’s talking about a lot of the time, voters are turning to Gingrich, another “strong” debater, by default. When he gets up on television and lectures moderators or attacks the “mainstream media” before uttering some platitude about how they all need to join together and defeat Barack Obama, the party base eats it up. Gingrich speaks their language in a way Romney doesn’t and never will.
Now he needs to play catch-up on the ground, no mean feat. Still, he’s opening new offices with the money coming in off of his increasing poll numbers, and, again unlike Cain, Gingrich understands the value of a relatively traditional retail operation to underpin his “untraditional” campaign. His bet currently is to run a sort of hybrid campaign between Mike Huckabee in 2008 and John Kerry in 2004: appeal to the grassroots independent-conservative bloc in Iowa while also maintaining a magnanimous “silverback compromise candidate” image nationally. After a win in Iowa (or at least a defeat of Romney), he can move on to South Carolina and hope momentum carries him to a decent enough finish in New Hampshire. From there, it’s a long slog to March and Super Tuesday, but if Romney’s veneer of inevitability has worn away, he should be able to win the delegate numbers game.
Weaknesses: Like the anti-Romneys of yore (Cain, Perry, Bachmann), Gingrich is not only running against Romney but himself. And now that the harsh spotlight is on him, there’s a very good chance that unflattering stories will pick up steam. It’s not just Gingrich’s moral issues that’ll prove problematic – his consulting for a government-owned mortgage agency that he’s decried and his own nebulous conservative-targeting business groups that profit off of shrill alarmist tropes about Barack Obama will both get bad press as he goes on. And let’s not forget: Gingrich left the Speaker’s office in disgrace in 1998, shut down the government in 1995-6, and has made a few pretty serious flip-flops in the past few years.
Gingrich’s demeanor will only compound these issues. Cain’s problem was that under the spotlight, it turned out he didn’t know anything. Gingrich’s problem will be that, regardless of whether he knows things, he’ll answer questions in a nasty, pedantic fashion. When he’s fighting the moderators on the issue of media bias, that tends to come off good for Republican voters. But he can only trot out that trick so many times – at a recent debate, where he actually refused to answer the question “what would you replace Obamacare with?”, he didn’t come off as looking like a conservative trailblazer so much as a total jerk. When you appear less likeable than Mitt Romney at a debate, that is a huge red flag.
“Gingrich being Gingrich” means that he will probably not listen to his advisers and continue to behave the way he wants to behave on stage, the same sort of behavior that forced him out of Congress in 1999 and caused his initial campaign staff to abandon him en masse earlier this ear. He endorsed a “humane” immigration policy last night, which prompted Michele Bachmann and the other Iowa also-rans to gang up on him. Expect his temperament and moral decisions to come into play too, as those same candidates fighting for a chance to knock him off the not-Romney pedestal in the desperate final moments before Iowa.
3. Rick Perry
It’s ironic that people used the term “meteoric” to describe Rick Perry’s entry into the race, because, like a meteor, he burned fairly brightly as he entered the atmosphere and then, as people got a good look at him, burned up into nothing. But Rick Perry is third on this list because he has something few of the other candidates have: serious money in the bank.
Strategy: Go hard or go home in Iowa and South Carolina. Finish at least second in Iowa, blast past New Hampshire, hammer South Carolina to make a splash in Florida. Use the money raised back when people thought you might actually be a decent candidate to buy positive ads that do not feature the candidate trying to speak beyond “I’m Rick Perry and I approve this message,” then “subtly suggest” that the Super PAC networks that support you run devastating attack ads on Gingrich and Romney. Pray that, since memories were short enough to give Gingrich the benefit of a second chance, they’ll be even shorter as the voting date approaches.
Strengths: Rick Perry still has money and still has his organization. As that now-famous “I’m not drunk, really” video of him speaking in New Hampshire shows, he is almost as bad in retail campaigning as he is on the debate stage, but at least he knows that now. He could, with his money and the close-knit Texas team around him, run a bizarrely appropriate Gilded Age front-porch campaign: talk as little as possible and work through surrogates.
Given that lack of candidate information has driven candidates’ poll numbers up (Bachmann, Perry the first time, Cain, Gingrich post-collapse), Perry might just hit the sweet spot that his predecessor as Governor of Texas did with voters: “sure, he’s not smart, but he’s likable and surrounds himself with smart people.” Then he just needs to hope they forget what that led to with the last Republican president.
Weaknesses: Perry committed what’s almost the ultimate sin amongst voters, as Ross Perot (who was at one point the frontrunner in 1992) might tell you. Not only did he take voters’ money and voters’ support, and… I forget the third thing… but, uh, he made them look stupid for doing so. This means, unlike Gingrich, who has a TV-ready argument for his early collapse (“I just wanted to run my campaign ‘untraditionally’”), Perry is going to have to court voters that come out of the other candidates’ pools rather than his original one, most of whom now hate him for making them look so foolish. Given the initial excitement over his candidacy, that’s a very small pool. Even if he poached Bachmann and Santorum’s voters, he’d be a tough sell in Iowa. He needs some of the bigger players, like Cain and Gingrich.
Eventually, all that money he got in his first quarter in the race is going to run out, and there’ll be a sad reckoning. Perry basically needs to sabotage Gingrich (or let his opponents sabotage Gingrich, or let Gingrich sabotage himself) and wind up looking like the only blighted-but-standing “real conservative” alternative to Romney in Iowa. It’s distinctly possible. After all, following Herman Cain’s brief turn in the spotlight, Perry doesn’t seem terribly unreasonable as a front-runner anymore. But it’s not likely.
4. Ron Paul
Did you hear that? That was the sound of about nine thousand mouth-breathing young men (and they’re almost all young men) preparing to excoriate me for listing “Dr. Paul” so low in this list. But they should be grateful, given the mainstream media’s general dismissal of Paul, that he’s being listed as someone with a chance of making something of this race. The fact that they won’t and will instead shout in the comments section about liberty or what-have-you is generally why Paul isn’t given much of a shot to break his 15%-or-so “ceiling” of libertarian hardliners: the overzealous outreach conjures the Jehovah’s Witnesses more often than the Republican Party. But he does have a long-odds chance to win the nomination.
Strategy: Pull a very surprising second (or even possibly first) in Iowa, with Romney finishing third. Catapult into libertarian-friendly New Hampshire as someone who can build a strange sort of bridge between the economic hard-line conservatives (“abolish most government agencies!”) and social hard-line conservatives (“outlaw abortion!”). Spend some of the oodles of money the campaign is sitting on and step lively through to Super Tuesday in order to claim a narrow delegate victory some time before April.
Strengths: Ron Paul supporters often bring up how their candidate is actually doing much better than the polls say he is. This is actually true. When you compare polls of “registered voters” (RV) and “likely voters” (LV), you tend to find that the registered voters are much more favorable to Ron Paul, with a few even having him around 20% in Iowa. That’s can-win territory. If he can get those purported “registered voters” to actually go out and vote, Paul could expand far beyond his usual libertarian stalwarts there.
Money is also a big plus for Paul. Without much access to the rank-and-file Republican big money “bundlers,” he raised $8.3 million last quarter, above every candidate except the vulnerable Mitt Romney and the flash-in-the-pan Rick Perry. He taps into a disaffected and extremely marginalized group of Americans: people who think the current system of federal government and the post-FDR administrative state are both mistakes of titanic enough proportions to be erased from history. The fact that he is personally uncharismatic and eager to part libertarians from their parents’ cash doesn’t matter: he’s the only voice they’ve got at the table, and so their devotion to him (despite Gary Johnson’s attempts to elbow his way in) remains near-total.
Finally, given that the last two debates have been on foreign policy, an area where Paul is actually fairly consistent (“occupy nowhere”), his standing with casual observers is likely to see a boost. The “just get the hell out of places that don’t want us to be there anyway” argument has a far broader appeal this time than it did in 2007-8.
Weaknesses: Paul’s team said a lot of the same things about “registered voters” and underrepresented strength in the polls in 2008, but, as usual, the “likely voter” model turned out to be much more reliable than the “registered voter” one. Ironically, now that Republicans have made it harder to vote in many states, Paul’s chances of getting those disaffected “registered voters” to the polls is going to be all the more challenging this year.
He won’t be helped by the general fanaticism of his supporters and the sense of “really?” that their enthusiasm over things like a return the gold standard and the abolition of the FDA engenders. Granted, these people have had no national outlet for their views since actual small-government Republicans were pushed away from the levers of power by social conservatives in the 1980s, so it’s understandable that there’s a liberating feeling in finding a candidate who seems to support principles that you never thought anyone else stood for. But if you look up “trying too hard” in the dictionary, a picture of this man appears. Run-of-the-mill voters in the early states are not going to find him or his buddies particularly convincing advocates.
Finally, while Paul is relatively consistent on foreign policy (his isolationism is what got him so much initial press in 2007-8), his domestic policy is, at its core, hypocritical. The man gets up on stage and actually introduces himself as “the Champion of Liberty,” but what he means by that is a liberty which allows people who think like he does free reign to enforce their beliefs on people who do not. He sponsored a bill to effectively overturn Brown v. Board, a bill to prevent the recognition of homosexual relationships in order to prevent policies “that would interfere with the freedom of the American family,” and, of course, a bill that states that “human life begins at conception,” the Sanctity of Life Act of 2007. In the 1990s a newsletter published with Paul’s name on it made sneering references to black people as “fleet-footed” criminals, and though Paul has flatly denied supporting that position, it doesn’t pass the smell test: if he didn’t know about it, then how the hell did it get published with his name attached to it?
Some of those contradictions will actually help him in the Republican primary (particularly amongst those social conservatives who elbowed people like Paul out of the mainstream in the 80s), but if he gets traction, look for these and more outlandish proposals like eliminating government review of pharmaceuticals to make a big splash. Paul’s “liberty for me, not for thee” scheme is making more mainstream inroads this time around, but the internal inconsistencies will be subject to withering reproach if he comes into February with a serious delegate count. Nothing’s worse for poll numbers than a purported ideological paragon being revealed as a fraud.
5. Jon Huntsman
Barack Obama quickly identified his ideological and temperamental mirror in the Republican Party and did what any canny politician would do: kept his friends close and his enemies closer. A centrist and beloved successful governor of a Western state with an above-average economy, Jon Huntsman looked like the best possible choice for 2012, and so Barack Obama gave him a job as Ambassador to China. Looking at his miserable poll numbers now, Huntsman probably wishes he’d stayed there until 2016 rather than coming back to a Republican Party that has moved miles to the right in his absence, but he does have a minuscule-yet-conceivable shot at winning the nomination.
Strategy: Use dark arts (and/or Jon Huntsman Sr.’s super-shadowy Super PAC) to ensure Romney finishes third or worse in Iowa. Then use all the time spent in New Hampshire to establish a credible underdog rapport with voters eager to make an electibility argument. Pray the momentum can lift you over South Carolina and into Florida. Get Romney to drop out and endorse if he loses in Florida “for the sake of party unity.”
Strengths: Huntsman probably has the best on-paper record out of any of the GOP politicians running. He ran a state that was ranked first for business-friendliness. He is on the record as supporting low taxes and low regulations. Most importantly, Obama feared him enough to send him away, which ought to’ve earned him massive points in the field (and still could, if he managed to demonstrate signs of life).
In terms of cash, while Huntsman’s own campaign is floundering, he’s also the biggest beneficiary of the new opaque world of unlimited independent finance. Despite giving the least believable denial possible, it’s pretty clear that Huntsman’s billionaire father is behind the “Our Destiny” PAC running ads for Huntsman in New Hampshire, and that those ads are having an impact – he’s into the high single digits there in polls now, and seems to be at least gaining some semblance of footing.
Decent performances in the last two debates have helped, too, though, like Ron Paul, they were debates on foreign policy, an area where Huntsman comes off both as strong and independent. If he can keep that positive forward motion in the next month, it might put him in position to benefit if Romney truly stumbles.
Weaknesses: The most sterling record in the world doesn’t mean anything if you’re totally inept at bringing it to the fore. Initially, Huntsman decided to run his campaign out of Florida and bank on a strong enough showing in NH to last until then in order to pull out a victory. Besides the fact that this was also Rudy Giuliani’s failed strategy in 2007-8, Huntsman’s staff did a terrible job with his roll-out and nobody knew or cared who this Obama-appointed latecomer was.
Huntsman finally finished retooling his strategy last month, but by then, he’d had several middling-to-poor debate showings and had largely been defined as “that other guy who says something about China” on the stage. He was also low on cash, and while he can rely on the “mysterious benefactors” of the Our Destiny PAC for ads, they cannot tell him how to run his campaign or hire his staff or open his offices. If he wants to win New Hampshire, he’ll have to finance it himself on a very narrow timeframe. There’s no room for slip-ups or meandering speeches any more.
Even if everything does go according to plan, Huntsman is, as they say in football, no longer in control of his own destiny when it comes to making the playoffs… er… that is, winning the nomination. He needs Romney to lose and lose badly in Iowa. His allies might surreptitiously try to help this along with smear ads and clandestine support of others, but the candidate will have to balance that desire to go all out with the chance of maybe settling for a hypothetical offer of Secretary of State in the Romney administration and a second shot in 2020.
Yes, believe it or not, these candidates are still running, but, at least in my mind, I can’t see any way to the nomination for them. Here they are, along with why they’re toast:
Herman Cain: It took a sexual harrassment scandal, but people finally started paying attention to the fact that (a) he knew nothing about anything and (b) he was a breathtakingly conceited person. Unlike Perry, he doesn’t have the cash or organization to recover in time. He probably has another sweet book deal in the pipeline, though.
Michele Bachmann: Let’s be fair to Michele Bachmann: in certain low-intensity settings (morning talk shows, for instance), she is actually a pleasant and coherent person and you understand how she got elected to the House in the first place. But in watching the debates, with her one-note bellowed/wheedling answers on domestic policy questions, you understand why everyone else in the House hates her, to say nothing of her running-on-fumes campaign staff. The goodwill of her surprise entry into the race and her Ames victory has been squandered, and Iowa does not forgive or forget those sorts of things.
Rick Santorum: I’m going to miss his sad-and-puffy-Nick-Cage-esque face giving an average of 0.8 good responses/night to questions at debates before turning into a pouty “values voter special” in a race (and, mercifully, a country) that is no longer as concerned with his purported “values.” But he never had any traction and never will.
Gary Johnson: Pity the man. He’s the former governor of a swing state (New Mexico). He’s an athlete and a decent speaker. But he didn’t do anything right, and his vaguely libertarian tendencies were overshadowed by the titan that is Ron Paul.
We’re at the “end of the beginning” of this nomination race, comatose from turkey-tryptophan or hopped up on endless cups of coffee for our Black Friday shopping. As we pull into the home stretch of the long slog that is this Republican nomination campaign, five candidates seem to have some sort of viable path to the nomination, though it’s likely to come down to a battle between the top two: Romney and Gingrich.
As the snow falls and the smoke clears in Iowa late on January 3rd, we’ll see just how well these candidates traveled on their final nomination paths. As the great Laurie Anderson once said: “Stand by.”
Photo credits: Gage Skidmore. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Gage for releasing his outstanding photographs using a free-ranging Creative Commons license. He’s captured many excellent images of the Republican race this year, and you should check his work out on Flickr.
* – if this discussion of Smaug was news to you and I’ve spoiled the upcoming multi-million dollar two-part film adaptation of The Hobbit, I’m sorry. Look at it this way: Newt Gingrich would sneer at you and say something like”at least it gave you a taste of the book-filled childhood you clearly should’ve had.”
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