If you’re an American, you’d better start getting ready for the 2012 presidential election — after all, it’s only 450-some days away!
The last few days marked the real ramp-up to next year’s race. Not that things haven’t been happening all along; the campaigning for 2012 started before the 2008 election happened. But the televised debate among Republican candidates in Ames, Iowa on Thursday, followed by the all-not-that-important Ames straw poll today, is being treated as the “ladies and gentlemen, start your engines” moment of next year’s big race.
I’ve been following the whole megillah a little (as I figure to do through election night and beyond – I minored in poli. sci. in college, and never quite got over it), and I have a few observations on the recent events, such as they are:
First, to get you up to speed, let me run through the main Republican candidates (the Democrats only have one major presidential candidate, of whom I assume you’re aware). In alphabetical order:
- Michelle Bachmann — three-term Representative to the U.S. House from Minnesota. Iowa-born, and a favorite son … well, favorite daughter of the Tea Party contingency in the GOP, what with Sarah Palin having not declared. Also the only major female candidate this time around. Not especially popular in her home district, and (like Palin) often seems to come across as if she’s one filet short of a lutefisk.
- Herman Cain — former CEO of the Godfather’s Pizza chain and the National Restaurant Association lobbying group. The only major black candidate running for the GOP nomination. Touts his business experience, and is running as an outsider who will clean up Washington. His only political experience is a few years on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
- Newt Gingrich — former Representative from Georgia, best known for his time as Speaker of the U.S. House. Has been out of office for over a decade. A longtime lightning rod for Democratic criticism, he’s mostly made headlines this last year for his conversion to born-again Christianity and perceived chaos among the leaders of his campaign.
- Jon Huntsman Jr. — former Governor of Utah and U.S. Ambassador to China (the latter under President Obama). Perceived as one of the more moderate candidates, probably about as far left as you could be and still get elected governor of Utah..
- Ron Paul — longtime Representative to the U.S. House from Texas, and father of Kentucky U.S. Senator Rand Paul. Known for his libertarian views (he ran for President in 1988 on the Libertarian Party ticket), he has a loyal following in the anti-big-government wing of the GOP, and is considered the “intellectual godfather” of the Tea Party movement. Also perceived as too radical by other sections of the GOP.
- Tim Pawlenty — former Governor of Minnesota. Has long been talked about as a potential presidential candidate, and was reportedly considered for the vice-presidential nomination in 2008 before Sarah Palin was chosen. A staunch born-again Baptist, he was expected to be a favorite among the GOP’s evangelical contingent until the entrance into the campaign of …
- Rick Perry — current third-term Governor of Texas, and before that Lieutenant Governor under George W. Bush. Declared his candidacy officially today at a rally in South Carolina. Popular among many sections of the Republican Party, including the evangelicals, the fiscal conservatives and (to a lesser extent) the Tea Partiers. Has twice served as head of the Republican Governors Association, an organization that helped boost Dubya to the 2000 nomination.
- Mitt Romney — former Governor of Massachusetts and CEO of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and son of former Michigan governor George Romney. Ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination in 2008. A social and fiscal moderate, he’s been considered the front-runner for the last few months, but has been criticized for waffling on issues and for the health care plan he instituted while governor of Massachusetts, which is similar to Obama’s health care plan.
- Rick Santorum — former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania. A fiscal and social conservative, he has been targeted by gay rights groups for his outspoken disapproval of gay marriage.
There are other candidates as well, but none have more than fringe support. All but Perry (still undeclared at the time) participated in the Ames debate on Thursday, and all except Perry and Romney were involved in the straw poll as well.
I didn’t watch the debate on TV, instead following it through multiple live blogs on the Internet. Which would have been easier if the blogs had been more reliable. The content was fine, relatively unbiased as political coverage goes, but some of them (the ones using Cover It Live software) went down in midstream; Yahoo’s was out for the better part of an hour. But the Wall Street Journal’s stayed up, as did ABC News’, so I didn’t miss much.
The impressions I took away were mixed and in some cases a little strange. Romney basically had nothing to say about any of the other candidates, even when they lobbed grenades at him — he’s adopted a strategy of “running against Obama,” framing himself as the foregone-conclusion candidate. Which would make more sense if so many Republicans weren’t so deeply ambivalent about him. The fiscal conservatives don’t like the Massachusetts health care plan, the evangelicals don’t like that he’s a Mormon (a stumbling block for Huntsman as well), and people all over the place don’t like his unwillingness to take firm stands on various issues. He’s survived this long because the other candidates didn’t seem that strong; Perry’s entrance into the race may cause a problem there.
But he still came across better than some. Gingrich treated every question he received that wasn’t a softball as a “gotcha” meant to embarrass him (and actually used the term “gotcha” to refer to them — honest!). Huntsman gave few specific answers, and repeatedly said he was “running on his record,” which would be fine if there was much public knowledge as to what his record was. Pawlenty and Bachmann went back and forth a couple of times, and polling seemed to indicate that Pawlenty got the (slightly) better of it. Bachmann and Cain mostly worked the crowd, though the cheers for them paled next to those for Ron Paul, whose supporters were out in force. If you wanted firm positions on the issues and concrete plans for the future, your choices were Paul and … Santorum, maybe? The weirdest for me was Bachmann, who seemed as if she’d taken the idea of “staying on message” and run with it. Her answers never seemed to match, let alone answer, the questions being asked her.
After the debate ended, I posted this on Facebook:
Following the big GOP debate in Ames, IA online … and realizing that Rick Perry may have made a smart move by declaring so late, as staying out of the fray will only make him look better by comparison. (Also realizing that half the current candidates aren’t likely to survive the Iowa caucus; you could stick a fork in Huntsman, Gingrich, Cain and maybe Pawlenty right now …)
I’ll come back to some of that in a minute … but on to the straw poll. Headlines are saying that Bachmann won, and she did … sorta. Of the almost 17,000 voters who participated, 4823 — about 28.5%, far from a majority — chose Bachmann. Ron Paul finished second (27.6%), followed by Pawlenty (13.6%), Santorum (9.8%) and Cain (8.6%). Perry pulled 4.3% purely on write-in votes; Romney, who didn’t take part in the straw poll, got 3.4%. No one else even reached 3%.
What do all those percentages mean? Not a lot. The Ames straw poll is a strange animal — part county fair, part pep rally, part throwback to the “ruled by Grog” days of early 19th century campaigns. The right to cast a ballot costs $35, and the various campaigns pay most of the participants’ way — in addition to hosting barbecues and the like. (The money goes to the Republican Party of Iowa.) The candidates give speeches and pump up the crowd (Bachmann started a chant of “One! Term! President!”, referring to the GOP’s hopes of defeating Obama), and then the voters, mostly bought and paid for, vote for the people who bought and paid for them. Not exactly a laboratory for democracy, but it does measure the campaigns’ grass-roots drawing power. A good showing can lead to more opportunities for fundraising, a bad showing can cripple a weak campaign.
Or not. In 2007, Romney won the straw poll handily, getting over 30% of the votes with no one else cracking 20%; Sam Brownback and Tom Tancredo (who?) finished third and fourth. Way down in tenth place, with less than 1%, was John McCain, whose own campaign at the time was on life support. You all know how that turned out. And this year, there are reasons already to doubt the significance of the numbers. Bachmann, again, was born in Iowa, and she and Pawlenty come from right over the border in Minnesota. Ron Paul is the closest thing the GOP has to a “cult favorite”; his supporters are intensely loyal but not necessarily representative of the party. Rick Perry wasn’t even an official candidate when the day began (although the coming declaration was publicly known days ago); he didn’t spend a cent in Ames today, and still out-polled Gingrich and Huntsman.
I think you can come to some conclusions at this point, as I did in my FB post Thursday night. Gingrich and Huntsman right now are more done than a pork roast — they may not have enough support to even get to the Iowa caucus next February 6. Cain’s 8.6% shows that he has more followers than I’ve given him credit for, but he and Santorum have a lot of ground to make up on the others. Pawlenty was generally perceived to be the native-son candidate in Iowa a few months ago because he’s from just up the highway, but Bachmann has stolen a lot of his base and Perry (who like Pawlenty has executive experience and evangelical appeal) is poised to snag much of the rest. Even today, Pawlenty talked about having to “retrench in some way,” and reportedly his campaign is running low on funds.
So the big four now are probably Bachmann, Paul, Perry and Romney, each of who have to show that they can win broad enough support to be the nominee and runn successfully against Obama. Can Bachmann dispel the public image she has of being a bit loopy? Can Paul expand his popularity beyond the libertarian crowd and become the whole party’s candidate? Can Romney appeal to the fiscal conservatives and settle on what he actually stands for? And can Perry last past the honeymoon period and become the broad-based candidate everyone hopes he’ll be, even when his opponents start finding the weaknesses in his own record?
Time will tell. Watch this space as the days tick down …