I was originally going to write this post yesterday, following up on my previous look at the upcoming elections from August. But I decided I’d better do a little extra studying of the present-day situation before writing — and boy, am I glad I did!
I use the words “present-day situation” for a reason. See, most of my thoughts lately regarding the coming election haven’t been about Obama, Romney, Gingrich and Bachmann — they’ve been about Lincoln, Roosevelt, Kennedy and Nixon. I’ve been reading a lot on previous presidential elections — Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals (about Abraham Lincoln and his Cabinet), Donald Ritchie’s Electing FDR: The New Deal Campaign of 1932, Theodore White’s The Making of the President series (I’ve finished 1960 and 1964, am still working through 1968, and read 1972 years ago but plan to re-read), Michael Lewis’ Losers (about the 1996 Republican candidates) and of course Heilemann and Halperin’s controversial Game Change. These books and others, while not perfect, are helping give me some perspective on what’s going on out there, and have led to some interesting insights that I’ll deal with down the road in this space.
But let’s leave the past be for the moment and look to the present — the 2012 GOP contest — as the January 3 Iowa caucus quickly approaches …
When I wrote about it four and a half months ago, I’d figured that in the wake of Texas governor Rick Perry joining the race and the Ames, Iowa straw poll, the leading candidates were probably Perry, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Minnesota representative Michelle Bachmann and Texas representative/libertarian standard-bearer Ron Paul. Which might have been the case at the time, but a lot changed and changed quickly.
First, Perry took the lead in the polls, only to immediately get hit with two problems — people started looking at his public statements on what he’d do in the White House (including major changes in the Constitution), and the other candidates began targeting him in debates. Perry is not a particularly good debater, and was soon tripping over his own tongue on a regular basis (most notably the time he tried to name the three Cabinet-level departments he’d get rid of as President, and couldn’t remember one). In Iowa, Perry went from leading in mid-September to fifth place a month later, and his poll numbers still haven’t recovered. In the meantime, his entrance took the wind out of the Bachmann campaign’s sails; her numbers haven’t returned to their earlier levels either
Then ex-pizza magnate Herman Cain began picking up steam, but soon his candidacy was snowed under by allegations of sexual harassment that he did almost nothing to refute; he finally gave up and shut down his candidacy in early December. Suddenly onetime Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (whose candidacy I had declared deader than a canned sardine in the summer) rose in the polls, taking the Iowa polling lead only for him to become the new debate target, and for some of his more morally-minded supporters to be reminded that he’s on his third marriage and cheated on the first two wives. (In his defense, he seems to be faithful to wife #3. As far as we know.) In recent days, his numbers in Iowa and elsewhere have been dropping, although he still leads in South Carolina (primary, January 21) and Florida (primary, January 31), both of which border his home state of Georgia.
This may sound like chaos, but there is a pattern to it. Take a look at this graph of Iowa poll results from Real Clear Politics. Early on, Romney led, but with only 15-20% support — a lot of people were still choosing “none of the above” at that point. The Iowa-born Bachmann jumped into the lead in mid-July (with Romney in second) and held that spot until late August, then plummeted as the Perry campaign came up to speed. Perry was on top (with Romney and, for a while, Bachmann close behind) until early October. When Perry sank, Herman Cain’s numbers spiked, and he took over the front-runner’s position in mid-October (with Romney in second again/still) and held it for a month until the harassment stories began popping up. Cain’s spot was almost immediately taken by Gingrich, who was #1 for the last third of November and first half of December (with Romney following and Paul picking up steam). Now Gingrich has fallen back to the pack, his support apparently being divided between Paul and ex-Pennsylvania senator/bete noire of the LGBT lobby Rick Santorum.
See, there are three parts to the Republican Party — in order of constituency size, the social-conservative bloc (largely concerned with issues such as homosexuality and abortion), the pro-business social-moderate wing (more focused on economic issues), and the libertarians (anti-centralized-government). There is some overlap between the groups, but that’s basically how the GOP rolls. Romney is the social-moderate candidate, and son of a previous social moderate, George Romney. (Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman Jr. is in this group as well, but as he has yet to poll even 5% in Iowa, or almost anywhere else, I think we can set him aside.) Ron Paul is the “hipster” libertarian — he hated Big Government before it was cool. But pretty much every other candidate running for the Republican nomination is from what some call the “Religious Right” section of the party.
So what’s happened is that the social-conservative portion of the GOP, which has been its main force going back to Reagan, has been trying to unite on a candidate … only each person they get behind is falling apart. Bachmann came across as very weird, Perry scared people and couldn’t recall his own talking points, Cain didn’t keep his zipper up (allegedly!), Gingrich had his own zipper history and was perceived as fudging more than a little, and all of them ran into trouble in public debates. The current move toward Santorum, I suspect, isn’t because the social conservatives think he’s a great candidate; it’s because they’ve tried everyone else.
And meanwhile, Romney has been holding steady with 15% to 25% support, campaigning against Obama instead of his Republican rivals, refusing to sling mud (though he’s been willing to have others do it for him). He’s had to fight charges of flip-flopping, most of which has come about because he’s a moderate trying to appeal to conservatives. Still, he’s been looking more and more like John Malkovich’s description of Matt Damon in Rounders. If, like Damon’s character Mike McD, Romney “flops a nut straight” — wins the Iowa caucuses or comes close — he’s in the driver’s seat for the nomination. Especially considering that on January 10 comes the primary in New Hampshire (right next to Romney’s Massachusetts base), and for most of the last ten months he’s had more poll support there than the next two candidates combined. Then with his winner’s status and his own natural social conservatism (he is, after all, a Mormon), he could easily ride a wave of support into the next two primaries.
A strong showing in Iowa gives Romney a big future — but for some of the others, they need the same just to have a future. Perry, Bachmann and Santorum are all polling below 5% in New Hampshire and Florida, and below 7% in South Carolina; the last two in particular are betting the house on Iowa. Any of those three are dead in the water if they don’t come through big next Tuesday. Gingrich’s numbers are trending down, but he’s still strong enough in the South that he doesn’t need to win Iowa or New Hampshire, just do well enough to survive until South Carolina and Florida. (And start spinning the press his way again.)
And Ron Paul? He’s been gaining slowly for months, staking his position as the candidate with a firm stand on what he believes. He’s always had to fight the media (and public) perception that he’s a fringe player, an extremist, a man without broad support. (The code word here is “unelectable.”) If he finishes first or second in Iowa — eminently possible, as his core backers tend to be passionate, loyal, and just the type who can take over caucuses — he can put the lie to that perception. He won’t win New Hampshire, but in this scenario he doesn’t need to — just do okay and move on to the two Southern states. If Gingrich keeps slipping, Paul could steal some of Newt’s support (his side has been pounding Gingrich hard), win over social conservatives who also don’t trust Washington, and set himself up as the “stop-Romney” candidate. Which might be enough this election cycle.
What’s going to happen next? We’ll see come the 3rd. But I don’t think the roller coaster that the Republican presidential race has become is going to slow down anytime soon …