Friday, December 9, 2011

She Was Singing That "It's Too Late" I Agreed With That Part

No new candidate is going to jump in late and win the Republican presidential nomination. It's not going to happen. It's been too late for months, and it's too late now. Really.

I thought Josh Putnam had killed this off yesterday after Rhodes Cook reopened it, but with Nate Silver weighing in, I guess not. So, here goes, a long, long, long look at why the field is set.

The main focus of Silver's piece is, as he says, is about how the current structure of public opinion leaves a strong opening for a new candidate, as opposed to the process argument that Cook made. And he's right that right now, there does appear to be a large, and perhaps a huge, opening for another candidate. We know the story of this...most of the candidates are not particularly well liked (by Republicans). Silver looks at the Gallup poll asking which candidates are acceptable, and notes that only two, Gingrich and Romney, have a net positive acceptability, and it's certainly not hard to picture either of them with a deteriorating image as the campaign goes along.

And yet what makes this kind of thinking not work out is that process matters, and it matters in a way that works to produce a candidate who is popular within the party. Moreover, process matters too for the chances that any candidate will jump in late.

OK, let's get to it.

First of all, the support registering in the polls so far appears to be very soft. In my view, that probably applies to the "Not Acceptable" numbers that Silver touts in every case except for Ron Paul. If one of the others, especially Rick Perry, could manage to put together a solid week, chances are that "Not Acceptable" number would melt away. After all, right now those numbers are much higher than the "unfavorable" ratings for each candidate. Sure, it makes sense that a substantial group of Republicans might like Michele Bachmann but still find her unacceptable as a presidential candidate, but overall I'm not prepared to put too much weight on that single poll. If I'm right about that, then if both Romney and Gingrich collapse soon one of the other candidates could wind up winning; it wouldn't be necessary to bring in someone new. So Silver's "motive" argument, in my view, falls short.

Not to mention that there's really no one out there with the heft to overshadow the rest of the field with a late entry. Mitch Daniels, John Thune, even Jeb Bush: none of them have the clout and reputation to immediately swoop in and dominate the party on their own merits.

For the rest, one needs to turn from public opinion back to process.

Suppose a new candidate announced today? Well, as Cook acknowledges in his column, filing deadlines are already upon us. In fact, and using his numbers, filing deadlines have passed in states with 339 delegates. The window closes on another 155 on Thursday, and 49 more on December 22. Miss all of that, and you're spotting the field 543 out of 2264 total delegates. That's a huge, huge hole to begin from if you hope to get a majority; after all, it's not as if it's all that likely that a Mitch Daniels or a Paul Ryan would sweep the rest of the states, even if everything went very well. And another avalanche of filing deadlines show up right after New Year's, with another 342 in the first half of January. So wait until the field sorts itself out after New Hampshire, and over a third of the delegates are gone.

So a new candidate who came in right now would start behind in the delegate count, and scramble to put together a viable campaign while the current candidates were busy organizing and campaigning. He or she could compete in Iowa (but without any organization at all), but even an improbable win there would be followed by...nothing. The other candidates would then compete in a series of primaries in which Bush or Christie or Daniels would at best get some write-in votes. Moreover, the field will winnow after Iowa (and winnow even more if an outsider just won it!). Think about it: imagine a Christie/Gingrich/Paul finish in Iowa. Guess what? Only those three and Romney, at best, go to New Hampshire, but Christie isn't on the ballot, so one of the other three wins. If it's not Romney, he drops out, and suddenly Newt Gingrich is the only non-Paul candidate on the ballot and still running in a whole series of states, piling up the delegates. Or, Romney wins, and the Gingrich bubble pops after his shocking Iowa loss, leading to Romney building a large delegate lead before finally reaches the ballot in (some of the) Supertuesday states in March.

Later entries are even less likely to work. Silver spins out a scenario in which Newt wins in Iowa, does well in New Hampshire, and then wins both South Carolina and Florida, despite party leaders wishing for another option -- and so a new candidate is recruited then. That matches Cook's idea of a February entry, again after the Florida primary on January 31. But the math is even more impossible that way. An entry in the first week of February would have no shot at the 883 delegates accounted for above, plus another 95 with late January deadlines, or the 156 selected in early caucus states. That's about half of the total number of delegates. And surely Romney would drop out if that was happening, meaning that Gingrich would likely sweep most of the delegates available, with Ron Paul the only active alternative on the ballot. Newt, who would be popular enough to have won all those early contested events, would only have to win a small percentage of the remaining delegates to clinch the nomination.

Look, if Ronald Reagan 1979 (or the Democratic version, Ted Kennedy 1979) was lurking out there...well, you could try to find ways for that candidate to grab enough delegates through write-ins or other such desperation plays to survive until he was on the ballot -- although Kennedy's actual story is a great caution to the grass-is-greener aspect of all of this. That's not Chris Christie or Mitch Daniels. There aren't waves of ordinary Republican voters eager to hear how they can vote for Bachmann so that it will count for Paul Ryan, or some similar work-around.

So a late entry doesn't work.

Next stop? The deadlocked convention. Could a candidate jump in there and win it?

Nope. It's not just that it doesn't happen; it's that there's good procedural reasons that it (almost) can't.

What a deadlocked convention needs is three or more candidates winning delegates. But the nature of the process is that candidates who do poorly in the first states are starved for resources and drop out. That's already happened with (at least) Tim Pawlenty. It will happen in the next month with, almost certainly, any candidate who does badly in Iowa and New Hampshire...most likely, we'll be down to three or four active candidates at most, one of whom will be Ron Paul. It's highly unlikely that we'll still have more than two plus Paul after Florida -- we did, briefly in 2008 (with Huck, Mitt, and McCain all making it to Supertuesday), but the logic of the process makes that the best-case scenario for a split field, and as we saw in 2008 it wasn't really all that split.

Meanwhile, Paul is unlikely to pile up very many delegates. There are just too many events that are winner-take-all, either by state or congressional district, for a candidate who gets a consistent 15% everywhere to have that translated into very much at the convention. My best guess is that Paul will be very challenged to reach 10% of the delegate total as a very optimistic upside.

Which means that if there are only two other candidates in most states that they'll have to finish in a dead heat for Paul's handful of delegates and the smattering of delegates won by candidates who drop out early to prevent the winner from hitting 50% + 1.

I should include one caveat...of course there is a non-zero chance of the current field not producing the nominee. If someone wraps up the nomination early on, and then falters in some extraordinary way, then of course one can construct a scenario...call that the meteor hits the debate hall caveat. Don't think, however, that a normal but severe campaign gaffe could disrupt a previously settled nomination. Remember: the convention is self-governing. The convention is its delegates. And the delegates chosen are the ones slated by the candidates, and therefore those chosen to be delegates are normally the most fanatical supporters of the candidate that can be found. They're going to be the first to rationalize or ignore any new negative information about their hero, and the last to accept it. What that means is that anything that isn't strong enough to knock out a presumptive nominee altogether isn't very likely at all to lead to a revolt by the convention. So, sure, if Gingrich switches wives or religions again between winning the last primaries and when the gavel drops in the convention, or if one of the others staggers over the finish line with 60% of the delegates and then develops a health issue, well, then things open up.

But don't think that party leaders can take a nomination away from someone who has won it in the primaries and caucuses. There's just no mechanism for doing it, no matter how much they might want to.

The actual dynamic if an unpopular candidate wins the nomination in the spring is that we'll have a month or two of serious buyer's remorse and lots of improbable ideas hatched on how to overturn it...followed by a few months of GOP elites finding new strengths in the nominee and the rank-and-file falling in line. Republicans will get all excited about the VP pick, and with the competition out of the way they'll start remembering that their real target is Barack Obama. By the time the convention opens, they'll be as excited about their ticket as Democrats were in 1992 or Republicans were in 2008.

As regular readers know, I don't expect Newt Gingrich to remain the polling leader into the spring and sweep all the states in which he currently holds a polling lead. But should he do so? If Newtmentum continues through Supertuesday and he wins most or all of the states that day, he would be the nominee. End of story.

Far more likely is that party actors now rally around Romney -- or, perhaps, Rick Perry, if he can avoid damaging himself for a week and starts converting his cash advantage into a polling bump.

Either way, however, the field is going to winnow, and my guess is that it'll be all over within six weeks. Or, perhaps, it will drag out to March. Either way, the field is set, there's not going to be a deadlocked convention, and one of the current candidates is going to be the Republican nominee.

18 comments:

  1. But, in an earlier discussion, I thought you argued (contra me) that the winner-take-all process was easier to come from behind in than the proportional on the D side?

    So, I agree with THIS post!
    :)

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  2. Not entirely on topic, but I remain convinced that with proportional allocation and a 15% threshold for viability - John Edwards could have racked up 150 or so delegates on Super Tuesday '08, if he pressed on through those contests.

    Which leads me to consider the idea of Super-Duper-Delegate Edwards with 165 delegates as Obama and Clinton went back and forth all the way to June. Especially in retrospect, that was quite the bullet dodged.

    In the case of the GOP field this year, Perry jumped in a month or so later than I figured was do-able. The only way this works is if the presumptive nominee is somehow disqualified by a scandal between wrapping up the delegate count and the convention vote.

    But functionally no chance for a late entry to wrest the nomination away, no matter how bad the current crop of candidates turn out to be?

    THIS IS EXCELLENT NEWS FOR MITT ROMNEY!

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  3. This is a good post, though I am not sure why we would lump Jeb Bush in together with guys like Daniels or Thune. I certainly agree that the delegate barrier is too high for the otherwise low-profile Daniels to rise up cause he's right on taxes or Thune to rise up cause he's right on the military-industrial complex.

    But if the late entry needs to ride an emotional tidalwave, isn't Jeb Bush the ideal silver surfer? A successful late entry would need a primal appeal to the worldview of folks who see the modern WH as a battle between good Presidencies (#41 and #43) and evil ones (#42 and #44). Within that framing, wouldn't Jebby be perfect?

    Course, even if he's perfect, the barriers to entry are still onerous. But if the ABR phenomenon is real, and Gingrich is a self-implosion waiting to happen, and Perry can't get any damn thing right, shouldn't we keep an eye on Jeb? Isn't he pretty much the only guy who could fit the bill, if that's even possible?

    (Actually, one other person sort of works potentially to generate the necessary emotional tidal wave: Sarah Palin. Just sayin').

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  4. The Ron Paul folks don't play by the conventional rules of political warfare. In Massachusetts, actual delegates are chosen by caucuses that no one knows about. So in 2008 Ron Paul supporters managed to pack these events and vote themselves as delegates for the one qualifying candidate who had dropped out -- Romney. I'm not saying Ron Paul will manage to win, but it could be fun to watch his supporters storm the ramparts.

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  5. This is an interesting thread, and it prompted three more thoughts why, while the probability of the white knight/Trojan Horse candidate is no doubt low, it's likely a lot higher than the "meteor hits the debate hall" scenario, particularly if the white knight is Jeb Bush.

    First, in the eyes of Republican kingmakers, presumably Jeb Bush carries all the positives and little of the baggage of his daft older brother. One caveat is the post-9/11 world; its not hard to imagine that GWB would not pass muster if he were being considered post-9/11, maybe Jeb doesn't either.

    Second, the Gingrich boomlet. It would seem, from a pure academic standpoint, Gingrich's rise makes no sense either in its size or sustainability (thus far). Not only does everyone hate Gingrich, but he has always been a poor politician - including in this primary. If you substitute a politician with a decent reputation and a good brand (i.e. Jeb Bush), would you not expect a much larger and more sustainable surge?

    Finally, the power of right-wing media to sweep away all rationality. Suppose we were all hanging out at a political science conference in 2006 and talking about formal and defacto restrictions on the Presidency. Someone might have brought up the birthright citizenship requirement, as an assurance that no divided loyalties would occupy the Oval Office, even if said politicians had been here many years (e.g. Schwartzenegger).

    At that point someone might have made the leap from formal to de facto and said, well, on the topic of divided loyalties, you surely could never have a candidate on a major party ticket whose spouse and primary adviser is a card-carrying member of a separatist party. That could never happen, we would have intellectually asserted.

    But it did, three years ago, and I think we all have a pretty good idea how that went down with very little (Constitutional) grumbling. We all know that Fox News and the right-wing media played a big role in the passing off of a separatist's wife as an acceptable VP candidate.

    Could Fox News consequently push a mainstream name like Jeb Bush to act as a steamroller on the rest of the field, campaign organization be damned? Sure they could.

    A long shot, but it seems to me not at all a "meteor hits the debate hall" long shot. In fact, if Romney is fading but no doubt willing to fight to the bitter finish, that might create just the kind of early delegate split that sets up perfectly for Jeb to storm the castle.

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  6. The conclusion that someone will win a majority of the delegates needs more support. I'm not sure we can't continue to have ups-and-downs in popularity right into and during the primary season. Gingrich might nearly-destroy Romney in January but self-destruct in February. Could this not open the door to other candidates together garnering a quarter or third of the delegates, leading to a brokered convention? And what about a supposedly grassroots write-in campaign? (Can you spell "Palin?" Perhaps she'd reluctantly accept a brokered nomination and maybe choose Jeb as a running mate.)

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  7. I think you're missing on Jeb Bush. I'm a liberal, never voted Republican for President, but I caught one interview with him some months ago. Based on that, I could really see him winning independents from Obama. There seems to be agreement the Republicans want above all to beat Obama. So if no existing Republican candidate polls within x points of Obama, and if Jeb showed enough leg to warrant a poll assessing his chances, and if I'm right about independents, you could see a situation where the only possible Republican victor seems to be Jeb. While I don't see those if's happening, if they did I suspect ingenious minds could figure out a way to get Jeb the nomination, despite all the process hurdles (the return of the brokered convention anyone?).

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  8. Just to continue chipping away at JB's party-pooping thesis - which I think most of us consider to be more likely accurate than not, but not much fun - what if the delegate slates of "committed" Newties and Mitties consist of people as flip-floppery or otherwise unaccountable as the men they're pledged to? The slapdash, rushed, and on-the-fly character of Newt's operation, resulting in its not even having provided a full delegate slate in at least one primary so far, could also play a role here.

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  9. Hitler is hoping for a brokered convention... from the bunker: http://youtu.be/laU6PfdgW44

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  10. Looking back to the last GOP nomination, Rudy Giuliani led the national polling virtually through all of 2007 (there was a Fred Thompson boomlet in there) until December, when Mike Huckabee started going neck and neck with Rudy.

    Yet after the New Hampshire primary, McCain would not lose another national poll of the Republican candidates. Meanwhile Giuliani? After leading in most every Florida poll all year, Huckabee closed the gap all December to go along with his rise in the national polls, but after NH, McCain took over.

    Giuliani went from polling Florida consistently in the 30s during the fall of 07, to the mid 20s in December, to right around 20 as McCain passed him after NH on Jan 9th, dropping into the teens within two weeks, and finishing with 14.6% on the Jan 29th primary.

    Now there arguably wasn't the angst over the quality of the field (as expressed by Republican pundits) that there is this year, but I think you can look to how Rick Perry's fundraising dried up when (1) he entered the race too late to organize properly, (2) he relied on his Texas people, and didn't hire an experienced national campaign team and (3) uh.. uh.. um.. I forget.

    Oh yeah, and (3) he hit the debate stage.

    All the prior evidence suggests that once the voting starts, the field will get winnowed to two or three viable candidates by the time S. Carolina reports their vote. And I'm not counting Ron Paul here. The big question looks to be whether or not Perry can resurrect his campaign in time to not get snuffed out in January. If he remains viable, Perry's the one who could become the alternative to Romney or Gingrich. (For all the discussion of Huntsman coming on, he's been stuck right at 10% in New Hampshire for a month now.)

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  11. Couves: nice link.

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  12. The difference from 2008 is that last time virtually all contests were winner-take-all, while many of the primaries this time around will assign delegates proportionately. I think this could keep second-tier candidates afloat for longer than in the past.

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  13. >By the time the convention opens, they'll be as excited about their ticket as Democrats were in 1992 or Republicans were in 2008.

    The McCain case is instructive. Despite the fact that he was long hated by right-wing commentators, despite the fact that Limbaugh declared that nominating McCain would destroy the Republican Party and that Coulter threatened to donate money to the Hillary campaign if McCain won the nomination, he nabbed it pretty easily. By Election Day, exit polls showed that the electorate included the exact same percentage of self-identifying conservatives as in 2004, when the conventional wisdom was that high conservative turnout had been partly responsible for Bush's victory.

    If it can happen for McCain, it can happen for Romney. I'm skeptical that Romney is as deeply distrusted by the right as McCain was. It's worth remembering that back in 2008, Romney was actually the favorite among right-wing commentators like Limbaugh, who declared at the time that Romney embodied the "three stools" of true conservatism, in contrast to those fakers McCain and Huck. Many on the right may have enough cognitive dissonance to believe that a man who was the "true conservative" four years ago is now an unacceptable RINO--but the fact that he doesn't have a long history of being viewed that way on the right surely makes a difference.

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  14. Kylo -- the three legs of the conservative stool, surely?

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  15. >the three legs of the conservative stool, surely?

    Yeah, whatever.

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  16. Nice post, and I appreciate the Elvis Costello reference.

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  17. Many of your assumptions have already been proven wrong. We have 4 candidates still (despite your prediction that not only was that it was highly unlikely but that it was likely the nominee would be chosen by then). Paul's camp estimates that they will have won about a third of the delegates in the states that have begun the delegate process so far. Your analysis shows you are unaware of the real way delegates are selected (not your fault, nearly no one but the people involved with Paul, Obama and maybe Romney campaigns know this).

    You should revist this post, own up to it's flaws, and come up with a new model, IMO.

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    1. It's not likely that Paul is doing as well in delegates as they claim. We'll have to see -- there's not enough reporting to know for sure -- but it's very unlikely, in my view.

      As to the rest...I'll stick with what I said. We just barely have four fully active candidates (Newt is contesting only a small group of states) as it is. I don't see any reasonable chance that we'll hit a deadlocked convention, and we certainly did't see a late entrant of the type Cook and Silver were discussing.

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