Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Case for and against Santorum

I'm convinced that Santorum has already, if he finishes third or better, managed to achieve an improbable result. Not just by getting one of the fabled "three tickets" out of Iowa, but to do so when one of those tickets, the Ron Paul one, is for a candidate with no chance at all to win the nomination.

In fact, should Iowa finish the way it looks like (but might not), I don't see any realistic chance that anyone else could defeat Mitt Romney and actually win the nomination. Yes, I can imagine some real longshot possibilities, but other than a strong fourth place for Rick Perry somehow reviving his campaign, I don't think any of them are particularly worth wasting time on.

So the question then is what kind of chance Santorum has. And the conventional wisdom seems to be: practically none. InTrade, always a useful guide to conventional wisdom (if not much else; their record as a predictor this year is a disaster), has Santorum at a tiny 2.5% right now, fifth behind Paul, Gingrich, and Huntsman. Ezra Klein probably has the conventional wisdom summarized in a post yesterday titled "Sorry, Santorum fans, but Romney will win this." Here's what Klein thinks:
Rather than challenging Romney, Paul and Santorum are preventing a challenge to Romney. There is reason to think that a candidate like Newt Gingrich or Rick Perry could make a strong run at Romney if they caught momentum out of Iowa. But Paul and Santorum are squeezing those candidates out in Iowa, and since Romney is almost certainly going to romp to victory in New Hampshire, it’s much harder to see where a plausible not-Romney can score an upset victory that would actually change the underlying dynamics of the race. The strength that Paul and Santorum are showing in Iowa is, in other words, a boon to Romney’s chances, not a threat to them.
I half agree: I agree with the Rick Perry part of that (Newt? Why do people think that Newt would have any chance one-on-one against Romney?). But I'm not sure why Klein, and a lot of other people, are writing off the possibility that Santorum could compete in other states.

Now, it's not as if I think that Romney is really weak; to the contrary, I've been saying all year that he had an excellent chance of winning and that the anti-Romney thing is overblown. But when I see Klein asking for a scenario other than Romney winning...well, it seems pretty obvious to me. It's not a likely scenario, but for what it's worth, here's how it works.

First, Rick Santorum finishes first, second, or third (behind Romney and Paul) in Iowa. Second, as the new and unexpected kid on the block, he gets a ton of publicity, just as Gary Hart did after a distant second place finish in 1984. Plausible so far?

Third, he leapfrogs the field and finishes second in New Hampshire. The most recent poll there had Ron Paul second with 16%. Romney was at 43% and Huntsman at 10%; that leaves a whopping 31% who aren't interested (so far) in the three who have campaigned there the most. He's already at 5%, just five points behind Huntsman. Is it really difficult to imagine Santorum half of the other 26% and finishing second if he's all over the news for the next week? Or at least finishing third and knocking Huntsman out?

And so Santorum arrives in South Carolina, and then Florida, as the conservative alternative to Romney. He has more-or-less conventional credentials for the presidency, and he hardly deviates from conservative orthodoxy on anything significant. And Romney is still sitting there with the same liabilities he's had all year, all of which has preventing him from polling above 30% and, more importantly, has prevented him from having an endorsement profile similar to what George W. Bush had in 2000. Santorum picks up some high-profile conservative support, and with only three candidates still actively running he consolidates the conservative vote and wins South Carolina. Again, plausible? Sure seems so to me.

Now, it's a two-candidate race (with Ron Paul still around). As long as the contests are one at a time, free media swamps paid media, but Santorum starts taking in money and expanding his campaign after Iowa. By Florida, he's ready, and he beats Romney there, too, with hawkish Cuban-Americans  and pro-lifers lining up solidly for him. Once again, plausible? I think so.

If you put it all together, I just don't see writing him off if the results are as expected tonight.

However...

Setting the odds is a lot harder. I see three ways he could collapse, or perhaps the right way to say it is fail to take off, between now and South Carolina.

1. I've talked about this before: it's possible that Romney really does have this won, and we just don't know it yet. It's possible that over the next week or two, dozens of endorsements that Romney has held in his pocket all along will be trotted out, and it will turn out he really was as strong as Bush 2000; we just don't know it yet. I'm usually skeptical of that sort of thing, but I can imagine it being a decent strategy in this case, with Iowa so unpredictable.

2. Republican party actors may reject Santorum as the conservative alternative. That's what happened with Gingrich among those who knew him in Washington; it's happening with Ron Paul among a variety of GOP groups and party actors. We have very little evidence on this, but what there is suggests that Santorum won't be subject to vetoes from any group. The latest Pollster survey of "Party Outsiders" -- party actors in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina -- had pretty good news for him. He's already a strong third in South Carolina among this group and has lots of second-choice support. I wish Mark Blumenthal had asked which candidates were not acceptable, but I don't see much of a problem for Santorum in what we do have. But we don't really know what Washington-based party actors might do when faced with a choice of Romney or Santorum, and it's certainly possible that they would shy away from him.

3. And then there's Santorum himself, and his campaign. He would have to immediately scale himself up to handle the intense crush of a serious national campaign, and his campaign would have to follow within a few weeks. I don't think it's especially important that he doesn't have any money right now, because he'll get plenty of free media at first, but before long he's going to have to manage a national campaign without disasters. There are plenty of candidates who appeared fine on paper who couldn't handle that transition -- just ask Rick Perry.

And if he avoided those three dead ends? Well, then he's still going one-on-one against Mitt Romney, who would still have a major head start (in campaigning; not in delegates). Even if a whole lot of conservatives rally to his side, and no major party factions or groups try to veto him, there's still no guarantee that he'd actually win.

I'm not really sure how to set odds on all of that stuff, but I'm certain that it's better than the 2.5% that InTrade is offering. Is it 5%? A bit more? As much as 10%? Even 15%? I'm really not sure, but I would say that a one-in-seven chance seems more reasonable than a one-in-forty chance. Perhaps some pundits know more about what Republican party actors are thinking than I do...but it's also possible that Washington-based pundits are overestimating party support for Romney. I really don't know. But "I don't know" means, I think, that he has a chance, if not a very big one.

20 comments:

  1. 2.5% on Intrade? Wow, that seems like a great buy opportunity. You figure he has to get to something significantly above 2.5% after Iowa.

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  2. "It's possible that over the next week or two, dozens of endorsements that Romney has held in his pocket all along will be trotted out, . . ."

    What's the advantage of having endorsements and not telling anyone? Or would it be the endorsers who are being cautious and waiting to see what happens in Iowa before they go public?

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  3. Scott,

    The theory is that you get can get some good news to offset any potential bad news. Most of the time, I think that you would rather get the endorsement public (which locks it in better), but I could see a case for wanting to overwhelm any bad news coming out of Iowa, I guess.

    It's also possible that you could have some people who are conditional endorsements -- with him unless one of the other candidates is alive.

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  4. Republican party actors may reject Santorum as the conservative alternative.... We have very little evidence on this, but what there is suggests that Santorum won't be subject to vetoes from any group.

    Erick Erickson has been attacking him. I don't mean to imply Erickson is some kind of influential party actor, but I see in his piece a narrative that will probably emerge among the red-meat commentators should Santorum enjoy a good night tonight: they will paint him as a socially conservative populist whose economic bona fides are questionable, much as they did to Huck in '08. And have you forgotten Santorum's 18-point loss in the last office he held (also mentioned by Erickson)? That's got to count for something, and believe me, it ain't gonna help this Rick.

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  5. I did see that, and I do think it's a clue about what they'll do -- but I also don't see a whole lot of evidence in that indictment, really. Erickson wants a Perry comeback, which he's not going to get (apparently). He'd settle for Newt, but that's also not going to happen IMO. I don't see how he gets Huntsman, either. Would he really pick Romney over Santorum, if those were his choices?

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  6. If Santorum comes in third, isn't he in roughly the position Lamar Alexander was in in 1996? That doesn't seem like a particularly strong position to be in.

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  7. It's possibly 15% if some of the dominoes fall in the pattern you describe, but definitely not 15% now. Given the slightly-less-dire economic news of late, the Republicans would be insane to nominate anyone but Romney. That doesn't mean they won't, but in the past they've usually done the smart thing in the end.

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  8. If not "Anyone But Romney", how do you explain the Gingrich and Santorum boomlets? (I suppose you could also argue that Perry's candidacy is driven by Anyone but Romney, not Perry's objective qualifications, but the late start).

    To the extent that the insiders drive the primary pre-Iowa, we've now gone from probably the least attractive candidate in modern history (Gingrich) to a guy who is the future of the party, if by the future you mean a party resembling a medieval papacy (Santorum). Surely the party movers wouldn't bring this upon themselves if Romney were acceptable, would they?

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  9. Jonathan, thanks for this post, and for the rest of your analysis today. I agree that Romney is the likely nominee, and that Santorum would have to pull the campaign equivalent of drawing an inside straight to upset him.

    One "card" that Santorum may hold is an angry Newt Gingrich. If Gingrich really does blame Romney for the pummeling Newt took over the last month, then it's within the realm of possibility that he'll spend the next few weeks tearing into Romney. The likely effect being an increase in Romney's negatives, with Santorum likely to be the primary beneficiary.

    (Again, not likely to make a difference in the end...but could be fun to watch.)

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  10. massappeal,

    Yeah -- I think more fun to watch than making a difference. It's not as if Newt is going to be buying a lot of TV time.

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  11. @CSH, I think the party movers who have jumped from one flavor to the next aren't being rational in their choices, but emotional. They'd rather not choose Romney, but the alternatives keep smelling worse as they ripen. So, at some point, they will give in and reluctantly accept Romney.

    It's only since 2009 that Romney is less acceptable. I researched conservative sites circa 2008, and Romney was second in popularity to Fred Thompson. Here's a fairly typical comment from 1/29/08:

    "Ok. Today I sign up on Mitt’s site and donate. If it is McCain v. Hillary in November I pull the GOP lever except for POTUS." (More 2008 research here.)

    So the Republicans will end up with Romney, and a whole lot of grumbling if he loses like McCain did. I expect Tea Party redux in 2013.

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  12. This is all for the best. People will learn about anal sex hygiene.

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  13. Jon, great stuff as always.

    Taking your point on hidden endorsements a bit further, we will have to see where the Class of 2010 goes. Whatever non-GOP politicos believe, those figures are the future of the party. More than one will probably put forth a strong challenge for the next presidential nomination if Obama is reelected.

    Do they believe in Rick? We know where Governor Haley stands. What about the rest of them? Here's the key: these people would have to see an endorsement of Santorum as something that would help them in a future political battle. Obviously, Rand Paul can't do it, but there are a few others who might start to think about it.

    Of course, Romney would just have to unleash Pat "Remember me, Rick? 2004, right? Specter?" Toomey. There could also be a lot on the line for Nikki Haley: deliver Romney SC & she might earn the veep slot.

    I don't think enough of the 2010ers believe; Rick Santorum has until the NH primary to change their minds. That's it.

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  14. What comes through, clearly is that William Goldman wasn't just speaking of films, when he said 'no one knows nothing' who in the legacy
    media, predicted this result, even two weeks ago,

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  15. Where's the example of anyone in Rick Santorum's position ever winning a major party's presidential nomination?

    I mean, anyone can spin scenarios of anything. But I can think of a number of people who were in Romney's position and won and nobody who was in Santorum's position and won.

    Jake Weisberg has the correct take. The only reason why people continue to "cover" this as a "race" is because Romney coasting to the nomination is boring:

    http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/the_big_idea/2012/01/mitt_romney_s_the_nominee_the_republican_primary_race_is_over_.html

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  16. There's an interesting theme throughout this thread that Santorum's boomlet (and previously, Gingrich's) is a function of either media or party boredom either with Romney or the inevitability of the race.

    If that's true...why would the insiders do this to themselves? How is a protracted contest possibly in their interest, particularly given that Romney v. Santorum v. Paul represents a pitched battle between the divides in their own party? Aren't the modern Republicans, at least by reputation, supposed to be smarter than that, leaving it to the self-indulgent Dems to engage in destructive primary battles?

    As a matter of intellectual curiosity, I find the casual acceptance of Romney's inevitability based on similarity to "the past" underwhelming: the "past" in question is comprised of, what, 4 instances? From the way folks talk of 'Romney's certainly the one', you'd think it was like 4,000.

    Yes, the uniqueness of continued Romney antipathy doesn't relate to anything we've seen before, but keep in mind, we've only seen 4 such examples, not 4,000 or something like that.

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  17. Actually, Matt Jarvis made the good comparison a while back between Romney's self-financed Presidential gravitas and Meg Whitman or Linda McMahon's self-financed senatorial version of the same.

    At a subjective level, Romney's Presidential candidacy feels similar to McMahon or Whitman's senatorial bids, no? There's a giant machine promoting inevitability, but on a closer inspection there's really not much "there" there.

    Of course, a big difference is that there's less plausible alternative to Romney today than either of those two senatorial candidates. Nevertheless, the comparison is compelling enough to believe the Republican primary race is anything but over.

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  18. If that's true...why would the insiders do this to themselves? How is a protracted contest possibly in their interest, particularly given that Romney v. Santorum v. Paul represents a pitched battle between the divides in their own party? Aren't the modern Republicans, at least by reputation, supposed to be smarter than that, leaving it to the self-indulgent Dems to engage in destructive primary battles?

    1. It's not the "insiders", meaning the true money people and kingmakers in the GOP, who are doing this. It's the media and the armies of political consultants whose interests depend on their being a contest (because it is necessary for there to be a story and for consultants to earn their high salaries as people who can "move" an election). And to a lesser extent academics like Prof. Bernstein, as the discipline of political science also relies on making the subject of who wins elections more complicated than it really is.

    2. Bear in mind, the conventional wisdom that primaries hurt is probably wrong. Obama had to fight all the way to the wire in the Democratic primary last time out, with Clinton partisans arguing early on that she needed to be able to wrap it up and go to the general. In point of fact, Obama was probably helped, and certainly wasn't hurt, by the long primary season.

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  19. >In point of fact, Obama was probably helped, and certainly wasn't hurt, by the long primary season.

    I think that was more the exception than the rule. I don't see what Romney has to gain from a longer primary season. He isn't some little-known newcomer, as Obama was in 2008. Put another way: imagine that Hillary had somehow emerged as the nominee in 2008, fending off Obama's challenge. I suspect her image would have been plenty bruised from the battle--as in fact it was. And for Romney, the longer the primaries last, the more he will be compelled to move further and further to the right, decreasing his general-election appeal.

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  20. Dilan, you may well be correct that the media and other peripheral entities are driving the facade of a competitive Republican primary.

    OTOH, Rick Santorum - weirdo/universally, nearly-"Gingrich unlikable" Rick Santorum - really did come within 8 votes of knocking off Romney in Iowa. That 8 vote near-victory was the culmination of a 3-year invisible primary, almost certainly not driven by the media or consultants...or Jonathan, much as some insiders probably pay attention to his interesting articles :).

    FWIW, I personally think Romney will be the nominee, but I base that on the fact that I simply can't explain Santorum, Gingrich, or really even the survival of Perry in spite of historic gaffes. So I'm in the "Romney will win" camp because I'm fond of regarding myself as pretty smart, but in truth some weird stuff is afoot in the Republican primary, things that are well beyond my humble intellectual pay grade.

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