Wednesday, January 18, 2012

GOP Field Strength, One More Time

Before we come up with all sorts of theories of why the Republican field was so weak in the 2012 presidential cycle (as Paul Krugman does here or Fred Hiatt does here) or wonder how Mitt Romney would have done against better challengers (as Steve Benen does here), it's just worth remembering that the real GOP field this time was at least Romney, Pawlenty, Perry, and Barbour, and perhaps also several others, including Palin, Thune, Christie, and Daniels. That's the real field that we should consider when assessing what Romney beat. Most of the others who showed up for debates and even took votes in some primaries, such as Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann, were just sideshows. Whether deliberately planned that way or not, they weren't actually running for the Republican nomination for president; they were seeking publicity for one reason or another. Or, in the case of Ron Paul, seeking to alter the debate within the party on various issues. Or maybe they were fully committed to running but just had no idea of how to do it or what it would take to win. The point is that Romney really had nothing to worry about from any of them.

Once can certainly make the case that the actual group who ran from president in 2009-2011 was relatively weak. I'd say it was similar to several previous groups: the Republican field in 2008, and Democratic fields in 2004, 1992, and perhaps 1988. None of those featured real first-tier heavyweights, and each -- including the GOP 2012 crew -- had a handful of plausible nominees, people who had conventional credentials and were within the mainstream of their parties. As far as why this cycle was similar to those, it's mostly supply, not demand. The only plausibly top-tier heavyweights out there really weren't, since neither Sarah Palin nor (gulp) Dan Quayle really qualify, and there's no one out there similar to Ronald Reagan 1980, someone who was a major party leader for years. As many have pointed out, the next tier down, the solid respectable sitting or recently retired Senators and governors, were wiped out to a large extent by the big Democratic landslides in 2006 and 2008. And so the pool of potential plausible nominees was relatively small, before even starting to worry about anything else at all.

The key point here is that Pawlenty at least, Barbour almost certainly, and at least a few of the others were defeated by Mitt Romney, even if those defeats didn't take place in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina. It's just become the case that Republicans winnow early, but that doesn't mean that the first ones out were actually the weakest candidates or had the smallest chance of winning. And if you stack the 2012 losers against other fields of losers, you're not going to find a huge difference on paper (where Rick Perry looks a lot more impressive, granted, than he turned out to be), and perhaps not even a big difference in fact (since Perry goes with John Glenn, Phil Gramm, John Connally, and other famous flops). It's rare to have a runner-up as strong as Hillary Clinton 2008 or Bob Dole 1988; there are a lot more like John Edwards 2004 or Mike Huckabee 2008 or Bill Bradley 2000 who aren't going to be more impressive than Perry and Pawlenty this time around.

10 comments:

  1. Palin needs a big ol' asterisk next to her name for the entire 2012 cycle, and I think that's part of it. I think Palin's candidacy/non-candidacy played a role in some of the early withdrawals. I remember when Barbour withdrew asking "why?" Romney hadn't sewn it up then.

    I still think that the whole Romney thing is bandwagoning. And bandwagoning only occurs once there's a front-runner. Which only happened once Barbour, Thune, Daniels, Palin, Pawlenty, Huckabee and Perry had flamed out. It was very early for Barbour, Thune, Huck and Daniels, and I think that was partially a Palin effect. The other three were certainly felled during Romney's front-runner-hood, but Perry killed his own campaign, Pawlenty partially did so (and was partly killed off by Romney & Perry sucking up his oxygen), and Palin, obviously, killed her own campaign (even if it was for personal reasons).

    I'm not sure of this Palin-centric argument, but I think it's actually testable. A good reporter could ask the former campaign staff for the early exiters WHAT killed them off. Because it certainly wasn't Donald Trump or Michelle Bachmann.

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  2. there's a few things you left out.

    The 2012 election began on November 3, 2008. And you can be dam sure there were about 5 republicans at the time who thought a R could win in 2012. I don't anybody could have predicted a trillion dollar stimulus wouldn't work and that Obama could be beatable. So, there was a supply issue.

    And in terms of winnowing out, don't underestime campaign finance. Romney's abiiity to get rich friends and other Mormorms to write checks has helped a lot.

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  3. And of course it's hard to know (at least if you think about these things the way I do) whether to count her as a candidate or not, which certainly affects the strength-of-field question. She sure did a lot of things that looked like what a presidential candidate does, including campaign-type trips to Iowa, so I'm inclined to mostly count her and say that she dropped when things were going badly for her (and within that calculation, I have no problem with including that her interest in running may have been less than some other politicians).

    Pawlenty, and perhaps others, ran out of/found it difficult to raise money. I suspect, but don't know, that was more related to potential donors not being interested because they were for Romney or convinced he'd win than it was to Palin.

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  4. The Pain question is an interesting one since given how pathetic the field is, it's very hard to understand why she didn't run, even if her calculation was that she would finish second to Romney. I am guessing but I think it's one of two things: one, she is sick. She has been wearing a wig for a couple of months now and it's possible she has cancer. She looks unwell. The other possibility is she feared the McGinnis book and decided not to run because the book would destroy her. The book was pretty thin stuff, but the revelations about her affair with Glenn Rice made headlines. It may be that they focus grouped the issue and decided that The Tea Party could tolerate a lot of bad stuff, from Gingrich's ethics violations to Santorum's lobbying. But the one thing they can't handle is white on black sex - which is what made the Herman Cain fiasco so bizarre. Not one black chick - not one.

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  5. I'd say it was similar to several previous groups: the Republican field in 2008, and Democratic fields in 2004, 1992, and perhaps 1988.

    I think 2012 was unique. In 2008, by the time Iowa rolled around all three of the top candidates (McCain, Romney, Huck) were at least somewhat plausible, even if they varied in actual strength. You could say similar things about 2004, 1992, and 1988. I really have never seen anything like 2012, where by the time Iowa rolled around only one candidate seemed like a real candidate; Perry had completely flopped and the rest of the field seemed entirely implausible. It is the closest thing to a one-man show in the modern era.

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    Replies
    1. Yes, but that's about early winnowing, not strength of field.

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    2. How about the 2000 GOP nomination, which, to my mind, is the one that crystalized a lot of the Party Decides argument. (At least, I know it did for Casey Dominguez, and that's when the UCLA crowd was working on it)?

      Now, the difference in 2000 might have been that the field was so pre-winnowed for Bush that it was laughable, whereas Romney really did have potential threats out there from Nov 2008 to about Oct 2011. Bush was free and clear by summer 1998 at the latest.

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  6. Doesn't the anomaly continue to be how wrong sizable number of party actors were about Rick Perry's strength? There was sustained hype and major financial backing for Perry in the months leading up to his run -- how were all the party actors who bought into him so fooled? (I.e. Didn't pick up on, or see a problem with, what a fool he is?) If Perry had simply been mediocre, this would have been judged a somewhat zany but solid field with two genuine candidates representing two regional wings of the party. Instead, it's just been Romney, who won one very early invisible, winnowing primary against Daniels, Christie, Thune, etc.

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  7. I think this question of field strength also can't simply be separated from the other question of "publicity"/"business-plan" candidates. Your point about early winnowing does seem crucial, but the illusion of weak field strength has also been created because the GOP and its supporters have created the conditions that allow for a whole slate of "publicity" candidates to sustain themselves.

    The flip side of people being struck by the weakness of the field also seems to be their tacit judgment that a candidate as foolish as Cain/Palin/Bachmann actually would never even have been able to really run in GOP races from 1980-2000. And so their flabbergasted by the way in which powerful GOP party actors allowed for this to happen.

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  8. I think Huckabee would have been very hard for Romney to beat in 2012. It's hard not to think he would have won everything Santorum won, and then some.

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