Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Mittster and Health Care Follow Up

Ed Kilgore believes that my argument that Mitt Romney's candidacy won't be overly damaged by health care is all wet. He's more tuned in to GOP activists than I am, I think, and at any rate he's always worth reading, so check it out (and see too Steve M., who agrees with Kilgore).  I'll stick with my sense of it, but he could be right!

Where I will argue is about the process. Kilgore says:
Now Jonathan has a much lower estimate of the power of actual voters in the GOP nominating process than I do. Yes, the elites that run the "invisible primary" can and often do make or break candidates. But they are not invincible. Consider 2000, when George W. Bush amassed the most impressive array of elite support going into an open presidential year that anyone's ever seen. He had the money guys. He had the right-to-lifers and other cultural conservatives. He had the foreign policy mavens. He had the Wall Street Journal/business crowd. He had anti-tax commissar Grover Norquist. He had it all, and nearly lost the nomination to John McCain--whom the elites heartily disliked--by getting drubbed in New Hampshire. I was living in Washington at the time and knew some pretty influential conservatives, and they were in a state of complete panic the week after that primary. And as we remember, it took a scorched-earth, Total War effort against McCain in South Carolina to derail him and put Bush back on track.
I wasn't in Washington then, but I certainly believe him about the "state of complete panic" after New Hampshire in 2000.  I just don't think that panic was warranted. Yes, Bush had to fight hard in South Carolina...but he wound up winning there by 11 points. That's pretty decisive. And after that, McCain was toast; although he did win in Michigan soon after South Carolina (and Arizona, too), after that he was thoroughly drubbed on Super Tuesday, winning only in New England -- and losing by twenty points or more in California and Ohio. I don't think Bush "nearly lost the nomination" at all; at best, he came close to having a much more competitive fight, but even that never really happened.

(Don't forget: the press, even if they weren't swooning for McCain back then, have a strong bias in favor of the underdog in these situations; both the press as institutions and individual reporters covering the campaign have a strong self-interest in presenting the contest as highly competitive and unstable).

Just to be clear: by party elites, I'm not just talking about Washington-based leaders; in addition to campaign and governing professionals and party-aligned interest groups, I also include activists, and local politicians and formal party staff and officials. When they're all on the same page -- as they were, overwhelmingly, in 2000 -- then just-plain-voters are almost invariably going to follow along, even if they create a few bumps in the road along the way. 

Of course, Kilgore is correct that 2000 was a case of full party elite support for one candidate against a challenger that party insiders didn't like, and 2012 likely won't be similar. When the party insiders can't agree, the voters matter more. And he may well be correct that, contrary to my assertions, one or more elements of the party otherwise open to Romney won't stand for his health care record. If, however, he's wrong about that, and if it turns out that Romney does emerge the winner  of the invisible primary, then I think it's unlikely that health care will do him in with the voters -- because the voters will follow what the bulk of the leadership suggest.


  1. I think you should discuss Steve M.'s disagreement about whether or not G.O.P. primary voters followed "opinion leaders" in Senate primaries last year, e.g., in Delaware, Kentucky, and Utah. This would probably clarify whether or not you actually disagree, and also clarify your relatively broad definition of opinion leaders/party elites. Like, I see that Erick Erickson endorsed Rand Paul, and he would fit your definition of an opinion leader, but this might not be Steve M.'s, so you might be talking past each other.

  2. Good point. As you hint, that's exactly what I think: the GOP was very split on Ron Paul and on the other Tea Party "insurgent" candidates last year. *Which* opinion leaders are listened to, and which ones win internal party struggles, is a real interesting question, and the answer likely changes over time, but if you can figure that out it'll explain more than you'll get by thinking of the voters (as voters) as independent actors.

  3. And, I'm going to go ahead and agree with you on McCain 2000....he got all the media buzz and what-not, but he didn't really have a real shot. NH was his best shot, and SC was never going to be friendly territory, and he didn't have the money to compete in the big states/big days.


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