Friday, June 17, 2011

Oy, Bai

Matt Bai hits the campaign trail with Jon Huntsman, and proclaims that he's being underrated as a presidential contender.

Why? Because, he says, contrary to what liberals think, most Republicans aren't nuts, and so they'll probably look for a not-crazy candidate. And: because there's nothing doing on the Democratic side, lots of independents will be voting in GOP open primaries, at least in the states that have open primaries.

Sorry, I'm not buying it.

Jonathan Chait beat me to the punch on the first part of it, and he covers it well. I'd say it slightly differently...yes, most Republicans aren't nuts (in Bai's words: "stereotypical birther types with pictures of Sarah Palin on their refrigerators and nothing but Bibles on their bookshelves"). They are, however, conservatives. All else equal, most Republicans, especially those who vote in primaries and attend caucuses, are likely to prefer a more conservative to a less conservative candidate. They might not go for a Michele Bachmann or a Herman Cain because of concerns about November, or even because they're not sure those candidates are really up to the presidency. But Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and (if he's in) Rick Perry should all be at acceptable on both counts. So Huntsman's appeal is going to be limited to actual moderates, which just isn't where the party is. The truth is that the one who is being condescending here is Bai, who apparently doesn't get that not all strong conservatives are also off their rockers.

As far as open primaries...this is one of those incredibly sophisticated hidden variables that insiders can feel all insidery for knowing about, but don't really amount to much. Bai asks what would have happened had independents in New Hampshire voted for Bill Bradley instead of John McCain in 2000. You know what? Check what happened to McCain! In very close contests, this sort of thing can make the difference, but presidential nominations are rarely close contests.

Here's what's going to happen. Everyone's attention is going to be on Iowa. Someone is going to win in Iowa; someone is going to come in second; someone is going to finish third. Odds are that those are the candidates who receive most of the publicity in the week between Iowa and New Hampshire, and candidates who do poorly in Iowa or skip it altogether will get mostly ignored -- and therefore wind up with disappointing results.

The truth is that people don't win presidential nominations by waiting for the perfect state for the demographics that give them the best chance and then running and winning there. That's just not how the game is played.

Chait believes that Huntsman is running for 2016, and Ezra Klein suspects he's running for the VP slot. Perhaps. Maybe he's just willing to take a longshot chance (it's implausible that he'll win, but not impossible). Or maybe he's just suffering from the delusions that previously affected such no-chance moderate GOP candidates as Pete Wilson, Arlen Specter, Rudy Giuliani. He wouldn't be the first.


  1. Or Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney, Dwight Eisenhower...wait.

  2. What is the basis for your extremely confident claim that the NH results can be extrapolated from the IA results? This seems not to accurately describe the '08 Dem primaries, the '08 GOP primaries, the '00 GOP primaries...

  3. ASP -- Yup. The Huntsman spot was the place to be...when each league had 8 teams. Since expansion, not so much.


    Not straight-line extrapolated, but that the also-rans in Iowa are basically toast. As are any candidates who skip Iowa. I definitely think, for example, that Pawlenty or Romney could win the nomination after a solid third place finish in Iowa. Skipping Iowa (or getting crushed there) just isn't a viable strategy.

  4. I think Huntsman is betting on the following:
    1) Romney, distorting his positions to appeal more to conservatives, loses to a candidate further to the right,
    2) New Hampshire then rejects Romney for his right wing Iowa campaigning,
    3) after having won NH, he can convince people that he could beat Obama while his further right opponent wouldn't.

    Still, I don't think that would work.

  5. I've posted comments here in the past when I disagreed with you, and I'm just commenting now to say I agree with you 100%. I'll be surprised if Huntsman wins a single delegate.

  6. A moderate could have a chance if conservative/liberal fail becomes epic enough (if I may use web parlance) that the country cries out for leadership that promises real change… that may be in 2012 or it may be in 2016, but Huntsman wants to be the right guy in the right place when that happens. The problem is, Huntsman comes across as excruciatingly wishy-washy -- based on what I’ve seen, it doesn’t look like bold new leadership that he’s offering.

  7. Like Daniels, Huntsman is an establishment candidate, and has no shot in this environment. That's also why everybody is waiting for Romney to crash. Pawlenty is trying desperately to separate himself from the establishment, but in doing so he appears neither fish nor fowl. The establishment did have one small victory in NH, they managed to exclude Johnson. Well done, bluebloods!

    Bachmann's support will wax. Cain's will as well. Paul will hold steady. They collectively represent the anti-establishment.

    But it's Perry who will soon arrive and shake up this mix. That will be the great clarifying event in this primary. The final ingredient. We'll see what happens then.

  8. The most establishment guy in 2000 was George Bush, no more qualified to be president than the guy sitting next to you at the local sports bar. Likewise, Cheney was ever more a conservative establishment guy with even more impeccable mainstream credentials. And they turned out to be complete incompetent AND crazy in pursuit of America's destruction as a viable democracy.

    #1: I'm not sure Huntsman can be less freaking nuts than they were,
    #2: Branding himself as the current 'compassionate conservative' will work IF he can effectively dogwhistle the base without the media getting it. Of course, he'll have to re-brand it with a tougher love and less compassion tone.
    #3: If he wants to be president, he has to start somewhere, it might as well be now when the opposition is weak and he can build a media base since he's an 'unconventional' i.e. interesting to the media, Republican candidate. He can own the mavericky brand with very little effort (money) but the risk is #2 creates cognitive dissonance.

    If Huntsman thinks he has an effective strategy that positions him with Republicans as a smarter, tougher, more savvy version of the 2000 Bush while simultaneously positioning himself with the media and independents as the just as mavericky version of 2000 McCain he can definitely win.

    Romney can't create the bond with the base because it's an unnatural act for both him and the base and he'll never be as 'authentic' as the media image of McCain. That creates openings for everyone else.

  9. I'd vote for Huntsman. Ergo, there's no way in hell the Tea Party will nominate him.

  10. It seems pretty obvious that from Huntsman's perspective in China it appeared that the GOP was clamoring for a "Reasonable Republican" candidate for President. Once he resigned his ambassadorship and relocated his family, he had little choice but to follow through even after he discovered that his initial evaluation proved to be mostly based in the fantasy of columnists.

    I seriously doubt he gave up his dream job to be Vice-President or add a little luster to a 2016 Presidential bid. At some point a few months ago, he must have felt that he had excellent odds at securing the Republican Presidential nomination. Now that that proven not to be the case, he has to continue an apparently quixotic candidacy in order to fulfill promises already made to supporters and family.

  11. Sorry, but you and Chait couldn't be more off-base. But that's normally what happens when Dems try to predict what GOP voters will do; you just don't understand how we think. Not that Bai is completely correct either. But let us go through your assumptions that are wrong:

    1) Your claim that Iowa affects New Hampshire has been wrong in the past and is especially wrong for the GOP race. McCain ignored IA in 2008 and won NH. Huck won IA and went nowhere in NH. McCain also "got crushed" in IA in 2000, finishing a very distant 4th behind Gary Bauer but still won NH. IA increasingly serves one purpose in the GOP race--to let the social conservatives cull their ranks. NH utterly doesn't care how IA votes, at least on the GOP side.

    2) You are throwing around the term "moderate" like the talking heads do without actually thinking about what it means. You're not the worst at this--some idiot on CNN the other night claimed that Huntsman and Giuliani would compete for each others votes if they both got in despite that they are polar opposite "moderates" on a whole host of issues. Anyway, Huntsman's "moderation" is tuned to the NH electorate. The "moderate" immigration position had 50% support in NH in the 2008 GOP primary. Ditto belief in climate change. Civil unions weren't favored in 2008, but only lost by 55/45 margin. Care to guess where it would be now, 4 years later? Wager it's a majority position even in the GOP primary, and that's before you add in Bai's point that there will be no competitive D primary drawing Indys. (and Dems) Being a "moderate" most certainly helps in NH on all these issues especially if you are the only one in the field. Albeit, the "moderate" label isn't really the right one for Huntsman. He is positioning himself as the pragmatic/electable libertarian in the field.

    3) Your 3rd issue is that you do what analysts always do and think that ideology is the only thing that drives voting. I get why you do that--as a poli sci prof you want to make objective judgments, but voting is also about the gut, visceral reaction to candidates. That is where Romney, in particular, has major problems. The "connection" thing, the "flip-flop" thing, or as the NYT now is talking about, the "weirdness" thing is the same problem that it was 4 years ago. Huntsman has no such connection problem--in fact he's much more like Huck on the campaign trail--smooth, warm, and likeable. Again, go peruse the exit polls from 4 years ago and see that the majority of GOP did not decide on ideology, but on intangibles.

    Huntsman's road is definitely uphill, no doubt about that. Romney may have an insurmountable lead in NH at this point. But Huntsman's smart to ignore IA and throw everything he's got at NH. Most of us think Romney has a glass jaw on health care and a low ceiling in the primary. NH will clearly vote for a likeable, capable moderate and Huntsman is one. If he pulls the upset off then he will face off with whomever IA picks in South Carolina. That will be the bigger challenge since the neocon wing lead by Kristol et al will probably go to war on him if it looks like he can win.

    Too long a comment--sorry, ah well.

  12. I wish you had not posted anonymously, since I would enjoy discussing the politics of this further. Though I doubt we would agree on many policy matters, I think you make several good points here.

    You correctly point out that New Hampshire primary voters no longer care about what Iowa Caucusgoers think, if they ever did.

    I think Professor Bernstein knows exactly what he means by "moderate," and I would like to know just what it is. I would also like to know yours. How large is the group that fits this definition?

    I ask because I want to pick one little nit. Isn't ideology, and "gut reaction to a candidate," really the same thing in many cases? Are you saying that the folks who listen to American Family Radio frequently will go with a "moderate" who must necessarily disagree with the listener on occasion as long as they have a good "gut feeling?"


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