Monday, October 24, 2011

It's Still Romney vs. Perry

Ross Douthat got a lot of things really right in his NYT column yesterday. There's a lot of truth in this:
Everyone has an incentive to play down these realities and play up Romney’s vulnerabilities instead. The press needs the illusion of a hard-fought campaign to keep its audience from straying. Democrats enjoy the spectacle of right-wing infighting, and benefit politically from it as well. And Republicans don’t want to admit that America’s conservative party is destined to nominate a politician who embodies the very tendencies that the conservative movement came into being to resist: technocracy, ideological flexibility, Northeastern moderation.
Except for one thing: it's not over yet. Or at least, there's no evidence available to us outsiders that would indicate it's over. There's still Rick Perry.

Douthat lumps him in with the hopeless candidates, who can be broken up into business plan candidates (it's Chait's phrase, and I love it) such as Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich, and with those who are just ideologically all wrong for the GOP, such as Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman. But Perry doesn't fit either of those categories. And Douthat doesn't really have the goods on him. All he has is that Perry did poorly in the debates so far. That's not enough; Perry is raising lots of money and therefore running a full-scale campaign, and he's also won a fair number of endorsements. He's a serious candidate, whatever his current polling numbers indicate.

Now, if Romney was doing the things that runaway frontrunners do, I'd agree with Douthat that it's over. But he's not, at least so far. His polling numbers are far behind those of typical frontrunners, and so are his endorsements.

In other words, at this point there's still a very large number of party actors (and, while less important, a very large number of voters) who haven't decided yet. It's a large enough group that if they all went the same way, that candidate would win. Clearly, many of them are wary of Romney (or else they would have jumped on that bandwagon long ago); just as clearly, they aren't enamored of Perry, or at least they're waiting to see if he can run a solid campaign.

So at some point, the campaign might wind up essentially over in the way that Douthat thinks it is now, but unless he has more information than what's in public reporting, that isn't the case yet.

The funny thing is that when Douthat says that "Romney’s path to the nomination is more wide open than for any nonincumbent in decades" but that he could easily lose one or more contest once the voting start -- what he's really describing is where George W. Bush was in fall 1999. The difference between Bush then and Romney now is that Bush had much better polling numbers and was endorsed by far more high-visibility party actors -- a good sign that party actors in general were either happy to have him or at least willing to live with him. And, indeed, Douthat's advice about ignoring the ups and downs of the next few months would have been excellent advice then. John McCain, the 2000 edition? Never had a real chance. Bush had it won, long before McCain's New Hampshire upset.

And we may well wind up there this time. It's certainly possible that Perry's done, either because of the debates or his immigration mess or whatever other reason; even if he's not done yet, perhaps he will be soon. Even if that happens, it will still be quite possible that Romney will lose Iowa or New Hampshire before formally nailing down the nomination, and in that case all of Douthat's cautions will be exactly right.

But we're not there yet.


  1. I realize there are problems with this analogy, but the situation here really looks to me a lot like the Clinton/Obama race as of fall 2007, but with Perry better positioned against Romney than Obama was against Clinton then. There was a widespread opinion, including among Dem activists who regretted this, that Clinton was en route to a coronation. (Google the phrase "Hillary has it wrapped up" for many examples.) Clinton had the establishment endorsements, but she was unloved among Dem partisans, who really wanted to vote for an opponent of the Iraq war. Obama, though, was competing for second place with another serious candidate, Edwards, and it wasn't clear who the supporters of Edwards -- or Biden or the other also-rans -- were likely to prefer once it came down to Clinton and Obama. Those other candidates were by and large not leftist firebrands, so it seemed that Clinton wouldn't have much trouble collecting enough of their supporters to keep Obama from overtaking her.

    Romney is likewise a frontrunner unloved of party activists. The differences here, though, are (a) only one other serious, well-funded candidate, and (b) a group of minor candidates whose supporters are almost certainly more in line with that other candidate ideologically, hence very likely to end up with him once the others drop out. And the real attacks on Romney's Iraq, MassCare, while bizarrely long in coming, are still there to be made. So yeah, Perry is far from finished.

    Against this analogy are the facts that Clinton refused to renounce her Iraq vote, whereas Romney will say anything he thinks the GOP base wants to hear; and Perry's inability to speak in sentences, which was never a problem Obama had even in the early going. But the first of those is itself a weakness for Romney (makes him untrustworthy and means he can't run on his signature achievement), and the second is correctable with better coaching -- plus, as we've seen, it's a quaity that seems to endear a candidate to Republican voters. Romney really should be worried, and I think it's clear from the last debate that he is.

  2. It's Romney vs. Cain vs. Perry, in actuality.

    If Cain wins Iowa, and finishes top 3 in New Hampshire, what do you think happens in South Carolina and Super Tuesday? This could truly end up in a dogfight of a primary.

    And the Pauls and Gingrichs show no signs of dropping out, which makes it festive.

    Cain reminds me of Carter in 1975. He sat down with the Beltway operatives and laid out his primary strategy, and some told him he was nuts. But when he walked through the numbers, there was a plausible path through for him, and he ended up walking it. Whether Cain can show Carter's wiliness certainly remains to be seen, but stranger things have happened.

    And there's no illegitimate super delegate process involved here. If the R primary voters go for a guy... and he starts racking up delegates and closes it out... that's it. There is no emergency escape lever for the establishment to pull (buy?), a la Dean, or Obama/Clinton.

  3. As delighted as I'd be to see the GOP nominate Cain, Anon's scenario is extremely unlikely. There's no real comparison between Carter '76 and Cain '12. Carter had been positioning himself and impressing party insiders with his knowledge of national issues for at least two years (whereas Cain is clearly winging it); he also worked Iowa heavily, showed up at the crack of dawn to shake hands with workers at New Hampshire factories, and was so meticulous in preparing his campaign that he personally lobbied delegate candidates in Illinois to support him. (In those days, Illinois had the first big-state primary, and the voters there voted directly for convention delegates -- so a candidate who had big-name delegate candidates already pledged to him had a leg up on the others.)

    Of course, the key difference is that Carter was actually running for president. Cain is running to sell books and get on TV. It was just reported today that he has basically no campaign organizations at all in the early states. At best, he'll be the Huckabee of this race, although I'd be surprised if he even got that far.

  4. Yeah, but we may be in a different era today. Carter had to chase the dream using the historical tools, which will work, right up until the day they don't. And Cain has no 20% super delegate count to worry about, or whatever it was in Carter's day. He's only got campaign opponents to worry about... that's it.

    It's sorta like the 2 woodsmen, staring at the charging grizzly bear. One suggest they make a run for it, but the other says there's no way they can ever outrun a grizzly bear. So the first guy says "Oh, I don't have to outrun the grizzly, I just have to outrun YOU."

    And no super delegates can alter that outcome, bought or otherwise. Make no mistake, if this guy stays up in the polling, he's gonna be a force, campaign organization or no. Like I say, we may be moving into a new era. We should be skeptical of that, but anything's possible.

    And you better rethink your delight in a Cain nomination, I suspect. Here's another image for you: Herman Cain with his boot on Obama's neck, ripping +5% of his 2008 voters directly off his hide. And then we move to the white voters, and tab them up. A Cain candidacy has the potential for one of the great electoral blowout in our nation's history, in other words. But can a political neophyte capture the nomination, is the question. A political neophyte won the WH in 2008, so who knows?

  5. Anon: please. There were no superdelegates in the Democratic party in 1976. They were added to the convention by the 1982 Hunt Commission process, and they started at 14% of delegates, eventually ramping up to the 20% of today. So, superdelegates had absolutely nothing to do with Carter.

    The argument about why elite endorsements matter isn't superdelegates; the story is told for both parties. It's about the process. These things don't behave like general elections because they don't have party cues. Elites serve as cues. They also serve as bellweathers for us non-insiders, in that they tell us about the success of candidates in getting well-functioning organizations and in reaching out to organized groups(in this sense, unlike the first, the endorsements aren't causal, but proxies for an unobserved variable).

    The argument against Cain being a legitimate force is very sensible: he's got foot-in-mouth disease, his organization is very weak, and he doesn't have much of the things that matter--money and elite support. Remember, Trump led this field. Bachmann was a solid #2. Perry lost 10+ points in a couple of weeks. Polling support, particularly for relatively unknown candidates, is highly variable. Endorsements and money? Not all that variable.

    BTW, Cain does worse in theoretical matchups against Obama than does Romney. Us liberals think Cain is an easier opponent because he says things that we can't believe would fly in a general election. Maybe we're wrong. But, from the poorly thought-out 9-9-9 plan, to not getting abortion, to reports that his staff has no idea what he's going to do next: none of these things scream "president."

  6. I agree that Cain is not a serious candidate, even if he is making some moves to build infrastructure at this late date. However, if Cain is actually running to win, I think he's running the campaign that Sarah Palin would have run. (But I don't think Cain makes anyone see starbursts.)

    Jonathan: I'd love to know at what point you think "Obama had it won" for the Democratic nomination of 2008, under the terms of your post here.

  7. Anon, it's true that we may be in a different era today. But that could be said every time and usually is. Fifty years ago there were people who said that television would end the party system because it put candidates before voters directly. And it did affect some things on the margins, like helping make conventions more boring, but basically here we still are.

    The last person nominated or elected president without holding previous elected office was Dwight D. Eisenhower. He was a moderate courted by both parties. He had been Supreme Commander of Allied Forces. He helped defeat Hitler and win World War II. Herman Cain ran a pizza company. He is totally unprepared for a real campaign and has already flip-flopped on at least three big issues. He didn't even do a Google search to find out what the conservative line was on those issues before blabbering about them on TV. His Republican opponents have pointed out (correctly) that his tax plan would raise taxes on most people. Those criticisms are Obama campaign commercials just waiting to be made. Again, I really hope you're right about his potential to be nominated. But I'm telling you, neither of us should get out hopes up.

  8. JS,

    Pretty much after the MD/VA/DC primaries.


    There's a pretty good argument out there which I sometimes buy some of that TV *did* make a big difference. Mostly, I don't think so, but some pretty smart people disagree with me.

    Anyway...I'm confident that the parties are a lot stronger now than they were in the mid-1970s, and I'm also confident that regardless of how strong the parties were at the time, it took them a few cycles to learn how to handle the new nomination system. And it's not even clear that the GOP was as thrown by the reforms, anyway. At any rate, I think a Cain thing could have happened in 1976, if not Cain himself, but not now.

    Also: famous and successful generals certainly go in the category of conventional credentials for a presidential candidate.

    Matt is of course correct about superdelegates.

  9. Also: famous and successful generals certainly go in the category of conventional credentials for a presidential candidate.

    Right, that was my point. Cain has nothing like that.

    There's a pretty good argument out there which I sometimes buy some of that TV *did* make a big difference.

    Yeah, like you, I'm skeptical. But the predictions I referenced were bigger than that. Clearly TV has not eliminated political parties or even made them relatively unimportant. Probably because of the point referred to in your other post, on ignorant citizens: Most people don't have unfiltered reactions to what they see on TV, but still rely on interest groups and elite signaling to decide what to make of it.

  10. "The last person nominated or elected president without holding previous elected office was Dwight D. Eisenhower."

    Is "previous elected office" all that important now? Thinkk about the pre-W era: Clinton was a long-time governor, Bush I had been knocking around the government for a long time, Reaga was a long time governor, etc.

    Bush II was elected President after five years of being governor in Texas, which, by all accounts is a fairly weak position. Our current President was a Senator for three [and a state senator for seven, if that counts]. Perhaps we've moved to a point where previous government experience brings little utility to candidates?

    So, I don't actually think Cain will win and I don't think Perry will either. [The original commentor compared the Perry/Romney match to Obama/Clinton; the problem with that is Obama was right, and Clinton wrong, on an issue of imortance to the base - Iraq - while Perry seems to have seriously screwed the pooch on HPV and immigration.] However, part of my own counter-argumentiveness is stemming from the way these argument seem to slide into a "well, it came up heads the last few times, so it's gonna be heads again" type of probability. At some point the tails has to come up and given Romney's obvious failure to ignite the field, this time might be it [but probably won't]. Cain is weirdly in place for that given his high positives, the fact that they keep on going up with recognition (the inverse of Perry, whose numbers seem to go down the more people hear about him).

  11. Another reason for my argumentiveness: Romney? Really? It's going to be Romney?

  12. Anon, I agree that it's really hard to believe it's going to be Romney. (Also agree with the point you make about my Clinton/Obama analogy.) That's why I would lean toward Perry as more likely at this point, although he does need to get it together soon. Leaving Cain's amateurishness aside, it's pretty clear from his recent "gaffes" that actually he's as moderate as Romney: His real belief is that "families" should decide about abortions (i.e. he's pro-choice) and that gay marriage should be left to the states. Now, he's tried to make very quick 180s on these issues, but that just means he's doing what Romney did too, only more recently. He isn't going to be any more trustworthy on this stuff than Romney is.

    Perry still has plenty of time to bash immigrants and even to repudiate his actions as governor, if that's what it takes. So it will be a choice among three candidates who have all flunked one or more of the right's ideological litmus tests. But only two have serious organizations and some idea of what politics and campaigning are all about. And only one of those, Perry, seems to be genuinely, on the whole, a social conservative with friendly ties to those groups that predate his presidential run.

    I will give you this: If Cain is nominated in spite of it all, then we definitely are in a new era, and the kinds of analysis we've been reading on this blog and elsewhere will be in for a major overhaul.

  13. Herman Cain ran a pizza company. He is totally unprepared for a real campaign...

    You mean, like the inexperienced, unqualified academic lawyer and political neophyte currently sitting in the WH? ;-)

    Things change, and have.

    Cain has polling numbers, and that's the only tangible way to judge this. If they hold, you'll be looking at a primary force. And whine about it or not, an R primary is something different than a D primary, where the super delegates, by ideology or direct purchase, hold significant sway. In this primary, those polling numbers are going to tell the story. The 20% super delegates can't influence the outcome. There's no 20% of votes for the shadowy types to buy directly here.

    The fact that you lefties are joining with Cain's primary opponents in attacking him is sorta music to his ears, if he intends to run a "different" kind of campaign. The current electorate doesn't appear to be of a mind to join with the status quo, and the R primary voters certainly don't appear so inclined. Romney's numbers are stagnant, despite significant polling volatility all around him. That's telling.

    The R primary voter will be voting for an apostate, no matter who they choose, as apostasy is built into each candidate's positions, by my lights. Yes, they're all 100% apostate, from a lefty perspective, but this ain't a D primary. You can't judge by those standards.

    And make no mistake, if Cain survives and especially significantly defeats his opponents, who will have made the same attacks as you lefties are making, he's going to be nearly impossible to beat in the general election. As mentioned, you can start by deducting a minimum of 5 points from of Obama's 2008 electoral totals (and it may be closer to 10 points), and work from there. Failure has its consequences. I wouldn't envy being an Obama campaign starting OFF with a 40-42% share, and counting down from there. This could very well become an epic blowout.

    Still, I trend to the old school, and see a President Perry or President Romney as the likeliest outcome, with Obama campaigning off a 46-48% starting share, and fading from there.

  14. Anon, I for one am not attacking Cain, I'm rooting for him. And I agree that if he's the nominee, the general election will be an epic blowout. :-)

  15. Anonymous said...
    (re: Cain's experience)

    "You mean, like the inexperienced, unqualified academic lawyer and political neophyte currently sitting in the WH? ;-)"

    By the time that Obama ran, he had already won election to the Senate (after holding state office). One is no longer a 'political neophyte' at that point.

    And during the primaries he demonstrated his skill and savvy by fighting the party's candidate and taking elections from her.

  16. Oh, I'd say that political neophyte fairly describes Obama. He's had a glide path into offices (other than when Rush creamed him), and didn't do much at any level he officed. Absent the super delegates, he would have had a much rougher ride to the nomination in 2008. The general election, post crash and McCain's "everything's fine" blunders, was merely an afterthought.

    Unlike 2008, the People know him now, though. There is no skill and savvy there. There doesn't seem to be any there there.


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