Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Romney, Luck, and Palin

A lot of the commentary yesterday looking back on the Republican nomination process this cycle concluded, again, that Mitt Romney was lucky – specifically, in his opponents. Going whole hog down this path, Philip Klein argues that Romney was lucky that his opponent at the end was Rick Santorum – and not, of all people Sarah Palin.
Had Palin been in the race as the conservative alternative, it would have been very difficult for Romney to attack her given the passionate following she has among many conservatives, because he wouldn't want to risk alienating them. Even if he had ultimately triumphed after a brutal primary fight, a lot of her loyal supporters would have found it difficult to bury the hatchet for the general election.


The Sage of Wasilla, it is true, would have had a group of strong supporters. But Klein forgets one important difference between Santorum and Palin: Republicans knew who Sarah Palin was, and outside of a small group of her strong supporters, most Republicans wanted her nowhere near the White House. Including many who liked her.

Indeed, a Palin candidacy would have unfolded somewhat similar to the way Newt Gingrich’s candidacy went, with Republican politicians and others with a strong stake in having a solid candidate in November taking the lead in bashing the former Alaska governor and reality TV star, especially if and when she was doing well. Check that: it did unfold that way, when Palin dipped her toe in the waters by diverting her book tour to Iowa and other early contest states. Romney never had to lift a finger.

Now, Romney is lucky in that Santorum is basically at the end of the day a regular Republican, and he wasn’t apt to attempt to sink the ticket out of spite. Sarah Palin has given every indication that she is capable of doing just that. On the other hand…she’s still out there, and still has fans. Perhaps more than she would have had if she had entered, say, a long series of presidential debates. Palin hasn’t had the occasion to feud with Mitt Romney, and it’s true that had she run that might have been more likely, but there’s still plenty of time, and she would still be a major headache for the nominee if she decides to start making demands and threatens to walk. You think the press just might decide to pay attention if she held a Tea Party counterconvention down the street from Romney's convention? Better question: do you think a single reporter would be left at the Republican show, at least outside of the big prime time speeches, if Palin put on a show elsewhere in town?

The truth is, as I've said many times, that the actual Republican field, the one that included Tim Pawlenty and Rick Perry and Haley Barbour and perhaps a few others, was probably about as formidable as Romney was likely to get this time. In the sense that there was no popular former Vice President or similar heavyweight anywhere on the horizon, one could fairly describe Romney as lucky, but in that Mitch Daniels was easy to scare off -- or perhaps, really didn't have interest? Not so much. And while Palin is a permanent potential headache for the party, overall I'm just not convinced that she would have been a much bigger headache had she contested -- and lost -- a bunch of primaries.


  1. See, but here's where we differ.

    Perry: Romney's strongest real threat on paper. Turned out to be so amazingly inept.
    Barbour & Daniels: dropped out REALLY early. I mean too early. That can't be getting knocked out by Romney; his money wasn't THAT impressive (and there could have easily been a reasonable suspicion that his money would come in early but taper off, like it did in 2008) and the silence of endorsers has been deafening this whole cycle.

    Those are luck effects, not Romney beating them.

    As for Palin, I agree with Klein somewhat. Palin enters at a decent point, and she has a number of effects. First, unlike Perry, her support won't wilt. Perry's support was theoretical and tentative. So, after a number of debates, it was easy for people to change their minds on him. Palin is defined. Yes, she's fantastically stupid, but her supporters have been defending her for 3+ years now. They've drunk the Kool-Aid. They would have opened their wallets, too. And, Palin would have gotten a number of returning-the-favor-from-2010 endorsements.
    Second, we likely would have had fewer debates. She would have said "they're gotcha questions from the lamestream media" and I would guess that we would have had only maybe a dozen debates, and they would have been skewed towards last summer and the late fall, with those September-November debates being the likely causalties.

    Now, fewer debates doesn't mean no debates. And her support being more firm doesn't mean that she could increase on her base. So, I really don't think she could have won. But, is it possible that Perry survives longer? That Romney depletes his funds more? That maybe Romney gets more desperate and says something fatal? That Palin's presence chases out the also-rans earlier, and that a Romney-Palin-Perry race has a different dynamic, one not good for Romney? I put the odds of these things as pretty low.

    I don't really think Palin would have stopped Romney. But, would the contest have played out differently? I think so.

    But, to the overall question, was Romney lucky? Yes. Barbour, Daniels, and Palin, plus Perry being extraordinarily bad are all luck. Did Romney's luck get him the nomination? It helped, but Romney could have won without it.

  2. Huckabee not running has to be added to the list of Romney's good-fortune events as well. Huckabee is the only potential candidate I can think of who had the ability to rally social conservatives while not scaring off moderates.

    It's a very interesting question as to why Palin chose not to run. Given the overall weakness of the field and the fact that she may have been the most popular Republican in the country in 2009 or so (certainly the most visible), you would assume she'd run for president. Lots of people did assume that.

    My sense is that she was always running in a sort of invisible primary, as JB likes to call it. She's too lazy to do the hard work of meeting with editorial boards and speaking before local Republican groups, so she did her bus tour and her reality show, and kept her name in front of the public in non-traditional and non-threatening ways.

    She may have thought that a month or so before Iowa, when no other candidate had taken wing, there'd be a groundswell of support for Palin to jump in, and she could win the nomination without having to do any work for it. Kind of like what Rick Perry did. I think if there had been polls taken in December that showed Palin out in front among all the presidential candidates, declared and non-declared, she would have got in.

    1. It's easy to forget, as we sit here at our computers commenting on politicians we've never met, that not everyone wants to be president. I sure as heck don't. I believe that the greatest reason Palin never jumped in the race--or even seemed to take any of the steps necessary to explore a presidential run--is that she had no real interest in the end goal. She savors her current status as a right-wing personality, where she gets all the benefits of her 2008 vp run (the adulation of her fans) without the negatives (the high pressure and tough interviews, not to mention the prospect of actually becoming leader of the free world). The problem is that her position in the last few years has largely depended on the perception that she might run. That's why I believe she waited so long before announcing she wouldn't run, and even throughout primary season was constantly dropping hints of a late entry or crashing of the inevitable brokered convention. No matter how implausible or down right ridiculous these scenarios may be, she seems to feel they help keep her in the limelight. It's not a sustainable strategy in the long term, but she's milking it for as long as she can.

    2. Ah, but to return to the question, is that luck? I'd say yes. If it's luck that the multi-term governor of the largest GOP state in the union is an idiot who can't string 3 cabinet departments together, then it's also luck that the last VP candidate with a large, personally devoted following is more interested in making money than in politics.

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  4. Sarah Palin is still far more popular that any of the actual candidates running. Always has been, In fact, as far left democrat pollster noted, she is the only one who could actually united the Republican Party.

    Has Palin run, she would be the nominee. Would have had it wrapped up in February. Then she would do what she does best, rip Obama to shreds on a daily basis. Plain would not only have been the nominee, but the next president.

    It's sad that because of the poisoned American political system, good people do seek the presidency. Between all of the lies and death threats, who can blame Palin for not running, even though America is the loser for it.

  5. It should be pointed out that PPP is not in fact a Democratic polling group, but an independent robo-calling firm largely used by left-associated groups. In 2008 Silver noted that they were far more accurate, and less biased, then the average polling firm.

    As for the rest of your post, I can only refer to that bastion of philosophy, Jack Sparrow, as he spoke to Elizabeth Swann: "Keep telling yourself that, darlin'."

  6. It seems likely that Romney benefited, fortuitously, from the exclusion of certain folks from the formal primary. But is it too much of a stretch to say he also benefited from the inclusion of certain candidates?

    Bachmann's surge and its peak in the Ames Straw Poll may have played a hand in neutering Pawlenty. The Cain Train and Gingrich Trainwreck may have diverted attention away from some of Romney's weaknesses and perhaps prolonged the splintering of the non-Romney coalition.

    We can give Romney credit for his solid debate performances against these business plan candidates, but I dont think we can creit him for their actual emergence or how well they were received by elements of the Republican base. Their participation probably wasn't make or break, but it seems like a net positive for Romney, on balance.

  7. If Palin had run, she would have been the nominee. Yes, her enemies would have come out against her, but it wouldn't have mattered - she has a much more solid base than Gingrich, and the comparison is silly. Romney is definitely lucky that Palin didn't want to run.

    However, unlike the poster above, I do not think Palin would have united the Republican Party, let alone won the election. Her candidacy would have been very dangerous for the party (and I say this as a big fan of hers). It is a very good thing all round that Romney was nominated, because I doubt there will be any trouble unifying around him now.

  8. There is absolutely nothing impressive about Romney's performance so far... other than his ability to raise money and somehow dupe old Republican primary voters into believing things that come out of his mouth.

    In the primary season so far, Romney has managed to get more than 50% of the vote in 4 states: his home state of Massachusetts, Virginia where he was only on the ballot against Ron Paul, Nevada where he just barely garnered 50%, and Idaho which was purely the result of their ridiculous run-off voting scheme. In every other state that has voted so far, the majority of Republicans have voted for Not Romney.


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