Sean Trende has written an excellent analysis of the 2012 GOP battle for the presidential nomination. I encourage you to read the entire piece, but if watching sausage being made is not your cup of tea, I have a digested version of his one observation, and four questions. I also have my own observations, and in the interests of full disclosure I am not completely invested in any candidate. It is also not my intent to persuade any candidate to drop out of the contest. That kind of thinking is just way too presumptuous and pompous for my taste.
UPDATE: Sean Trende second question about the GOP primary calendar favoring a moderate over a conservative over time is not exactly based on the actual rules. Josh Putnam of Frontloading HQ explains the mix-up.
Part of the problem here is that the Republican National Committee has done a poor job at educating the public — much less members of its own party or the media — about the changes. People hear, “States can’t have winner-take-all delegate allocation prior to April 1,” and automatically flashback to the Democrats in 2008. That is the wrong mindset and highlights the poor job that both the national party and the media have done on this issue. It demonstrates the misunderstanding of the basic rules differences between the two parties. Seemingly the differences in delegate allocation are often portrayed as black and white — proportional and winner-take-all — when in reality the difference is between black and gray. The Republicans have allowed the states to set their own mode of allocation and many in the past — without “restrictions” — have opted for straight winner-take-all, hybrid systems or proportional allocation.
Instead of proving to be a drag on Perry’s chances, this may, in fact, help him out if other states follow Michigan’s lead. Perry would not have jumped into the race if he didn’t see a path and that path — best case scenario — sees victory in Iowa, a least second in New Hampshire, a win in South Carolina, being in the top two in Florida. That omits Nevada, Arizona and Michigan. Throw them to Romney if you will, but after those potential contests comes a southern swing on Super Tuesday and the following week (March 6-13). There is a reason the Romney campaign was pushing for an earlier Utah primary for Super Tuesday. It wasn’t to ward off of Huntsman, it was to provide some delegates for the former Massachusetts governor in an otherwise tough couple of weeks for the Romney campaign from a delegates perspective. Does that bring out the death knell for the Romney campaign. Perhaps. He will have plenty of money, but often the writing can be on the wall with as few as 30% of the total national delegates allocated — depending on the scenario. Regardless, that southern swing would at the worst — assuming the Perry candidacy takes off — give Perry the upper hand and the momentum when the contests turn elsewhere.
Observation: The GOP Nominee Will Have to Demonstrate Broad Regional Appeal.
Question 1: How Does Mitt Romney Play?
Pundits expended thousands of keystrokes detailing the problems with the GOP field, seemingly oblivious to the fact that President Obama couldn’t get his approval rating much above 52 percent even after killing America’s public enemy number one, Osama bin Laden. He has no broadly popular initiative to run on, and he is presiding over a weak economy. In other words, while the Republican candidates might have had some problems, those don’t matter as much if the eventual nominee is set to run against a very weak incumbent.
That Rose Garden strategy may have worked well against Michele Bachmann in August, but it won’t work against Perry in November. And that brings us to the real question: What happens when Romney does join the fray? He has always been 100 times better on paper than in reality–has that changed? Has Romney really solved the problems from his 2008 race? Can he come across as convincing and personable, or will he always seem insincere and robotic? Can he withstand the barrage over RomneyCare when it comes, or does he have a glass jaw (as he did in 2008)?
Question 2: What Does the Final GOP Primary Calendar Look Like?
Let’s assume, for purposes of discussion, that Bachmann, Perry and Romney end up splitting the GOP much as Clinton and Obama did. In such a drawn-out contest, understanding the calendar will be key to understanding the nomination battle. There are two things you really need to pay attention to here. First the RNC has decided to strip half of the delegates from any state that holds a primary or caucus before March 1, other than Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, or Nevada. Second, if all the moderates and liberals vote for the same candidate in January/February, and all the “somewhat conservative” voters vote for the same candidate, and all of the “very conservative” voters cast ballots for the same candidate, the “very conservative” candidate would get roughly 30 percent of the delegates, while the “moderate/liberal” candidate would get 35% of the delegates.
This could prove critical in a drawn-out race. The reason is simple, and yet not well-known. The RNC has provided that states holding primaries before April 1 must allocate delegates proportionately. But after that date, states may opt for winner-take-all primaries, and many of these states have done so. In other words, we could have a situation where a conservative candidate (or a pair of conservative candidates) does well in the first three months, but has to give some delegates to the more moderate candidate. In other words, an extended race probably favors a candidate like Romney.
Question 3: How Long Does Michele Bachmann Stay In?
Bachmann presents an additional potential headache for Perry in a drawn-out primary. We’ve thought about the GOP primary in terms of ideology, but let’s also think in terms of regional coalitions. Perry’s most likely coalition in an extended race consists of a combination of Southern and Great Plains states. Romney probably holds the Northeast (as McCain did in 2000 and 2008), and his Mormonism will help in the Mountain West. But if Bachmann holds on in Iowa, where she is playing heavily on her local roots, she could translate that victory to other Upper Midwestern caucus states, especially North Dakota and Minnesota. That could deprive Perry of some crucial delegates in states that have pretty conservative Republican presidential electorates.
Again, we can’t dismiss the possibility that Perry knocks Bachmann out in Iowa, which would make it a two-person race early on. Perry really has to hope for that, as it simplifies his path to the nomination significantly.
Question 4: Who catches fire at the last minute?
Recent history doesn’t lie. In 1996, Pat Buchanan caught fire in New Hampshire, and stunned Bob Dole. In 2000, John McCain surged at the last minute and smashed George W. Bush in the Granite State; McCain did it again to Romney in 2008. In 2004, Kerry’s campaign rose from the dead to come back in Iowa (after mortgaging his house to keep his campaign going), as did Obama in 2008.
This time, I’d keep my eyes on two candidates, both of whom would probably hurt Romney. The first is Jon Huntsman, if for no other reason than he has lots and lots and lots of money. If he finds his footing and gives up this ludicrous “nice guy” approach to the nomination, he could emerge as a threat. The other is Ron Paul. He has a core group of supporters who would crawl over broken glass to vote for him, and has only had his stature enhanced since 2008 by the financial crisis. He’ll have the money to keep going for the long haul, and could steal some delegates, especially in caucus states.
In short, I think if Perry can unify the Republicans early–and I believe he can unify them– he could make short work of the GOP primary process. But over the long haul, the dynamics of the GOP primary that are presently at work will begin to weigh him down. He needs to strike hard early on, or hope his opposition implodes.
I especially like Sean’s initial observation and chart. I also like his analysis of the GOP calendar. I disagree with his last two questions because he omits the candidacy of Herman Cain. I think Cain, Bachmann, and Paul have a core group of supporters who would crawl over broken glass to vote for them. I hope and pray that Paul’s core group is a much smaller number of people than Cain and Bachmann’s core group. All three of these candidates and Jon Huntsman could steal some delegates in caucus states. Cain could steal them in the South, Bachmann in the Upper Midwest, and Huntsman in the Mountain West. Paul could steal them in the Land of Fruits and Nuts (California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii).
If you are not a precinct committeeman right now, you are not in any position to do a thing about the future GOP Primary Calendar and rules about winner-take-all, proportional delegates, or open vs closed. If you are exasperated with who is picked to be RNC chair or who stacks the deck against the conservatives, then the only way for you to change that is to become the establishment of the GOP instead of just gripe about them.