The saying “We’re going to stay right here and keep counting these ballots all night until they come out right” reaches back to an apocryphal statement of how precinct captains contributed to the longevity of mayor Richard Daley reign in Chicago. But it also points to an essential truth in politics – candidates usually go into a race and they stay there until the votes don’t come out right – or, as former congressman (and former presidential candidate) Richard Gephardt said over the weekend on TV, another hallowed, old adage is “Candidates don’t quit a race, they just run out of money”. By J. BROOKS SPECTOR.
Three months into the actual primary season in America and almost eight months before the election, its time to pause and reflect on where we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re going, on through to the conventions and the general election in November. Back at the end of 2011, there were nine or so names in circulation as the potential nominee – and three or four more waiting just outside the room for an interview. Now we’re down to four – Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul – and by most serious calculations, only Romney now has any chance of becoming the nominee.
Romney’s team has worked out a winning strategy – although they actually have had to do it several times. Back in 2011, their plan was simple. Having made his first foray into the fray and having lost out to Arizona senator John McCain for the Republican nomination in 2008, they would become the inevitable nominee, the heir apparent and the candidate-in-waiting, in accord with more usual GOP custom. And any other pretenders would give way as soon as Romney’s strength and valour was openly revealed to all. That didn’t happen, of course.
One version after another of the anti-Romney – Tim Pawlenty, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Santorum and Gingrich – arose to challenge him for that brass ring. Paul and Jon Huntsman were different – what with Paul challenging from a stark libertarian perspective and Huntsman presenting himself as a kind of kinder, gentler, Romney-lite candidate. None of these have caught any real, fire beyond some initial bursts of enthusiasm on the part of the media or a clutch of activist-supporters.
Now, after nearly half the primaries and caucuses have happened – 24 states and a few miscellaneous territories like American Samoa and Guam – Romney has gained 433 delegates to Santorum’s 214, Gingrich’s 107 and Ron Paul’s 46. The second version of the Romney strategy – Romney Strategy Mark II – now comes into view. In American football terminology, they’ve moved on to a grind it out “ground game” victory and away from his being ordained as the victor.
To win the nomination requires 1,144 delegates and the Romney camp now calculates it needs to win no more than 51% of the remaining delegates at stake to lock it up for him. But for the others, the required winning percentages are daunting – up in the high sixties, at a minimum. Over the weekend, in fact, even as Santorum was winning the Kansas primary, the Wyoming, Guam and American Samoa delegation selections wound up basically in Romney’s camp. The net result was that the Romney campaign kept right on its minimal successful trajectory path towards the nomination.
Now, coming up in mid-March through early April, the Alabama and Mississippi primaries are on 13 March, Illinois comes a week later and then it is Wisconsin’s turn on 3 April. While Gingrich and Santorum are talking brave, whistling loudly in that dark tunnel, promising victories, the latest Alabama polls actually have Gingrich and Romney neck and neck – Romney leading in Mississippi by a four-point margin, Santorum significantly ahead in Wisconsin and Illinois in Romney’s corner, but at only a four-point margin.
Given the way things have gone in recent primaries, four points is within the margin of error for the sample surveys and the actual voting may still end up reflecting late-breaking attitude shifts. But the key point here is that the new rules by the Republican National Committee for the 2012 primaries – and being followed by most, although not all states such as Florida – have been to make the delegate counts from primary results proportionate to the respective vote totals of candidates. That means that close wins – or even close losses – still conform to Romney Strategy Mark II: keep adding delegates from every primary and eventually cross the finish line first.
By contrast, defeat for Gingrich in either or both of the two southern states spells an end to his campaign – except in a Gingrich-ean alternate universe where Newt’s bombastic, big ideas continue to trump the simpler things like winning delegates – and where the eventual result of those small victories is winning the nomination. The quirky part in all this is that the new strength of the Section 527 Super PACs and millionaire donors means that even a candidate like Gingrich can continue right to the end, as long as Sheldon Adelson’s (the prime funder of Gingrich’s SuperPAC) money keeps coming forward.
Santorum’s problem is simpler still. Losses in any of these contests inevitably put him on a path of making it ever harder to catch Romney. Hidden in this larger picture is the fact that the New York and California primaries – almost certainly Romney’s by considerable margins – as well as the New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Illinois primaries remain to be held and none of these are Gingrich territory and Pennsylvania is only marginally Santorum’s to win – he lost his last election there in the high double digits after all. Neither Gingrich nor Santorum are particularly well organised in any remaining primary states and they have sometimes even been unable to field full slates of delegates pledged to themselves, or, in the case with Virginia primary, even manage to submit petitions sufficient to be listed on the ballot. That is not the way to a win.
It is reasonable to predict that, despite the fervent prayers of the media for a full-fledged horserace right to the final post, Romney will arrive at the Republican convention in late August with enough delegates pledged to win on the first ballot. If Romney is somehow a few short, one should expect to see some really serious arm twisting to round up the miscellaneous delegates still pledged to Huntsman, Perry or Bachmann to take Romney over the finish line by the time the gavel sounds for the first day of the convention.
By that point, too, the Romney forces will have pushed through a Republican Party campaign platform that parallels his most current positions and manifestos – even if they have to face down some vigorous challenges from the right on economic or social attitude grounds. But, keep in mind that the American political system’s style is for the presidential nominee (or his surrogates) to shape the platform to conform to his positions rather than the other way round. And in any case, no one reads the platform after it is passed unanimously at the convention anyway.
In thinking of the convention itself, watch for the Romney forces to arrange for Gingrich and Santorum to get spots early in the convention for their speeches – but just late enough in the evening to miss the prime time convention broadcasts, let alone the evening news. No point in letting the defeated get their licks in on Romney’s time to shine. And they’ll have absolutely nothing to say about it either. Neither of them will bolt the party and run as independents – unless they wish to spend the rest of their natural lives in political purgatory.
Now, Ron Paul is a different story. He just might run as an independent. Maybe he will, but only if he is thoroughly “disrespected” at the convention. Of course, if he does split off and try to run and if he actually gets listed on the various state ballots, Barack Obama is going to owe him a big, but thoroughly secret kiss on the forehead.
By the time Romney scratches his way to the nomination, watch for him to pick a vice presidential nominee who can – theoretically at least – help him gain the presidency. This argues for someone who looks like Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American senator from Florida, or even New Mexico governor Susanna Martinez – although neither of these individuals have had much national exposure or experience yet and so that could be another Sarah Palin-esque gamble for the Republicans. Ugh. Meanwhile, Republicans cannot expect to get more than a few African-American votes nationally besides Herman Cain and Michael Steel’s families, and the other major ethnic minority remains Hispanic – in fact there are more Hispanic-Americans than African-Americans, although their voting rate is still lower.
Unfortunately for Romney, this group is also trending Democratic as a whole, and such individuals have come to be rather profoundly unnerved by the vigorously anti-immigrant stance of the Republican Party in its rhetoric. For Republicans, however, outside of a whole lot of individuals who look and sound like Romney or Santorum, their talent pool is not very deep – Rubio’s son of anti-communist immigrants narrative has lately become a bit tarnished by the recognition they didn’t leave Cuba because of Castro’s anti-capitalist rhetoric and policies, rather, leaving before Castro had even ascended to power. And then there is the “new” fact his family’s religious tradition was Mormon before their conversion away from that faith. A so-called Mormon-Mormon ticket would be too much for many evangelical/fundamentalists to swallow – even if their social attitude concerns are assuaged fully and even if they have become firmly committed to Republican candidates since the late 1960s. But maybe winning Florida is just too tempting and so maybe it will be Rubio after all.
As far as the general election goes, the one absolutely, dead-certain, sure thing is that Mitt Romney will be facing Barack Obama. The Obama team, of course, is hoping to ride the residual tide of people – including an increasing number of women – annoyed or frustrated by Santorum’s talk about religion or his views on contraception, gay rights and the rest. To that end, Obama’s forces will pin Santorum’s rants on the eventual nominee, saying in effect, Romney’s views are simply a more polite, less abrasive version of this madness. If Romney tries to run from this, they’ll say that Romney can’t possibly make sense as a candidate if he and his own party don’t agree on what they stand for on issues crucially important to people’s everyday lives and in the privacy of their bedrooms.
But, Obama and his allies are also just as clearly going to run on their candidate’s record – something that had seemed difficult only half a year ago. First they will point to the economic recovery, the growth in jobs, the shrinkage of unemployment and that obdurate Republican House of Representatives in refusing to back job creation spending on infrastructure or on addressing the issue of economic and tax fairness. With some luck, they will manage to back Romney into a public position that makes it appear he is cheering for evidence of economic backsliding to win his argument that he can do it better than Obama. That is going to be hard to turn into a winning hand – will voters warm to someone who has by now given more than a passing imitation of a rhetorically challenged Richie Rich turned would-be president?
But the biggest challenge for Romney in the election – and, by definition, the biggest plus for Democrats – is that a look at the primary victories map shows clearly that Romney’s best results have come in blue states like Massachusetts, Michigan, Washington and Nevada, or purple-trending-blue ones like Florida, Virginia and Ohio. Unless some kind of electoral magic happens, he will have real difficulties in wresting these states away from Obama, come November. And this doesn’t include the states of Illinois, New York, and California that between them are around 20% of the total electoral votes needed for victory in the election. As many observers have noted, the Republican power base is now primarily southern – minus Florida, Virginia and even North Carolina – and thus any plausible victory route lies through a sweep in the Midwest. A Republican candidate who cannot connect with the sensibilities of ordinary citizens in that part of the country is going to be in trouble.
So, taking a big breath and a leap of faith – here’s how we predict things are going to turn out – at least as they look now. Romney and his vice presidential candidate who is an amalgam of Mitch Daniels/Marco Rubio/Jeb Bush/Susanna Martinez/Robert Portman/Eric Cantor run hard in the South and eek out a win throughout that region, plus about half the Rocky Mountain states – including Texas, but probably not Nevada, Arizona or New Mexico. Much of the Midwest stays in play, right up to the last week of the campaign, but ultimately it is the economic fundamentals that sway voters in states like Ohio, Michigan, Missouri, Illinois – and even Wisconsin and Minnesota – to be loyal to the president. Obama has a near clean sweep in the Northeast and Far West, and he rolls up an impressive electoral victory while winning about 52% of the popular vote.
But, such is the popular mistrust of Congress that a significant percentage of the 2010 class of new Republican congressmen are defeated by Democratic candidates. The net result is the Democrats come close to breaking the Republican majority in the House of Representatives, despite the retirement of many of their long-serving, popular members. Oh, and they continue to control the Senate – especially now that Maine Republican senator Olympia Snowe has elected to retire. The Republican panjandrums try to heed the advice of commentators like George Will who have urged them to shrug off the presidential race as a kind of electoral loss leader, and focus all their energies on holding House and Senate seats but a limp, flat Romney effort still dooms some of them to an early political retirement.
And the pitfalls for Obama in this electoral cycle that could still send him out of town? First, of course, is the economy. If petrol prices breach $5/gallon and stay there, it is intensely troublesome to his chances. If unemployment ticks back up over 8.4, 8.5%, that is worse still. If economic growth flattens out over the summer and doesn’t recover after the summer vacation season, it is even worse.
Internationally, he has to hope the Israelis elect not to attack Iran, that the Iranians choose not to try to test an early stage nuclear device and that the resulting chaos from either or both of these doesn’t drag the US into a war it doesn’t want to fight and whose consequences are almost unfathomable to predict properly. Other alternative problems are a long, slow collapse of the eurozone finances despite the Greek settlement, or a sharp contraction on Chinese economic growth that lowers their US treasury bond purchases, forcing the US to raise the interest rate on these bonds – thereby making the US economic recovery harder. The problem for Obama in all of these is that their path and progression lies largely outside the hands of the US or its president to control. And he can only do so much to keep them in check.
Obama has, unlike any Democrat in over a generation, unless there is an Israeli/Iranian explosion, managed to convince the population Democrats are strong on national defence – and all the polls and surveys say this decisively. But, by the same token, these same surveys say national defence and security is not the issue they are focused on now.
The American population is firmly, even obsessively, fixed on the question of economic growth and recovery according to every bit of evidence out there. And here is where a sitting president – even one with strong opposition in the Congress – has some possibilities of influence. A little bit of tweaking the budget here, a little bit there and funds move to strategic states and districts, on programmes that have a fast impact, and on announcements that seize the news cycle in the two months after Labour Day. And this is when the campaign really begins for most voters. The tricky problem for Obama forces may well lie in finding a campaign phrase that locks in the meaning of a second term – “Re-elect your president, don’t change horses in midstream even if the horse was learning the ropes for the first couple of years because yes we will eventually, if we all hope enough” – isn’t going to fit easily or memorably on a bumper sticker or poster. Maybe they’ll just go with: “Would you rather have Richie Rich answer that 3am call?” DM
- It's Not Obama's Fault That Crude Oil Prices Have Increased, at the CATO Institute website.
- End the Drug War, Mr. President, in the New Republic (journals are already offering ideas for a second Obama administration).
- Jobs Report Offers Glimmer of Hope to G.O.P., in the New Yorker.
- The Republicans – Let Romney be Romney – The Republican front-runner should be talking about jobs above all, in the Economist.
- The view from Tehran: What might Ayatollah Ali Khamenei be making of America’s noisy Iran talk this week?, in the Economist.
- Five Thirty Eight: In Nomination, Geography is Destiny, in The New York Times.
- Recent debate over contraception comes as GOP loses gains among women, in the Washington Post.
- Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum in tight race in Illinois’s primary, poll shows, in the Washington Post.
- More good news for Obama in February jobs report, in the Washington Post.
- With neither Romney nor Santorum scoring a knockout, GOP race becomes a crawl, in the Washington Post.
- As GOP waits for dust to settle, party leaders sharpen case for reelection, in the Washington Post.
Photo: Obama doing his job. He has, unlike any Democrat in over a generation, managed to convince the population Democrats are strong on national defence. REUTERS.