A lifetime ago, Theodore H White spent the better part of his journalistic career crafting narratives of the four-year quest for victory by every president from John Kennedy in 1960 to Richard Nixon in 1972. White was already famous, and not a little controversial, for his writing in Life magazine and his first-hand reporting from Mao Zedong’s wartime camp in China in his book, Thunder Out of China. In thinking about the presidential campaign process, White conceived of a new way to write about them by following the process in depth and crafting an overarching narrative. This gave the campaign itself a larger-than-life personality bigger than any one candidate – in a sense taking his way of writing about foreign events and societies and transferring this method to America’s quadrennial presidential contests.
White’s narratives typically spiralled outward from one man’s lonely crusade trudging through the snows of New Hampshire, accompanied by a reporter or two and maybe one or two aides or volunteers, as the winning candidate slowly shaped, sharpened and clarified his vision and message for America’s future. Time spent in New Hampshire eventually led to a relative handful of other primaries and then on to the national convention where the drama of picking a nominee played itself out on network television – and in the legendary smoke-filled rooms of the power brokers. If you saw flashbacks to the beginning of Jed Bartlett’s candidacy for president on The West Wing, you get the gist.
Now, of course, with the advent of 24/7 cable and satellite news coverage, the Internet, social media, blogs and Twitter, a whole gaggle of candidates has been well and truly launched months before the New Hampshire primary and a legion of reporters is trawling through the lives of the would-be candidates for any quirks – or deeper problems.
By the time New Hampshire’s vote rolls around, in fact, several candidates, had already dropped out after months of intense campaigning, debating and self-destructing – this year’s crop being Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann.
On Tuesday night, Willard Milton “Mitt” Romney demonstrated nothing succeeds like success and that chance truly favours the extremely well prepared and well financed. By early Wednesday morning South Africa time, with some 80% of the vote tallied, Romney was maintaining a commanding lead with 39% of the total vote. This number may go a bit higher once all the votes are counted as most of the outstanding votes are clustered in counties close to Massachusetts and areas where Romney has been popular.
In second place behind Romney, Ron Paul clocked in at 23%. The rest of the field was strung out behind Jon Huntsman at 17% and then on down to less than a percentage point. Rick Santorum, the near winner of the squeaker a week before in Iowa, and Newt Gingrich were battling for fourth place, despite the considerable media attention on Santorum’s surge and that major cash infusion for Gingrich through contributions to “his” superPAC, the nominally independent body aligned to Gingrich’s ideas and positions. Jon Huntsman’s vote total may have been the most interesting as he outpolled all of the visibly social attitudes conservative candidates.
Analysts were already pointing to South Carolina’s primary on 21 January as the make-or-break moment for any real opposition to Romney as standard-bearer in the general election in November. Despite that truly paper-thin margin in Iowa, Romney has now done what no other candidate has done since Gerald Ford in 1976 – won the first two contests out of the official starting gate.
And while Ron Paul forged a significant vote total in New Hampshire, exit polling indicates a measurable portion of votes came from self-identifying independent voters who are allowed to vote in either party’s race, according to New Hampshire law. Moreover, political analysts are saying Paul’s social attitudes libertarianism and his “fortress America” isolationism will actually play poorly in socially conservative South Carolina, a state that also hosts a considerable number of active duty military personnel, veterans and their families. John McCain, America’s best-known POW and the Republican nominee in 2008, has officially endorsed Romney, will campaign for him and is popular with many in the South.
Are there potholes in Romney’s road to Tampa and the Republican national convention? Of course, there are. His vote totals in these first two contests have not significantly changed over his numbers in 2008. Moreover, exit polling and other attitude surveys indicate the majority of Republicans remain less than ecstatic over the array of candidates in their nomination race, and it remains true that Romney has failed to gain the support of a majority of voters within their party.
Still, South Carolina will likely be the great winnowing for this nomination. Some of the social attitude conservative candidates such as Santorum, Gingrich and Perry are almost certain to drop out if anti-Romney sentiment has any chance to coalesce around a champion – especially since Ron Paul’s expressed values make it unlikely he will defeat Mitt Romney either. Don’t look for Jon Hunstman, the Democrats’ favourite Republican, to stop Romney either.
While Romney and Gingrich’s superPAC allies spent considerable funds on advertising, especially negative advertising about the other guy, the results of the New Hampshire voting offer a mixed message on the efficacy of such media buys. In Romney’s case it seemed to help somewhat, in Gingrich’s corner, however, it had little discernible weight. Don’t expect this kind of campaigning to stop, as political analysts continue to say that going negative, despite voters not liking it much, has consistently been judged to have long-term effects in shaping negative attitudes towards a candidate “swift-boated” by negative ads.
Finally, in message terms, focus group results seem to say Romney’s message on the pre-eminence of the economy and his ability to generate the conditions that in turn create jobs (over say the question of gay marriage or abortion, or withdrawing American troops from deployments around the world) as the key to the election seems to be trending Romney’s way. The stinger in this is that Romney’s message may come through loud and clear just as the country’s economy starts to trend Obama’s way – that is, if unemployment continues to drift downward and as new job formation continues to grow, into the spring and summer of 2012.
For what it’s worth, I’ve now clicked to Romney’s campaign homepage to request emailed updates on Romney the candidate. Now it is on to South Carolina. DM
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Photo: Republican presidential candidate andf former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney greets supporters at his New Hampshire primary night rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, January 10, 2012. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
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