11 April 2012
For the good part of half a decade, Rick Santorum has been a joke — and I'm not referring to the one propagated by Seattle sex columnist Dan Savage. The Pennsylvania senator lost his seat in 2006 by a humiliating 18 points, and, throughout 2011, ran a presidential campaign distinguished by its inability to attract support greater than the margin of error in most polls. With the national economy stumbling along in a recovery not robust enough to get anyone particularly excited, it seemed that the last thing Americans wanted was a social conservative with an apparent fixation on keeping women away from contraception and gay folks away from each other.
America likely didn't want that, but a significant proportion of the Republican party did, and Santorum's threading together of ostentatious religiosity, blue collar boilerplate, and vigorous traditionalism was enough to give him a surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses. Santorum wasn't the perfect Tea Party conservative, but up against the suspiciously Northeastern Mitt Romney, the fervently unorthodox Ron Paul, and the mercurial and unfocused Newt Gingrich, the Republican base accepted him as good enough. Good enough to throw some support behind — and good enough to keep Mitt Romney from a too-easy ride to the nomination.
But even in forcing the Republican Party to take him seriously, Santorum struggled to make himself a candidate at whom the wider American public would have to take a look. He could not convert his Iowa victory into the campaign donations or party endorsements that would have permitted him to provide a credible challenge to Romney, and his campaign was beset by organisational problems that prevented him from maximising the impact of his victories — in some states, he failed to file full delegate slates, meaning that he couldn't fully convert his popular support to representation at the national convention. Even on his best day, when he won victories in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado, he failed to use the opportunity to jumpstart his campaign. Ultimately the Republican Party proved to be more diverse in opinion than its conservative base, and Santorum couldn't persuade enough of the party that he could beat President Obama in November. His suspension of his campaign, announced today, was a confirmation of the inevitable.
None of which makes his campaign an irrelevancy. The religious right had been marginalised from American politics ever since it had helped give President George W. Bush a second term in 2004, and found itself roundly ignored by him once he was back in office. Santorum didn't just put debates over gay marriage, pornography, and abortion back on the national agenda, he asked Americans to consider the morality of contraception for the first time since the 1960s. He didn't singlehandedly stir up the social conseravtive furore that permitted Democrats to accuse Republicans of declaring a "war on women," but he was a leading voice for a vision of America that many on the right feared had slipped away: a place where order and propriety reigned supreme, and where they did not need to worry that the primacy of whiteness, Christianity, and traditional family structures and gender roles had eroded. Even though it didn't resonate with the general population, Santorum's message was won a lot of Republicans found irresistable, and his competitors, including the party's now presumptual nominee Mitt Romney, were forced into arguing on his territory. To keep peace with his party, Romney had to adopt an aggressively conservative stance that could well come back to haunt him in November — and, if he should win, beyond.
Romney had effectively secured the nomination after he had won in Florida — or, depending on how fervently party actors were looking for an alternative, possibly even earlier. Only now, however, can he turn his full attention to the sitting president. He will do so after a battle that forced him into positions far more to the right than he felt comfortable adopting. (Remember his unintentionally revealing remarks at CPAC, where he declared himself to be "severely" conservative?) Romney will be hoping that with Santorum exiting the race, so too will depart the most strident demands of the Tea Party and the religious right.
7 March 2012
It's really over now. Mitt Romney is the nominee.
I mean, it was really over after Florida, but now the media will have to stop pretending it's a contest and Republicans will have to start acting like he's the presumptive nominee. Though Gingrich and Santorum may — and Paul will certainly — struggle on for a while, Romney can now pivot to the general.
Romney got Virginia and Vermont by reasonable margins — he got over 50 per cent in Virginia, which is impressive and will net him a lot of delegates, and beat Paul by a 14 per cent margin in Vermont, as well as completely destroying the competition in his home state — 70+ per cent there.
Gingrich got his home state of Georgia, but fell short of the 50 per cent he needed to lock in the delegates, so that won't hurt Romney in the long run. Santorum is continuing to do well in deep red states — they've called Tennessee for him, and he's looking good in Oklahoma too.
The only interesting contest left is in Ohio, where Santorum and Romney are neck-and-neck. Because Ohio borders Pennsylvania, there's something of a home state advantage for Santorum, but because of the importance of Ohio in the general, there could be some questions about Romney's electability if he doesn't manage to win there. But those questions won't actually mean anything, because with the number of delegates he'll net today, Romney's lead is unassailable.
No real results from Alaska, Idaho, and North Dakota yet. I suspect Romney will do very, very well in Idaho, but it'll be interesting to see the influence of the libertarian vote in Alaska and Idaho.
1 March 2012
It was a good day for Mitt Romney, depending on your definition of good. His convincing and entirely predictable win in Arizona was an uncomplicated positive for the man who is sorta-kinda considered the Republican frontrunner*. Romney's three point victory in Michigan, however, is only good whether your memory extends two days or two weeks.
This, after all, was an impressive effort for a candidate who polls showed had been trailing his strongest opponent, Rick Santorum, in recent weeks. Romney put his money and political connections to work and won over an electorate that was supposed to recoil from his blueblood background and his harsh words for the bailout of the auto industry. If you think back a little further though, you'll remember that Romney originally presumed Michigan would be a cakewalk. It is the state in which he was born, and where his father, George Romney, served as state governor and chairman of American Motors Corporation. The meagre victory Romney scraped together was the result of a last minute scrable to avoid an embarrassing loss, but it was still much smaller than it should have been.
Still, it would be wise not to get too bogged down in this sort of minutiae. A loss would have boosted Santorum and revived a new wave of chatter about Romney's inability to appeal to this electorate or that electorate. Romney's victory, no matter how small, staved that off. Rick Santorum still has a gigantic task ahead of him — perhaps an impossible one. He probably won't do enough on Super Tuesday to turn the race around, and though he has been the subject of much news attention, he hasn't converted it into solid signs that the party would like him to be its standard bearer this fall; precious few endorsements followed his wins in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri.
And it's the big picture that's important. Don't get too worked up about percentages or delegate counts. The most likely outcome is that one of the candidates (let's be straight: Romney) will establish enough dominance over the other that all the other candidates will fall out of practical contention. There's a chance this has already happened and we just haven't realised it.
* Depending on how invested you are in casting the GOP race as competitive, you might have decided that Rick Santorum took the nominal lead at some point in the past couple of weeks. The former Pennsylvania senator certainly gave America a good look at his campaign, and made an impressive showing in some state-based and regional polls, but I don't think he really turned the underlying momentum of the race in his direction at any point. He remained very much the underdog.
15 February 2012
As the candidates trade victories in the 2012 Republican presidential primary contest and the race heads towards so-called “Super Tuesday” on March 6th, when a dozen states will conduct primaries, caucuses, or conventions, an intriguing possibility is emerging: what if nobody wins?
It’s a very big “what if.” But with new GOP rules awarding delegates in early states on a proportional rather than winner-take-all basis, and with the penalties for the states that voted in January, it is possible that a protracted three or four-candidate contest will result in no candidate reaching the 1 144 votes he needs to win the nomination.
And that’s where we could just possibly see something we haven’t seen since the incumbent, appointed President Gerry Ford squeaked home over former California Governor Ronald Reagan in 1976: a brokered Republican National Convention.
What would that mean at the RNC in Tampa, Florida in late August?
In the romantic imagination of we pundits, a brokered convention conjures up images of gravel-voiced party elders picking a future President in a smoke-filled back room, as idealistic delegates on the floor parade under red, white and blue signs wearing boater hats and ribbons.
A modern brokered convention is probably going to be smoke-free and involve a lot of hushed phone calls and texting on BlackBerrys, but the very uncertainty of it would be wonderful theatre (and scare the bejeezus out of the party establishment).
In short, nobody knows what could happen — but it could even see a “dark horse” candidate like Jeb Bush, Sarah Palin, Chris Christie, or Mitch Daniels (who haven’t contested any of the primaries or caucuses) become the nominee.
The Republican delegations from the various states are bound to different rules, depending on whether they were elected in a primary or by a caucus, and state convention: some are “pledged” to support a particular candidate and some remain “unpledged” — and while they are expected to vote a certain way, that can change.
In a tight race, those “unpledged delegates” are effectively the GOP’s equivalent of the Democratic Party’s “super delegates.”
If, for the sake of this exercise the 2,286 delegates, including 488 unpledged delegates are allocated as follows:
Mitt Romney: 986
Rick Santorum: 614
Newt Gingrich: 408
Ron Paul: 275
No single candidate will have the 1 144 required votes on the first round of voting, and that’s when the games begin.
The same four candidates could stay in for several further rounds of voting and depending on the rules applying to various state delegations, there might be some movement — especially among unpledged delegates.
But then, what if Newt Gingrich took to the floor, and, in an impassioned speech, told his supporters he was dropping out and that they should throw their support behind Rick Santorum as the leading conservative candidate to stop Mitt Romney’s nomination?
The Tea Party movement, which lost its standard-bearers Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry now could emerge as king-makers.
Let’s say most, but not all, do give their vote to Santorum, while some decide to fall in behind Romney instead and just eight decide to vote for Ron Paul.
The new count would be this:
Mitt Romney is close, but still 58 votes short of becoming the nominee. More rounds of voting are called and the numbers stay pretty much the same — it’s a deadlock.
Meetings are called behind the scenes in those now–smoke-free rooms; various party leaders and surrogates speak in support of Romney, Santorum and Paul, until, finally, a deal is done between Santorum and Paul to insert a plank in the GOP platform to establish a congressional committee to return the US to the gold standard.
Ron Paul is given special time to address delegates and withdraws from the next round of balloting. Despite his preference for Santorum, Paul doesn’t direct his supporters; some leave, unable to give their vote to either Santorum or Romney, party officials rush for the rule books and try to muster stand-by delegates — some of whom are as far away as Iowa.
Meanwhile, the party establishment, which has previously stood firmly behind Mitt Romney, sees the writing on the wall. A “Draft-Jeb” movement is formed by former George W. Bush staffer Karl Rove, who extracts a commitment for Romney to bow out in return for the vice presidential nomination.
The former governor of the state of Florida’s name is put forward in the next round of balloting as part of a moderate establishment “dream team.”
Another round of voting is finally called. Most Romney supporters, fearful Santorum would be just too conservative to beat Barack Obama, pledge their votes to Bush, even though many others stand by Romney out of fear Karl Rove has hijacked the nomination.
The votes are tallied:
John Ellis “Jeb” Bush becomes the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nominee, without standing in the primaries or even leaving the state of Florida.
More likely in a brokered convention scenario is that a conservative “Stop Romney” movement could see Santorum or Gingrich emerge.
Much more likely still is that Mitt Romney will have the 1 144 votes he needs to become the nominee well before the convention.
But in this hiatus between primaries, it’s fun to ponder the possibilities.
9 February 2012
Newt Gingrich (Photo: Gage Skidmore)
If you're looking for a takeaway from the results of tonight's caucuses — in Minnesota and Colorado, as well as the non-binding "beauty contest" in Missouri — you could do worse than marking this down as the moment the last fantasies of Newt Gingrich's viability vanished.
Mitt Romney performed dismally in Minnesota, and with about 60 per cent of the Colorado results in, he's not far enough ahead of Rick Santorum to avoid the conclusion that he's had a woeful evening — whether he eventually pulls out a victory in the Mountain West or not. But in all likelihood — that is, barring genuine disaster — Mitt Romney will be the Republican Party's nominee. It will just take him longer to end the contest, and it will stoke further worries that he can't win in the Midwest.
Beauty contest or not, Romney's loss in Missouri, coupled with Santorum's victory in Minnesota, and a contest in Iowa that commentators are increasingly forgetting was a draw, is all adding up to the impression that Midwsterners don't like the son of Michigan scion George Romney. And any Republicans looking to feel extra gloomy about Mitt should acquaint themselves with the indicators that Barack Obama is improving his standing with swing voters across the Rust Belt.
But Newt! He finished last in Minnesota, drawing just ten per cent of the vote, and is struggling to take third place from Ron Paul in Colorado. He didn't even get on the ballot in Missouri. None of this means that Gingrich will drop out any time soon — his contestation for the nomination is about his ego before anything else, and that's something tough enough to withstand any number of losses — but it does mean the rest of America can stop pretending he's a going concern in this contest.
Goodnight, Newt. Goodnight to one and all.
The cable news networks have called Rick Santorum as the winner in Colorado. Like I said, Mitt Romney is still the overwhelming favourite to be the eventual nominee, but he's showing a frustrating inability to wrap this up. They're not going to make this easy for him.
8 January 2012
In June of last year, I mentioned the oft-repeated theory that the Republican Party likes its nominee to be whoever is "next in line":
Unlike Democrats, who are far more susceptible to the thrill of charming newcomers, Republicans have a habit of handing their party's nomination to the candidate next in line. John McCain was a runner-up to George W. Bush in the 2000 primary contest, and sure enough, he got the nod in 2008. 1996 candidate Bob Dole had previously challenged then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988. Ronald Reagan had come close to securing the nomination over Gerald Ford in 1976 and against Richard Nixon in 1968 before winning it in 1980. Nixon himself became the party's nominee after losing the 1960 general election and a contest for the governorship of California in 1962. Democrats will give a shot to a relative newcomer like Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, but Republicans prefer someone who has been through the process once or twice already.
Eli Lehrer has a plausible explanation for why Republicans "take turns" like this. Rather than party culture, he credits structure:
Nearly every part of the Republican primary process and, indeed, the party’s overall structure gives a massive advantage to people who have run before. The lack of super-delegates (ex officio convention delegates), for example, means that simply becoming well-known in the national media and among national figures conveys much less advantage than it does in Democratic contests. Republicans’ relatively greater reliance on low-dollar direct mail donations, likewise, means that having a well-tested list from a previous run for office conveys a fundraising advantage. Even the structure of grass roots groups on the Right conveys an advantage to those who have run before: the single greatest source of on-the-ground manpower on the Left, unions, are national organizations with top-down structures while the churches, community organizations, and tax reform groups important on the right are rarely centralized. And some right-of-center groups that have central structures–Americans for Prosperity, for example–don’t directly engage in electoral politics.
Mitt Romney will hope those advantages to past runners hold. In an unrelated matter, though still in the realm of intuitive explanations for political phenomena, Nate Silver has a smart guess about how momentum works:
...Voters in Iowa participate early in the process and therefore have less information about the candidates than those who vote later on. Momentum may represent a learning process by which some voters come across salient information about a candidate sooner than others.
If this model is true, the momentum Rick Santorum built leading up to the caucuses yesterday started when a small number of Republicans learned some information about him that convinced them to back him. Then, as time passed, other voters learned that information, and switched their support to him as well. Of course, the increased media exposure this momentum drew in turn informed even more potential supporters about Santorum, adding further to the momentum he'd already accumulated.
The concept as illustrated by this New York Times report:
Mr. Santorum would become openly frustrated when it seemed that every other Republican candidate would enjoy a surge except him. “When’s my bump coming?” he asked Mr. Laudner early last month.
Mr. Laudner replied that when he started to move a little bit, the effect would snowball; if he got to about 10 percent in the polls, “the 1 would be replaced by a 2 very quickly,” Mr. Laudner said.