Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Republican Establishment Steps In

The Republican establishment is stepping up its attacks against Gingrich. It was coordinated today from a variety of quarters: Bob Dole, Peter Wehner, Tom Delay, William Buckley Jr., and Anne Coulter.

The very reason why Gingrich appeals to primary voters is the reason why he will not do well with independents voters in the fall. (And that's an assessment coming from Anne Coulter.) Gingrich has fire, but placed alongside No Drama Obama, he's going to look like a very unlikeable candidate. There's hardly anyone who has worked closely with the former Speaker who has endorsed him -- which tells us a lot about the guy. In the era of televisual politics, a bitter old man is not going to beat a likeable (or even less competent, if that is what Obama is) younger man. The Establishment from either party talks the talk of the virtue of debates, grassroots activism and decision-making, but in the end they care more about winning and nominating the most electable candidate than a tip of the hat to primary voters and "democracy."

The fact that a coordinated strategy against Gingrich is happening within party ranks conveniently on the eve of the last debate before the Florida primary is particularly striking given that Gingrich doesn't really have a fall back plan beyond Florida. Romney took a landslide victory in Nevada, the next state up in the primary calendar, back in 2008, so it is difficult to imagine that Gingrich would be able to pull an upset there, or in Arizona or Michigan on February 28.

But everything changes if Gingrich wins in Florida. Then the momentum will keep him going until Super Tuesday on March 6 when the South speaks and Gingrich will rise; and civil war will erupt in the Republican party. The Establishment will do everything to thwart him there, and that is why they are taking no chances and are already making headway. Mitt Romney's superior debate performance tonight was also a reflection of a campaign in full knowledge that the Florida firewall must not fall.

Two days after the President's State of the Union address, hardly anyone is talking about it because Obama's fate in November will depend more on forces he cannot control than on anything he can do. Every single poll out there placing Gingrich and Obama in a head-to-head match gives the election to Obama -- by a 12 point spread on average. If the Republican primary electorate delivers Gingrich to Obama, even Bob Dole and William Buckley think it's going to be four more years.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Gingrich becomes the Anti-Romney Candidate

Newt Gingrich has won the biggest primary prize up for grabs so far. Romney's win in New Hampshire has been discounted because he's from neighboring Massachusetts, while poor Rick Santorum's newly recently declared victory in Iowa was quickly eclipsed by the news about Rick Perry dropping put of the race, ABC's interview with Gingrich's ex-wife, and the scuffle over Romney's tax returns. This is a huge victory for Gingrich because every winner in South Carolina since 1980 has gone on to win the nomination. So Gingrich is now the conservative alternative to Romney.

Volatility, though, has been the hallmark of the nomination race this year, and there is no reason to think this will change. The higher quantity of debates has helped Gingrich build a momentum in the last week, as has his superPAC -- both are new developments from the last cycle. For the first time in modern history, the Republicans have picked a different winner for each of the first three states. For the first time ever, the Republicans are going to nominate either a Mormon (Romney) or a Catholic (Gingrich or Santorum). This denominational diversity reveals a conservative electorate much more concerned about the economy than about social values, which was the major issue just 8 years ago. Finally, the loyal supporters of Ron Paul are a wild card, because no one knows to whom they will turn when Paul finally bows out -- and he intends to to hang around. All told, there are 1150 delegates to get to earn the nomination, so this race pushes on at least until the Spring.

Gingrich did not win in South Carolina because of "electability" as the SC exit polls misleadingly say; he won because of the rage that South Carolinians believe is necessary to take on Obama. Gingrich received the first standing ovation in the debates so far when he observed that more people had been put on food stamps under Obama than under any other president - a line he has been repeating in the last week. Obama will not and cannot receive credit for whatever he has done because his very presence in the White House is perceived by some conservatives as a criminalization of the the state in the service of socialism. This newly rediscovered "southern strategy" worked in South Carolina and it may well work beyond.

Gingrich is in a good position but not a front-leading one, however. He will not enjoy native son of the South advantage in Florida as he did in South Carolina, so the next contest is going to be important for him to prove his viability. He would need a huge infusion of cash after tonight to be able to afford the television ads he or his superPAC will need to run in Florida. Gingrich will not be able to sustain his momentum with just the free media, though two debates next week will help. For now, Romney still enjoys a lead because Florida's electorate is older and less evangelical than in South Carolina. Early voting has already started in Florida, and will continued until the 28th, so Romney's initial lead there would help him.

It is also worth noting that Romney is the only candidate who has done well in all three states. He is still, therefore, the frontrunner. But he cannot afford any more mis-steps. The tax returns questions from the media was just poorly handled, and Romney has stuttered repeatedly on a question that he should have been more than prepared for (as Gingrich was about ABC's interview with his ex-wife). Romney's fundamental problem, paradoxically, is that he is a happy, privileged man. He has no axe to grind, no grievances -- not even with the liberals and the feds. Worse still, he doesn't even perform anger very well, and that is why he could not gain traction in South Carolina. Romney is going to have to go after Gingrich's ethics violations, Fannie and Freddie Mac associations, and his multiple marriages; while Gingrich is going to go after Romney's Bain history, his healthcare positions in Massachusetts, and his tax returns. Things will have to get much uglier before the results of the nomination contest become clearer. And so onward toward the Sunshine State we go.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Romney's Still on Top

The first votes for the 2012 elections have been cast. Clearly the headline from last night is the Santorum surge in the last couple of days, better timed than any of the other candidates who had had their day in the sun. Oh and Mitt Romney eked out about an 8-votes win matching his own performance by percentage points in 2008.

So let's get down to the real results before the morning spin begins. Santorum has the most room for growth among the top three finishers in Iowa. Most important, Gingrich is furious, and he will be taking Romney on in the days to come (even if he would be wiser to go after Santorum so he doesn't sound like a petulant child). That leaves Santorum free to try to get a decent showing in New Hampshire, which is why he has decided to put his chips in that state rather than divide it equally between there and South Carolina, where presumably, he expects to do well with the social conservatives there as he did in Iowa. Meanwhile, if Bachmann or Perry drop out, their votes are now up for grabs. They may go to Gingrich, but Santorum will be vying hard for then. All this points to Santorum as the potential anti-Romney candidate in the days to come, but things are very fluid because Santorum does not have an ground operation set up the way Romney does, it does not look to be a year for social (values) conservatism, and the media has done a darn good job of shining the spotlight on and taking down every anti-Romney candidate who has emerged in the last couple of months -- and they have already started.

Here are some non-stories that are worth exploring. That Ron Paul, who is at the fringe of the Republican Party and who has not ruled out a third-party run, came in third suggests that his message cannot be taken lightly. Add his support to Santorum's support and one can almost say that the shake-up of the Republican establishment is underway. But this is still anybody's game because number 2 and 3 are as far apart ideologically as any two contenders in the Republican primary could possibly be. This is unusual, and suggests a party in deep self-introspection. This is a chance for a serious recalibration, but clearly also a chance for a drawn out battle that will benefit the incumbent, Barack Obama. (Incidentally, turnout was about the same as it was in 2008, at 122,000 - good news for Democrats who are expecting an enthusiasm gap in the Republicans' failure this time.)

Romney's best chance forward is to say that he is the candidate with the best chance of defeating Obama. He should repeat that ad nauseum, and remind people that he visited Iowa only 9 times this round (Santorum had visited every county) after his embarrassing defeat in 2008. Romney is clearly a seasoned operative who knows how to play this game. Even more important, a win in New Hampshire, which the polls right now predict, could give him the earliest hint of an inevitable winner. Why? Because he would be the first non-incumbent Republican candidate to win both Iowa and New Hampshire. (Edmund Muskie in 1972 and Al Gore in 2000 managed that on the Democratic side.) For all the talk of a disunited Republican party, this would be a non-trivial milestone if Romney maintains his considerable lead in New Hampshire.