Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Romney's Double Score in Arizona and Michigan

Mitt Romney had an OK Tuesday night, no better or worse than the ones he's had so far. But it is still a story because Romney needed his wins in Arizona and especially in Michigan. No news is great news for a campaign's whose raison d'ĂȘtre has consistently been "take whoever is the Anti-Romney candidate down."

And therein lies the weakness of Romney's candidacy. He had his donors sweating yet again when news spread that Democrats in Michigan's open primary were going to turn out to tip the state in Santorum's favor. The result is that Romney's three-point win there pales in comparison to his lead over the eventual nominee back in 2008, which was 9 percent. And unlike in 2008, when there was only one anti-Obama candidate, Romney faces this late in the game not one but three anti-Romneys. Looking ahead to Super Tuesday, one of these, Newt Gingrich, has a home field advantage in the biggest delegate prize so far in Georgia. The other, Ron Paul, is positioned to do well in the Alaska and North Dakota caucuses.

Rick Santorum, for his part, still has some momentum left in him because the Michigan results were partly masked by the fact that 184,000 had voted early and Santorum's surge only occurred recently. The campaign will try to clinch a symbolic win on Sunday in Washington, which is a caucus state (but whose delegates will not be bound by the results.) With or without Washington, Santorum has a real shot at victory in Ohio, where he polls well with blue-collar conservatives. All told, we are nearing March, and there are still not implausible ways out of the Romney nomination.

This is not all the candidate's fault, however - bland and awkward performer he may be. If the RNC wanted to lengthen the nomination process and expand proportional representation (rather than winner-take-all) in the races, it should have waited until there was an open race on the Democratic side as well! In other words, Republican elders tried to mimic what the Democrats managed to do in 2008 and it is starting to blow up in their face. What compounds this strategic misstep is that in order to punish states who had moved their primaries up the calendar, the RNC, by stripping errant states for front-loading, made it even more possible for a slew of early contests to name a different frontrunner than in previous contests, thereby permitting more chaos when they should have known that this would occur alongside an incumbent Democrat with no challenge to his nomination. And of course there was the added wild card of Citizens' United and the resulting superPACS that has made the survival of little-known candidates more likely than before. Moving forward, the RNC will have to weigh the costs of controlling the primary calendar, because doing so has weakened the momentum of whoever emerges as the party's nominee and shortened the time left for him to campaign as a general election candidate. For his part, Romney will be throwing everything but the kitchen sink in to sustain his air of inevitability; but the RNC has effectively determined by rules set in 2010 that the deal definitely won't be sealed next Tuesday.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Brokered Republican Convention?

The Republican nomination race is still Mitt Romney's to lose, but he is in trouble yet again, and his cloak of inevitability is fast disappearing.

Even if Romney won every delegate from now on, and he won't, it wouldn't be mathematically possible for him to lock up 1144 delegates at least until early April. It is now too late in almost every state to get on the ballot, so barring a brokered convention where a compromise candidate can potentially emerge out of nowhere, we are down to these last four candidates. Ironically though, the longer Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich stay in the race, the more likely the Republicans will be headed toward a brokered convention, and new developments keep making what was once a journalist’s dream a palpable possibility. Gingrich's superPAC just got a 10 million infusion from Sheldon Adelson, and with a lock on Georgia's delegates, he has no incentive to drop out anytime soon. Ron Paul, of course, is the only candidate in this race in it for the ideas and the ideas alone, so he is guaranteed to stay on for as long as he can shape the debate. When 2012 is wrapped up, it may well be that the only person who unambiguously benefitted from Citizens United and the rise of the superPACs to sustain the campaigns of what would once have been longshot candidates may be the same person who had initially opposed Citizens United, Barack Obama.

With a steady trickle of good news coming in about the economy, Mitt Romney’s strong suit is losing its luster, which is why the game between the two front-runners is fluid and difficult to call. With contraception in the news, Romney's moderate credentials pale in contrast to Santorum's authentic conservatism, or as Romney has tried to say of himself, "severe" conservatism. Funded by a billionaire, Foster Freiss, Santorum now has the resources to fight a longish race. More important, he is polling ahead of Romney in Michigan, where Romney's father was once the Governor. If Santorum ekes out a victory in Michigan, he may get enough of a momentum to win in delegate-rich Ohio, a key battleground state that will cause Establishment Republicans to give him a fresh look. Things could then get really messy this summer, and this is bad news for the GOP. The difference between the Obama-Clinton battle in 2008 and the Romney-Santorum battle is that Clinton wasn't able to pull Obama to the Right; each of the anti-Romney candidates have taken their turn to drag Romney so far to the Right that the eventual nominee may not have time to race back to the center to stage a plausible general election campaign.

Already, the divergence of interest between the presidential and primary candidates and incumbent republicans is occurring. On the one hand, Republicans in Congress have already caved in to payroll tax cuts proposed by the Obama administration, and succumbed to the pressure to moderate in order to produce some legislative outcomes in an election year. On the other hand, the primary electorate is being invited to live in an alternate universe, where ideological purity and consistency rather than moderation will be rewarded. The net result is that the overlapping of general and primary election imperatives -- the incentive to go Right and go center – is going to get increasingly glaring and damaging to the GOP the longer the nomination contest goes on. The Republican party therefore has every incentive to end the nomination race soon, so that it can begin the move toward the center that will position the candidate to take on Obama in the Fall, and to mitigate the potential embarrassment of more congressional cavings in to come as the lame-duck session tries to find something to show after two years of unproductive bickering.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Road To Super Tuesday

The Republican party has traditionally been the more conservative party not only in terms of values but also in terms of organization reform. Leaders tend to be slower than their Democratic counterparts in reforming the nomination process, and voters tend to be more deferential to the last cycle's runner-up to the winner.

What changed in the last few years was an concerted effort to democratize the Republican Party, fueled in part by the success of the Democratic nomination contest between Obama and Clinton in generating an enthusiasm gap in 2008. This included expanding proportional representation in nomination contests, and an unprecedented number of debates to the calendar. The result thus far has been chaos, restrained only in part by the overriding imperative to find a candidate who can unseat Obama. Republicans are relearning their earlier intuition that more voices do not always lead to a coalescing chorus.

The White House understands this. One wonders if the Obama administration's blunder about a birth-control insurance mandate on religious institutions was so poorly executed that it may actually have been perfectly timed. On the heels of the Catholic candidate Rick Santorum's trifecta win, the administration decided to announce a controversial mandate requiring that women in religious institutions be entitled to contraception coverage in their health insurance, only to reverse this decision almost immediately. Either this was spectacularly amateur politics, or a high-risk attempt to put social issues back on the Republican primary agenda on the eve of the CPAC conference to aid Romney's Catholic rivals. Romney ended up winning the CPAC straw poll and thereby entrenching his conservative credentials, but Santorum ended up a close second.

With barely any media attention devoted to the recent victories for gay marriage in California and Washington, the Obama campaign recognizes that the only reliable issue left for social conservatives to fight on is abortion (immigration being a sensitive topic for both parties), and this is possibly why they took the risk of taking it on. Social conservatives, for their part, were very wise to quickly connect the contraception mandate to the anti-Obamacare animus shared by other conservatives, so that God may remain relevant in an election year that will be mostly dedicated to the economy and debates about big government. This ideological fusion is Santorum's ticket to unseating Romney -- at least this is what the White House hopes -- because as long as values matter, the conservative alternative to Romney will.

With no closure in sight, the Republican candidates must trudge on to Michigan and Arizona. It will not be until Super Tuesday, when the big delegates counts are at stake, before Romney's coronation can be confirmed.