Sunday, February 26, 2012

 

Ahem... where was I?

Don’t you hate it when you get distracted? The last few weeks have been pretty hectic at work, and a whole spate of primaries has gone past with hardly a word from me. Whoops. So… where was I?

My last update was after New Hampshire well over a month ago, when the field looked very different indeed. Mitt Romney had won both of the initial states (Iowa by a small margin, New Hampshire by a big one) and was the favourite for South Carolina. And now? Huntsman and Perry have both dropped out (yes, my last update was that long ago). Romney’s win in Iowa has been overturned (seems that Santorum won after all, once various irregularities had been smoothed out and accounted for). And the race has turned into the most topsy-turvy primary battle in living memory.
The first post-New Hampshire primary was South Carolina on January 21st. The winner: Newt Gingrich, who – fortified with millions of dollars of donations from a casino tycoon – pounded Romney mercilessly with attack ads and wrested a 12-point victory. Romney stumbled, unable to formulate convincing responses to the attacks directed against his business record. Suddenly it seemed that Gingrich was back in the ascendant (and, naturally, Gingrich himself loudly proclaimed that to be the case).
But ten days later, after moving to Florida, the race swung right back the other way. Gingrich started to behave in a presidential manner befitting the front-runner, meaning that he sought to glide serenely over the fracas going on below; Romney, in the meantime, took the gloves off and went after him with everything he had, scoring numerous hits against him in debate and bombarding him with negative adverts. As was the case when their positions were reversed, this proved to be a winning strategy. Romney beat Gingrich 46-32, and Gingrich’s star has been fading (again) ever since.
In Nevada a few days later, on February 4th, Romney hit 50%, convincingly thrashing everyone else, including Ron Paul (who had mostly skipped Florida to focus on the next few states, where more delegates for non-winners were on offer). His path to Super Tuesday seemed clear: big wins in friendly states for the entire month of February.
Of course, it didn’t work out that way: once again, the front runner stumbled and was overtaken. Romney won the Maine caucuses – but on a tiny turnout, and slightly controversially, with the results announced before all of the relevant precincts had voted, meaning that Ron Paul (who was only a small number of votes behind) still had the potential to overtake him. (In the event, he didn’t.) The bigger news: on February 7th, Rick Santorum won convincingly in Colorado (40-35, in what was supposed to be Romney territory in the mountain west) and overwhelmingly in Minnesota (45-27). Within a few days, national polls were showing Santorum displacing Romney as the front-runner.
What the heck is going on? Why aren’t Republican voters settling on a front runner like they usually do? This race is seeing whoever is the front runner being tackled and brought down almost as soon as they get ahead. The dynamic continues: after a couple of weeks of Santorum setting the agenda with his extremely socially conservative beliefs, and with the other candidates laying into him, the latest polls now show Romney regaining a lead in Michigan, the next state to vote (along with Arizona, on February 28th).
There are various explanations for this. One is that the election calendar is misleading. A pattern is emerging of Romney being strong in New England (New Hampshire, Maine), the biggest states (Florida) and the West (Nevada), Gingrich being strong in the South (South Carolina, and in the more culturally Southern Florida Panhandle), and Santorum in the Midwest (Iowa, Minnesota). It could be that regional differences are the biggest determinant, and that the leader is only alternating so much because the calendar jumps from region to region. On this reading, as the race continues the candidates will continue to build up delegates from the different regions, and it’ll take quite some time to see who will emerge as the winner. This is certainly the hope of the Gingrich campaign, which is hoping to pick up some prizes in the South on Super Tuesday on March 6th, including his home state of Georgia.
But this reading is unconvincing because of the polling data, which is highly changeable. Romney had a big lead in the polls in South Carolina, which Gingrich was able to erode; Gingrich then entered Florida in the lead and saw a huge swing towards Romney. Michigan has also been see-sawing back and forth, most recently to Santorum, now back to Romney. Seasoned poll-crunchers have declared themselves astounded by some of the swings in this race. So why are voters being so fickle?
A more convincing explanation is the proliferation of negative advertising. The most successful way for the candidates to beat each other has been for them to bash each other. Time and again, the candidates have vaulted over each other by running nasty ads attacking their opponents. Thus we have learned about Romney’s heartless corporate past, Gingrich’s crazed policy ideas, grossly incompetent leadership of Congress, and appalling willingness to work across the aisle, and Santorum’s blasphemous use of earmarks while a senator. These attacks have largely been made using vast amounts of money provided by so-called Super PACs, fundraising entities enabled by a recent Supreme Court decision revoking limits on campaign-related spending in politics. This infusion of money and relentless negativity has, perhaps, succeeded in turning voters off each of the candidates as soon as they take the lead and become the target.
This seems plausible. But perhaps the root reason has more to do with the candidates themselves. On this reading, negative ads are so effective because each of the candidates is deeply flawed in their own way. Romney is insincere, out of touch on account of his wealth, and a serial flip-flopper on important issues. Santorum is outrageously extreme on social issues and has a compromising past life in the Senate which led to his being evicted by voters in Pennsylvania. Gingrich is preening, self-absorbed, and has a proven track record of alienation and mismanagement in Congress. Ron Paul is a bit nutty and has views well beyond the mainstream of conservative thought. On this view, then, the lead is changing so much because Republican voters are essentially voting “None of the above” at every chance they get: whoever is the front-runner will be voted against. If this is correct, Santorum will probably be smacked back down in Michigan and Arizona by Romney, and Romney in turn will have difficulties in the next round of states on Super Tuesday.
On balance, the latter explanation seems the most likely. Each of these candidates is very deeply flawed, although they are not necessarily quite as bad as most of their opponents would have you believe. The dynamic might change a bit on Super Tuesday - the number of states voting will be so high that none of the campaigns will really have had a chance to blanket voters with advertising as is normal in the earlier states, so the national perception of the candidates may matter more. This could benefit Romney. Or not – this race has been wildly unpredictable and shows every sign of remaining so.
Republicans are essentially in a quandary right now. They don’t like any of their candidates, and even the grudging support they are currently giving is subject to change. But daydreams of a knight in shining armour emerging at the convention are fanciful: one of these candidates will be their nominee, for better or worse. They may be unhappy at this, but they have only themselves to blame: the air of Tea Party-infused ideological inflexibility and intolerance put off many better-qualified candidates from entering the race, and forced the candidates who did enter to adopt preposterous positions rigidly. Fresh non-partisan analysis this week showed that all of the Republican candidates’ economic plans would grow the budget deficit more than Obama’s – a stunning fact for a party whose candidates are running against the President’s alleged mismanagement of the nation’s finances. But what else can the candidates do? Their party will not allow them to propose raising taxes, which is the only mathematical way to close the gap. So they will continue with the unrealistic policies that they have. A race in which you have to stand before the nation and proclaim with a straight face that policies you know to be flawed will somehow achieve the impossible – that’s a race that will only attract charlatans, and the most brazen of them will be the best-placed to win it. Democrats are therefore crowing. “Sorry, Republicans,” they might say, “this line-up is what crazy looks like, and for allowing your party to be taken over by the loons, the choice between these jokers is your reward.”
The Obama campaign spent almost as much as the Romney campaign in January, but not on negative ads: the money went on laying the campaign groundwork for the autumn. Obama has a solid record, fantastic fundraising, a set of policies which at least make more sense than the Republican challengers’, and plenty more time to allow his opponents to tear each other down. Democrats are feeling increasingly good about their chances.
Michigan and Arizona vote on Tuesday, February 28th.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

 

No Surprises in New Hampshire

For months on end, the Republican candidates for their party’s presidential nomination have focused almost all of their efforts on two tiny states: Iowa and New Hampshire. And just like that, the big days in both states are gone, and the political world can go back to ignoring them completely for four more years. The key question for the moment is: have the two states decided the contest already, or do we still have a race?

One thing we can say for certain is that we have a strong leader. Mitt Romney accomplished something that no non-incumbent Republican has managed since 1976, winning both Iowa and New Hampshire. Iowa may have been won by the narrowest of margins (or not at all, if you believe some of the stories that came to light this week about the routine minor irregularities in the count), but New Hampshire was won convincingly, with Romney taking 39.3% of the vote, miles ahead of Ron Paul in second place with 22.9%. Ron Paul, of course, doesn’t care about appealing to most Republican voters and will never win the nomination. Jon Huntsman, who came in third with 16.9%, has run as too much of a moderate to be a threat this time around. Deliciously for Romney, his two most direct opponents, Rick Santorum (who came within 8 votes of beating him in Iowa) and Newt Gingrich (who has spent the last week bashing him as forcefully as possible), were reduced to squabbling for 4th place, each on 9.4% with just fifty votes separating them. Rick Perry got less than 1%.
This represents a great result for Romney. Expectations matter as much as results, and on both counts he delivered: 40% is convincing front-runner territory, especially when you’re up against four other credible contenders, and everyone was expecting him to land in convincing front-runner territory. The fact that he did gives him a credibility boost. Just like he planned, his New Hampshire victory now makes him seem considerably more inevitable than he did before. That will help in gathering endorsements, raising money, and winning over undecided voters.
The result was quite a good one for Ron Paul, too: polls had been showing him in a solid second, and that’s what he achieved. He doesn’t really have a hope of winning overall, so a string of second and third place results, lasting all the way through to the convention, is the best case outcome for him. If he keeps this up – and there’s no reason to think that he won’t – he’ll go into the convention carrying a lot of delegates and will do his best to shift the party platform in a libertarian direction.
It wasn’t such a good result for the other candidates. Jon Huntsman really needed a convincing second place finish to give him some momentum, and despite a late, potentially Santorum-like surge, he didn’t get it. Third place may allow him to limp on for a bit longer – and he certainly seems to intend to – but he can’t go far now. He’s out of cash and his organisation in South Carolina and Florida – the next two big states – is not very well developed. His particular brand of moderation doesn’t go down well in South Carolina especially, so he may be holding out for Florida, but it remains to be seen how effectively he’ll be able to campaign. He’ll certainly drop out: maybe before South Carolina, maybe after, or maybe after Florida. Whenever it comes, it won’t be a surprise.
Newt Gingrich also did badly. His attacks on Romney made a big impression, as everyone predicted, but despite shaping the debate he didn’t personally benefit all that much. At one point he was a strong contender for a second place finish in New Hampshire; fourth is pretty dismal. It remains to be seen whether he will be able to arrest his slide in South Carolina. If he can’t, then his hopes of clinching victory will pretty definitively evaporate.
Rick Santorum, too, must have been hoping for more of a bounce. Polls after Iowa showed him leaping up the pack, and second place at one point didn’t seem unreasonable. But the reality of New Hampshire is that Santorum’s social conservatism doesn’t appeal there, a fact which he realised and which made him downplay expectations for the results. He’ll be hoping to win the nomination on a Southern and Midwestern strategy, so although New Hampshire’s result is disappointing, it probably doesn’t affect his game plan or prospects all that much.
The campaign in New Hampshire did bring one big, important change to the campaign dynamic, though, and that has to do with the nature of the attacks on Mitt Romney. Up to now, Republican attacks on Romney had focused on his privilege, his lack of sympathy for the common man, his moderation, his flip-flopping, and (sotto voce) his religion. His successful business experience – the bedrock quality that he is running on – had remained off bounds. This is the Republican Party we’re talking about, after all: running big businesses and being ruthless in order to succeed are more often marks of credibility than sticks to beat each other with. Party elites and donors often hail from business backgrounds; grass roots party members tend to support free enterprise reflexively. Attacking candidates for their business backgrounds usually isn’t good Republican politics. Indeed, the Obama campaign had been preparing its own lines of attack on those grounds on the expectation that Republicans wouldn’t go there.
They did. The Wall Street elite financier label was too irresistible. Romney himself didn’t help, saying things in New Hampshire to the effect that he likes to be able to fire people (in the context of consumers being able to choose the companies that provide services to them) and that he has had cause in the past to worry about receiving a pink slip (something Americans receive when they lose their jobs). The first  was simply an unfortunate phrase and the second was broadly true (albeit disingenuous), but both were easily taken out of context and reflected badly on him when widely repeated. They provided a nice accompaniment to Gingrich’s vicious prodding of Romney’s time at Bain Capital, the private equity firm that he founded and led and still has a large stake in. Gingrich has acquired a half-hour long movie attacking Romney’s time there, which (if you believe his critics) was mostly spent buying virtuous companies in the heartland, stealing all of their money, closing their factories, and then setting them free again under a huge debt burden which caused them to go bankrupt. Rick Perry, campaigning down in South Carolina, also got in on the act, scoring a rare rhetorical success to the effect that Romney was indeed worried about pink slips – about not having enough of them to hand out. He also attacked Romney’s brand of “vulture capitalism”, a label which could stick.
This is all very interesting, coming from the Republicans. The strategy of Gingrich and Perry seems to be to take down Romney in any way possible, and this is the most promising line of attack because it strikes at the heart of his credibility. In the context of the populist Tea Party surge, which sometimes demonises big business, this may just give them the edge. Alternatively, it may not: the party establishment, battered enough by the Tea Party, seems to be issuing a collective shudder at the tone of the attacks. Rush Limbaugh said that they sounded like something Elizabeth Warren – a very liberal Harvard professor running for the Senate in Massachusetts – might say. Romney’s response has been to describe such attacks as being worthy of the Democrats, which is entirely accurate: the Obama campaign has been publicly gleeful at the bipartisan stamp that all of this gives to their main line of attack, and liberals haven’t hesitated to adopt some of the language being used by Gingrich and Romney. The attacks may therefore backfire.
Or not. Romney took the opportunity of his victory in New Hampshire to assert that they haven’t worked, but that may be premature: they didn’t have enough time to sink in before the New Hampshire primaries. In any case, we’ll find out. South Carolina has a reputation of being the state where desperate campaigns resort to the basest possible tactics to secure a victory (anyone remember the Bush campaign’s utterly false insinuations about John McCain’s out of wedlock African-American love child in 2000?), it’s over a week until the primaries there, and Newt Gingrich has used a giant PAC donation to buy a huge amount of airtime to run negative ads pressing the attack. This could be Romney’s downfall if it works, but if it rebounds it could mark the utter defeat of Gingrich and Perry. The race may have some excitement in it yet.
Going into South Carolina, then, Mitt Romney has a big lead and will hope to keep it. This is a big test for him: can he successfully win over the party’s Southern base of religious, socially conservative voters? If he wins here, he’ll be on course to wrap things up in Florida and then sail through Super Tuesday eliminating the rest of the competition. Defeating him here is the last good chance that his opponents have.
The first post-New Hampshire polls haven’t trickled in yet, but post-Iowa polls seemed to show him with a 30-40% lead – a big bump from December when Gingrich led the state. Victory in New Hampshire will increase that lead further, but the attacks on his record may work to lower it. He needs a front-runner sized win to keep up his momentum going into Florida.
Gingrich – a fellow Southerner, from neighbouring Georgia – was around second place, but has probably declined since then. A comeback for him doesn’t seem likely, but he is very determined and it’s not impossible. If he can’t win or come in a close second here of all places, his chances for continuing won’t be good. The most likely scenario, however, is that his attacks will diminish Romney without benefitting himself all that much, with voters turning away from Romney to one of the other candidates.
Rick Santorum would seem like the ideal person to pick those votes up: his social conservatism and strong national security credentials will work well in South Carolina. He’s the natural anti-Romney poised to emerge in this campaign. Close second would keep him very much in the race. First would be very, very good indeed for him. Less than that will put him back in also-ran territory. This is his big chance to establish himself as a serious candidate at the front of the pack, and he needs to grab the opportunity with both hands.
Rick Perry was hoping that Santorum would stumble in New Hampshire to give him an opportunity to shine in South Carolina, but in the end Santorum didn’t do too badly relative to the low expectations for him there. That means that Perry’s window is now closing. Unless his attacks on Romney cause voters to give him another chance, this will be his last stand. The polls in the next couple of days will tell. If he’s still right at the bottom, then he probably won’t be able to make much of an impact and will most likely drop out after the primary.
As for Jon Huntsman – South Carolina isn’t a good state for him, seeing as how he’s socially very moderate and favours drawing down America’s commitments overseas, while state voters are very socially conservative and, with a large defence industry and big military presence in the state, are keen on boosting the military. Assuming he doesn’t actually drop out before the primary, he’ll be hoping just to finish as far from the bottom as possible to let him continue plausibly into more hospitable Florida.
For Ron Paul, too, the state doesn’t look hospitable: his isolationism and calls for reductions in military spending don’t go down well, and he’s not really cut out to appeal to the socially conservative crowd. A solid third or fourth place finish would be good for him.
The winner of this state has gone on to be the Republican nominee in every cycle for the last 32 years. That seems likely to continue this time around. If Romney wins, he’ll be well on track to overcoming the attacks against him and knocking his opponents out of the race. But if anyone manages to beat him, they might well knock out the other not-Romneys and start to gather enough pace to steal the nomination. In many ways this state, not Florida, is the last stand of the initial primaries. On January 21st, the fate of many of these candidates will be decided once and for all.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

 

From Iowa to New Hampshire

Well, that was a result you don’t see very often! Out of 122,255 voters who turned out for the Iowa caucuses, Mitt Romney was declared the winner by 8 votes. Not percentage points – votes. Want to know how close that was? Early in the count, when Buddy Roemer (who he?) had managed to gather a vote tally of 9, he tweeted: “I almost have enough votes in Iowa to start a bowling league. #Roementum”. Roemer’s not-quite-enough-people-for-a-bowling-league could have flipped the result if they’d all voted differently. (Roemer ended up with 31 votes in total.)

Romney’s win was the closest primary victory ever. Intriguingly, it also represented – at 24.6% of the vote – a lower score than he got in Iowa in 2008, when his second place finish with 25% of the vote was considered a huge blow to his campaign. (A further amusing factoid: Romney 2008 beat Romney 2012 by a whole 6 votes. It seems that the intervening 4 years haven’t boosted his popularity much.)
Still, a win is a win! The Romney campaign had long downplayed the chances of success in Iowa, and he had focused more on New Hampshire until only a couple of weeks before the caucuses; at that point, no-one was expecting him to win at all, so compared to early expectations a victory of any sort is a big achievement. In the last couple of weeks, however, his team inexplicably allowed expectations for a strong finish to creep up; having done so, a bad result would have been very embarrassing. He avoided that outcome. Romney was a winner in Iowa. Third-placed Ron Paul, too, was a winner, albeit somewhat less of one. The losers, clearly, were Newt Gingrich (4th), Rick Perry (5th) and Michele Bachmann (6th), all of whom had hoped to do much better. The biggest winner of Iowa, however, was the man that Romney so narrowly beat: former senator Rick Santorum, who until a couple of weeks ago no right-minded person could have considered a serious candidate.
This is quite a remarkable achievement for him. He was in Congress for 16 years – a congressman from 1990 to 1994, then a senator for two terms after that – but that all came to an end in the Democratic swing of 2006. Pennsylvania didn’t just gently swing out from under his feet: it violently bucked him off, giving a landslide 18-point victory to his opponent, the largest ever margin of defeat for a sitting senator in that state. Since then he’s mostly been carping on the sidelines as a Fox News commentator. His candidacy was completely implausible.
His two-week transition from afterthought to leading contender didn’t come because of anything he did. That’s not to say that he hasn’t been working hard: he certainly has, traversing Iowa relentlessly, braving terrible weather and tiny crowds to try to get his message across. But his success has less to do with him than it has to do with timing. As the least exciting contender in Iowa, voters hungry for a non-Romney candidate had cycled through every single other option. (Bachmann, Perry, Gingrich, Paul and indeed Herman Cain all held an Iowa poll lead at some point in the last six months.) In each case, the glare of publicity highlighted the candidate’s flaws, and voters moved on. After Gingrich was decimated by negative attention from everyone, the only non-Romney candidate left was Santorum – and with Gingrich crashing in the last week before Christmas, just as voters turned their attention away from politics, Santorum’s lift came too late for him to be vulnerable to attacks from other candidates or exposés from the media. There simply wasn’t enough time to scrutinise and attack him before the vote. He crested at the perfect time.
So he can hardly be credited with being the architect of his own success. Now he faces some huge problems. First is the problem of scrutiny: now that voters, opponents and the media are really looking at him, they may find plenty of things to dislike. (As he is a rich lawyer with an inside-the-beltway profile and close ties to lobbyists, his opponents shouldn’t find it too hard to find ways to attack.) Second is the challenge of moving beyond Iowa. He has poured all of his effort into campaigning in Iowa, but now he must succeed in other places too. He will campaign in New Hampshire, then South Carolina and Florida, and possibly beyond, but his organisation is very thin in those places. He needs to pull together large teams of staff and volunteers to deliver leaflets, organise and promote campaign stops, make adverts and get out voters, and he doesn’t have much time to do it; the rival campaigns of Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Rick Perry are much better organised.
But he has opportunities now too. With success in Iowa comes the vital oxygen of media exposure and attention: he will now find it much easier to get his message across to voters and to raise money. Bachmann’s supporters may well tend to gravitate towards him, and now that he’s had a good result he may well round up many of the anti-Romney votes currently attached to Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich. The crucial thing he gets is momentum: while he may not do well in New Hampshire, where his brand of social conservatism is not strong, he has a very good chance to win South Carolina on January on January 21st. If he can do that, he will become the only serious anti-Romney candidate, and given Romney’s ongoing lack of appeal to Republican voters, that seems like a clear path to the nomination. In other words, if Rick Santorum can avoid collapsing under pressure, in a scandal or through disorganisation, he could go all the way.
Mitt Romney has a different challenge. His win in Iowa is a boost, although he would have preferred a higher margin of victory. Polls show him likely to sweep New Hampshire on January 10th. Those two victories will give him a lot of momentum going into South Carolina, where he is already starting to campaign. The challenge for him, then, is to keep on winning; given his superior resources and the benefits of momentum, that should be possible. Rolling out a sequence of big endorsements from Republican heavyweights will help create a sense of inevitability: he received John McCain’s today. The biggest threat will be if all the voters opposing him coalesce around a single candidate: for that reason, expect to see a lot of negative advertising coming from him towards Rick Santorum in the coming two weeks, as soon as his teams manage to pull some together. (Santorum’s leap into front-runner status was so unexpected that it might take a few days to get them ready.)
Romney is clearly the man to beat. He has avoided an embarrassing defeat in Iowa and looks set to win strongly in New Hampshire. But he still isn’t polling amazingly well for a front-runner, meaning that he is clearly beatable. The other campaigns will now seek to bring him down any way they can.
Newt Gingrich will be landing the sharpest blows in the next week. Incensed by what he sees as unfair attacks from Romney in Iowa, he has made clear that the gloves will now be coming off. (He made this clear in the Newtest possible way: after accusing Romney of being a liar, he pledged not to run negative ads, and then – practically in the same breath – promised that his ads would “tell the truth”, i.e. be negative.) Gingrich has probably been so badly damaged by his time in the spotlight that his campaign will be irrecoverable, but he still has enough energy, media attention and money for the thrashes of his lengthy death throes to hurt. He has already lit into Romney as a “Massachusetts moderate” as well as a “liar”, and we’ll see a lot more of this in the next couple of weeks. Crucially, Gingrich’s biggest strength has been his debate performances, and more debates have been scheduled for the coming days. Expect plenty of headlines, but probably not another comeback. Unless Gingrich can get a solid top-three finish in New Hampshire, his downward trajectory will continue.
Another candidate hoping for a strong showing in New Hampshire is Jon Huntsman, who abandoned Iowa to focus on New Hampshire single-mindedly, and has been criss-crossing the state for some time. He will be hoping to pull off a Santorum-style last minute surge as the anyone-but-Romney favourite, but Santorum may well have beaten him to that moniker; his moderate profile isn’t well suited to firing up the Republican base in any event. The next few days will be crucial. Again, without a strong top-three finish in New Hampshire, his campaign will be over, and without a surprisingly strong second place finish he won’t get far beyond New Hampshire anyway. If it goes badly for him on the 10th, expect him to drop out pretty quickly, adding another case study to the folder of examples of why it’s a bad idea to skip states altogether at the start of the primary season. (Ask Rudy Giuliani if you need more info on how that strategy fails to work out.)
Ron Paul came in a creditable third in Iowa, winning only a few thousand votes fewer than Santorum and Romney. While he had hoped for better, third place is still pretty good for a candidate with policies as radical as his are. He’ll now be hoping to improve upon third place in New Hampshire, where polls currently have him a strong second. With Gingrich, who is on his way down, polling in third, and Huntsman, who has a standing start, polling in fourth, and with Santorum having to jump forward from a very low base to get a good result, Paul has a very clear shot at getting a strong second place finish in New Hampshire. That would give him a big boost by proving that Iowa wasn’t just a one-off: his campaign strategy is very much intact and his volunteer numbers and fundraising will be as healthy as ever. His destination remains unclear – he doesn’t have a plausible path to winning the nomination given how anathema most of his policies are to most Republican voters – but he is still moving forward at a good speed. I remain suspicious (hopeful?) that he will eventually transfer his momentum from the Republican primary process into a third party candidacy.
Rick Perry is the other serious contender still in the race. He did badly in Iowa, coming in fifth; his only consolation is that he did at least beat Michele Bachmann quite substantially. His initial reaction was one of uncertainty: he called off plans to head directly to South Carolina and went home to Texas instead to reassess his strategy. This is usually a codeword for deciding to leave the race, a possibility that people in his campaign had hinted would be the outcome of a bad result in Iowa. Many – myself included – thought that this was probably what he would do. In the event, however, he reconsidered and is now going to South Carolina after all. This is probably a good decision. While he did quite badly in Iowa, the field is still quite unsettled and a lot of things could happen, so it’s not hard to see a plausible path for him to get to the nomination. Consider this: he still has enough funds to get him through South Carolina, especially if he completely avoids New Hampshire (where he is polling dead last among the major candidates). He also has a good organisation already built up in South Carolina. He can leverage these assets to win if the conditions are right. New Hampshire will hurt several of the other campaigns: most likely, Gingrich, but also possibly Santorum, who may squander much of his momentum in a noisy but unsuccessful push there. If Santorum comes in fourth, fifth or sixth in New Hampshire, it would weaken his grip on many of his supporters: they, together with Gingrich’s and Bachmann’s supporters and Perry’s own respectable base in South Carolina, could give him a winning coalition. In other words, if Santorum stumbles in New Hampshire, Gingrich continues to fade, and Huntsman drops out, the anyone-but-Romney mantle might fall back on to Perry’s shoulders. In a race this unsettled, there’s enough of a chance of this to warrant Perry staying in, at least until South Carolina votes.
Alas for Michele Bachmann, that kind of plausible way forward didn’t really exist for her. Her strategy was to ride momentum out of Iowa, but she came in dead last out of the candidates who were running. She didn’t have much money on hand, she’d been losing staff and didn’t have strong organisations in the next states, and her poll numbers were terrible. It was possible to see her soldiering on simply out of sheer willpower, but her path to the nomination seemed closed. The decision to drop out was sensible. Her supporters will probably now mostly be picked up by Santorum – but by this point, there aren’t many of them. Fans of a sensible discourse in politics will be cheered to see her go: she will be remembered mostly as a crazy lady. But at least she will be remembered as a lady: with her departure, we are now faced – yet again – with a candidate line-up which is exclusively male, and post Herman Cain, exclusively white. That’s not something to be glad about.
To sum up then: moving into New Hampshire, the candidates’ priorities will be as follows. Romney needs to win big and survive the intensified attacks from other candidates, especially Gingrich; Santorum needs to build on his momentum from Iowa and steal enough voters from other candidates to achieve a respectable third or fourth place finish at least; Paul needs to maintain his steady pace with a good second-place finish; Gingrich needs to arrest his decline and come in the top three, which he will try to do by being nasty and winning debates; Huntsman needs a credible top two or three finish to have any kind of way forward; and Perry needs Gingrich and Santorum to do badly. If they do badly, expect Huntsman (definitely) and Gingrich (possibly) to drop out. Bring on January 10th!

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

 

Who wants what in Iowa?

Today, January 3rd 2012, marks the official start of the 2012 presidential election campaign, as Republican voters go to the polls in Iowa to apportion 28 of the 2,286 delegates to the Republican convention in Tampa in August. They will gather at 7pm in caucus halls to hear speeches from representatives of each of the candidates, and then they will cast their vote for their favourite. The delegates will be assigned to the candidates in proportion to their share of the vote. Only a small fraction of registered Republicans will turn out; those voters in turn will be a much smaller fraction of the state’s total number of registered voters. But the results might just propel one lucky candidate all the way into the White House; for some less lucky ones, they will spell the final end of their political careers. The race to become America’s next president is now officially beginning.

Most years there is a clear favourite by this point, but this year the results are impossible to predict. Iowa’s voters have churned through every single one of the candidates in their search for a front runner, with the exceptions only of Jon Huntsman, who long ago wrote the state off, and Rick Santorum, who is currently on his way up.
The reason why they’re churning is that the clear front runner in the national race is Mitt Romney, but no-one really likes him. Over many months, he has kept a steady 15-25% share of the vote in the polls as others have come and gone. His stability is reassuring for his campaign, but worrying too: a front-runner as well established as he is ought to be polling higher, and the only reason that we’ve seen such a parade of also-rans in the lead is that a huge number of Republican voters are desperate to vote for anyone other than him. That could very well deliver first place in the state to someone else.
That wouldn’t be a disaster for Romney, though it would be embarrassing. Unlike in 2008, when he bet heavily on winning Iowa and lost it to Mike Huckabee, Romney’s strategy this year was to not focus too much on Iowa and to home in on New Hampshire instead. Now, as the voting starts in Iowa, Romney’s lead in New Hampshire looks unassailable with a week to go until the primary. A second place finish in Iowa would represent something of a triumph for his campaign, although it would be pretty embarrassing if he came behind Rick Santorum. Expectations for his Iowa performance have been rising in the last couple of weeks though – particularly since he threw a lot of resources at the state to beat down Newt Gingrich – so anything lower than second would be a setback. No matter: his firebreak in New Hampshire will remain intact. The Romney campaign’s hope is that Iowa won’t matter too much in the long run. This is a hope shared by Jon Huntsman, who has staked everything on New Hampshire and hasn’t campaigned in Iowa; for him, anything better than seventh out of seven would be a big achievement.
All the other candidates, however, are hoping for Iowa to really matter, and to give them a big boost. A top three finish would be perfect – but there are five more candidates. Not all of them will do well. Best placed to get that all-important boost to their momentum are Ron Paul and – bizarrely, if you’ve been following this for a while – Rick Santorum, who was for a long time a no-hoper.
Ron Paul has many strengths in this election season. His libertarian policies (and his genuine and long-standing holding of them) have impressed many voters, and he has been able to build a very strong base of volunteers who are young and have a lot of free time. They will go out and shepherd voters to the caucuses across the state, and they will speak very passionately on his behalf. His fundraising is also excellent, and he has been able to bombard voters both with negative ads impugning his opponents and positive ones extolling himself. That kind of strong organisation is a major factor in winning caucus states; the passion factor is one of the things that helped Barack Obama win Iowa in 2008. It would not be a surprise at all if Paul pulled off a convincing win in the state given the low intensity of voters’ support for Romney. If it works, Paul will be hoping to achieve similar results in other caucus states, where voters need to be very motivated in order to show up, all the way through to the convention.
For Rick Santorum, the hope comes from the chance for a breakout. He has been languishing at the bottom of the polls for a very long time, and it’s quite telling that the votes of the anyone-but-Romney crowd cycled through every other candidate before landing on him. It may be that his moment in the sun has only arrived at the time that it has because every other candidate has been found wanting. Still, that could prove very fortuitous for him. In recent polls he has bounded into third place. If enough socially conservative voters conclude that he is the best non-Romney option going, then he could very easily pull off a big surprise. Motivating the socially conservative to win Iowa is a proven strategy: Mike Huckabee won the state with it in 2008. To really pull it off, you need to have the bona fides with your base that Huckabee (a former Baptist minister) had, and Santorum really does have them, with none of the gaffes that have marred the campaign of Michele Bachmann. A third place or higher finish would be a huge boost to him, but perhaps not a permanent one. He has been campaigning almost entirely in Iowa and his chances of success in the later states may not be high. But momentum can be a magical thing.
Both Bachmann and Rick Perry will be hoping desperately for a bit of that momentum as they have languished at the bottom of the pack in recent weeks. Both were once front runners in the state, but voters have largely abandoned them after a series of gaffes. They would really need a finish that beats expectations – realistically, in the top three – to get back into the running. Perry’s well-financed advertising may make a difference. Bachmann’s strong rapport with her tea party base is more likely to – she has a reputation for being well-organised in Iowa. But for both, things aren’t looking good, and it will be a long way from Iowa through inhospitable New Hampshire to get to South Carolina, the next state where social conservatives will be in with a big chance. Whichever two out of Bachmann, Perry and Santorum do worst will probably come under a lot of pressure from party insiders and donors to make way for the one with the best chance of success, which means that there’s a strong chance that two of them will end their runs in the aftermath of Iowa. At the moment those two would probably be Perry and Bachmann, but things are very fluid indeed, and caucuses can be unpredictable.
Newt Gingrich is also still skulking around. After brazenly proclaiming himself likely to be the nominee about a month ago, he is now playing down expectations for Iowa, telling reporters that he doesn’t expect to win. After the cold shower of negative attention that accompanied his surge in the polls, many voters have now been thoroughly scared away from him and he will struggle to bounce back again. In Iowa at least, he will probably not make the top three, which will be a disappointment for him. Unless he comes dead last his campaign will probably limp on for a while, but it seems likely that it will be only a matter of time before he folds. As he never tires of telling people though, he’s bounced back before!
To sum up, then: Romney, Gingrich and Huntsman are all in damage control mode, trying to avoid a finish below 2nd, 3rd and 6th respectively. Santorum and Paul are hungry for the upside of a better-than-expected result, hoping for 1st but probably happy to settle for top three, while Bachmann and Perry will be desperately hoping for anything higher than 5th to keep their candidacies alive. Not all of the candidates will get what they want, and some may well drop out. But who will it be? Impossible to say. My gut tells me that Ron Paul has the best chance of pulling off a victory, but in a race this unsettled, only the results will tell. It’ll be a very interesting count!

 

Republicana 2012: Meet the Candidates

Both parties have primaries, but this year no-one on the Democratic side is challenging Barack Obama for the nomination, so the excitement is all on the Republican side.
In alphabetical order, then, here are the contenders for the Republican nomination:
Michele Bachmann
The only woman in the Republican field, Bachmann - a congresswoman from Minnesota - inevitably drew comparisons to a certain former vice presidential candidate. She was originally thought of as a wild-eyed, less media-savvy version of Sarah Palin; as her profile, popularity and exposure grew and as Palin's potential sank she started to be thought of by alarmed opponents as more of a Sarah Palin with brains.
Media exposure was not kind to Bachmann, however. The more voters found out about her, the less they liked her. As a congresswoman she has few achievements to her name; indeed, apart from a gift for leveraging right-wing ideology to win elections, she hasn't achieved much in politics at all. She proudly reports having raised more than 20 (mostly foster) children, and her husband once ran a Christian counselling centre promising to 'cure' homosexuality through prayer. Even among her evangelical base, those things are a bit weird. Her tendency to gaffe was the final nail in the coffin of her once burgeoning popularity: among other things, she once accidentally identified herself with an infamous Iowan serial killer, misplaced the site of a famous battle in the American Revolution to the wrong state (particularly embarrassing for a candidate whose tea party base fetishises the war of independence), and thoughtlessly repeated on TV a factually insupportable assertion made to her by an aggrieved parent about how a vaccine supposedly caused 'mental retardation' in her child. She very rarely apologises for such gaffes. They have undermined her veneer of ideological rigour, and she now needs a top three finish in Iowa - at least - to progress much further. While that seems a bit unlikely, her organisational strength in Iowa and status as a leading Tea Partier means that it’s still worth keeping an eye on her.

Newt Gingrich
The former Georgia congressman and Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1995 to 1998 comes with so much baggage and so many character flaws that he was written off almost from the very beginning of his campaign, when – shortly after announcing his candidacy – he incurred the wrath of his party for criticising congressman Paul Ryan’s thoughtful (and extremely conservative) budget proposals, then disappeared off on vacation for a two week Greek island cruise, after which most of his staff quit. Having thus been reduced to a laughing stock, he went off the radar for a while.
His persistence paid off, however, as the anyone-but-Romney train finally pulled into his station in December after the implosion of Herman Cain’s campaign. He rose in the polls enough to proclaim himself very likely to become the nominee, which frightened the rest of the Republican establishment so much that all the other candidates launched a series of scathing – and very effective - attacks on him, and he has now fallen back.
Why does everyone hate him so much? It’s hard to count the ways. His temperament and leadership skills have a history of alienating everyone, from the Republican congressmen who booted him out of the Speaker’s chair in 1998 to his campaign staff this year. His self-proclaimed identity as an intellectual (he styles himself an historian rather than a politician) gives him a tendency to attach himself to ideas that sound clever but often aren’t (or at least, aren’t good politics), such as describing the Palestinians as an invented nation or calling for a moon base to harvest minerals. His strategic vision is extremely erratic: while his Contract with America helped Republicans capture the House for the first time in 50 years in the 1994 election, his subsequent battles with President Bill Clinton saw the Republicans come out worse after a government shutdown, helping Clinton get re-elected in 1996; his pledge to not run any negative ads in this race has been a disaster as his opponents have all rubbished him with attack ads of his own. He has a tendency to be absurdly self-important: he often compares himself to Churchill and Reagan as leaders who gained power and then had to spend time in the political wilderness before being returned to power to take up the true mantle of greatness. He also has a tendency to absurd self-rationalisations, such as claiming that he deliberately took that Greek holiday to bring tensions in his campaign team to a head, because he knew that his team wasn’t good enough and wanted them out. (This sometimes can work to his advantage, though: that decision not to run negative ads may have been the best possible spin on the fact that he had no money to create or run them anyway.) Oh, and there’s the small matter of his personal life: he cheated on his second wife with his current wife, and before that he cheated on his first wife with his second wife. At some point in the cascade of wives, the wife being cheated on was battling cancer. At another point – or possibly the same one – he was simultaneously trying to impeach Bill Clinton for having extramarital sexual relations.
So maybe the question should be: what did anyone see in him in early December? The answer seems to be his rhetorical skills – the consensus is that he was the strongest performer in a series of Republican debates this autumn, and other candidates fear receiving his tongue-lashings as much as conservative voters love seeing them directed at President Obama. His background as a Republican legend (winning back the House) and as an intellectual heavyweight didn’t hurt either. But now that he’s back on his way down, the way forward for him is difficult to see.

Jon Huntsman
Of all this year's crop of Republicans, Huntsman is the only one to be notable for his moderation. He supports civil unions for gay couples and is strikingly reasonable and pragmatic in his tone on foreign policy. He also tones down his attacks on Barack Obama, as well he might since the President is his most recent boss: he reached across the aisle by accepting the President's offer to become the American ambassador to China in the bipartisan moment after the 2008 election. Before that he was a successful Republican governor of Utah, an ambassador to Singapore, and the boss of a large chemical company. He speaks fluent Mandarin.
For all his glittering career, though, there are many things that limit his appeal to Republicans. Like Romney, he is a Mormon, a faith much-distrusted by others. Like Romney, he was a business leader and now owns a fortune. Like Romney, he got a strong start in life from his family; the business he ran was a family one that is still controlled by his father. Indeed, he is so much like Mitt Romney in all areas other than policy that he struggles to define himself as much different - except in matters of policy, where his moderate stances contrast with the fiery mood of the conservative electorate.
His most passionate supporters seem to be in the press: as quite a reasonable, moderate person, he is the candidate that liberal journalists love to not be hating. He also has a certain amount of traction in New Hampshire, the second state to vote; he has abandoned most of his efforts elsewhere and is focusing on the New Hampshire primary single-mindedly in an effort to gain credibility with a strong finish there. But he doesn't seem to be doing very well. Strikingly, now that Santorum is looking healthier in Iowa, Huntsman is the only candidate that the anyone-but-Romney crowd hasn't tried out yet.

(Correction: I originally said that Huntsman supported gay marriage - he actually supports civil unions and the right of states to define marriage as they wish, but he doesn't support gay marriage as such. This is the same position as Barack Obama.)

Ron Paul
A Texas congressman and perennial presidential candidate, Ron Paul has long been a lonely figure on the fringes of the Republican Party. A convinced libertarian, he espouses policies like drug legalisation and foreign policy isolationism that are deeply at odds with Republican orthodoxy. In truth, he has rarely aimed at winning the nomination, hoping instead simply to raise the profile of libertarian policies.
In the tea party era, this has become his secret weapon. Tea party insurgent candidates in 2010 were disgusted by the bipartisan consensus on how economics works. Since that consensus was fundamentally a Reaganite one derived from Republican ideas, an alternative set of ideas that was acceptable to right-leaning voters was required. Enter libertarianism. Paul strongly emphasises having a tiny government (he wants to abolish many federal departments and gut many of the rest), much lower taxes, private provision of currently government-run services, and slashing government spending and thus the deficit. These all chime with a new Republican orthodoxy forged in opposition to President Obama’s policies of deficit spending to boost the economy, providing a nice, ready-made intellectual framework on which to hang the nakedly political opposition to Obama’s policies. Many of the ideas that Paul has long espoused have thus come in from the cold.
Some of his other ideas have not, however, and therein lies his greatest weakness. Ending drug prohibition and government welfare systems entirely would horrify conservative voters and dramatically harm the interests of many conservative donors. Withdrawing all troops based overseas and ending American engagement with the rest of the world would horrify the Republican foreign policy establishment (and most of America’s allies). And while conspiracy-minded folk have flocked to his suggestion of abolishing the Federal Reserve (America’s central bank), seeing the Fed as a nice candidate for arch-villain of the financial crisis, most sensible businesspeople are horrified by the suggestion.  That’s three too many uses of the word “horrify” for him to win the nomination. Recent reports linking him to racist ideas in libertarian newsletters he edited in the 1980s and 1990s have also revealed a nasty side – if not to Paul himself (who claims he didn’t see the offending articles and certainly never supported such things), then at least to the crazy folk that he has been hanging out with on the extreme wings of the political spectrum.
But he does have the courage of his convictions, a major plus in a time when most of the other leading candidates have only recently converted to their current platforms. He has attracted a very highly-motivated set of volunteers, who are both younger – many of them college students – and richer than average. This has boosted both the energy levels of his campaign (all those students will work hard to boost turnout for him in Iowa) and his fundraising, enabling him to run a number of TV ads bashing Romney and Gingrich and pointing out his ideological virtues. Right now he resembles nothing so much as a normal politician enjoying his time as Iowa front-runner.
A final note. He probably doesn’t expect to win the nomination. But his promotion of libertarian ideas has taken him out of the Republican Party before. He is likely to stay in the race for as long as he possibly can, regardless of his chances of success. If the support is there for it – and it looks like it is – he may well launch a third party candidacy for presidency later in the year, an act which would severely damage the prospects of the eventual Republican nominee.

Rick Perry
Rick Perry was the last major candidate to jump into the race, and came with very high hopes attached. A three-term governor of Texas, he is solid in all the right ways. He has never lost an election. He has run Texas with swagger, unhesitatingly executing death row prisoners and holding massive prayer rallies. Recently, he even shot a coyote that was menacing his dog while he was out jogging. (He takes his gun jogging.) He also has a reputation for being a practical and effective governor who has been able to appeal to various Republican target groups, such as Hispanics. When he first launched his campaign he was for a time the front runner.
All that swagger reminds a lot of people of his predecessor as Texas governor, though. And just like George W. Bush, Perry has made a string of verbal gaffes. By late autumn they had derailed his campaign. Even before getting into the race, he raised eyebrows by suggesting that Texas could secede from the union; since joining, he has managed to accuse the Federal Reserve chairman of treason, flub his zingers in debates, accuse the vast majority of Republicans of being “heartless” for opposing university subsidies for long-resident children of illegal immigrants, and – most damagingly – spectacularly fail in a debate to remember the list of three government departments that he was pledging to abolish (ending with the immortal word, “Oops”). He is no longer taken very seriously, to the point where some commentators have taken to wondering how on earth he managed to get elected three times in Texas.
He still has some advantages, notably a very well-funded campaign and the support of very well-funded Super PACs (third party organisations funded by anonymous donors, which run ads supporting him). He has recently swung to the right on social issues, including on homosexuality and abortion (both of which he opposes, in case you were wondering). It seems unlikely that this will be enough to bring him victory.

Mitt Romney
The front-runner in this race since the beginning, Romney has a lot of advantages. He has chiselled looks and a squeaky clean personal life. He has insider pedigree: his father was a notable governor of Michigan in the 1960s and ran for President himself, and Mitt was a successful governor of Massachusetts. He ran, credibly, for President in 2008. He has outstanding private sector experience too, as both a businessman (as a founder of Bain Capital he has built a fortune measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars) and a populist (he put the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics back on track after a scandal). Based on previous electoral cycles, he should have been able to wrap up the support of the party establishment by now and be on course to cruise to the nomination.
The fact that this hasn't happened points up his weaknesses. He is a man of deep faith who carries out many worthy charitable activities as a devoted member of the lay clergy; but his faith is Mormonism, which other religious denominations view with considerable suspicion. His ruthless conduct in the 2008 campaign alienated all the other candidates and their establishment supporters, and that distance has never really been bridged. His tremendous private sector wealth gives him an aura of privilege and feeds suspicions that he doesn't understand the lot of the common man, a suspicion also fed by his wooden and unapproachable manner on the campaign trail, a series of testy interviews and debate performances, and a bizarre "Well golly gee Mister, I don't happen to agree with you" speaking style that is either an affectation or an anachronism.
His worst sin of all is a lack of conviction on the issues. He brought management consulting-style problem solving skills to bear on the question of getting elected governor of Massachusetts, and that served him well there, but in 2008, when the policies he needed to try to win the national nomination were different, he simply changed his policies. Politicians are expected to have convictions, and his changing positions on a wide range of subjects made it easy for his opponents to cast him as a flip-flopper. Primary voters, who tend to be more ideological than most, are suspicious - with good reason - that he will swing back to the centre again after being nominated. Bottom line: voters don't trust him.
Because of all of this, voters have swung from one non-Romney candidate to another in 2011, trying to find someone who could be a plausible alternative. The fact that they haven't succeeded doesn't mean that the base will be enthusiastic if Romney does get the nomination. But Romney may not need that enthusiasm to be chosen as the Republican nominee: his campaign’s deep pockets and strong organisation mean that he is ready for a long slog if the early states don’t break his way, and no other campaign is as ready to move on to the later states as the Romney campaign. While he should be very worried indeed that his popularity isn’t breaking the 25% barrier, he remains the clear favourite to win the nomination.

Rick Santorum
On the face of it, Rick Santorum seems like an unlikely figure to run for president: as a two-term senator from Pennsylvania he was one of his party’s brightest young social conservative stars, but he lost his seat in 2006. The only reason that most people outside of Pennsylvania have heard of him is because of a cruel joke (albeit one that some would say was richly deserved): after a particularly hate-filled speech about homosexuality, some online activists took their revenge through a campaign to redefine the first thing that comes up when you search the internet for 'santorum'. (Google it to see how successful they were.)
But while his political career might have been thought to have ended, his ideological conviction is not in doubt. He really, genuinely earned the hatred of the gay community, often likening homosexuality to bestiality and denying the validity of same sex relationships. He is also known as a passionate opponent of abortion rights. His own family is large and he and his wife homeschool their children. These positions, once at the hardcore end of the Republican spectrum, have since become party orthodoxy and Santorum has never had to shift his positions to align with what's expected, unlike some other leading candidates. He also has much to say about rebuilding America's industrial base, meaning that he actually represents one of the more solid policy packages on offer to socially conservative, blue collar voters. Of the candidates emphasising their social conservatism, unlike Perry he has no embarrassing lapses into human decency in his record, and unlike both Perry and Bachmann he doesn't make many gaffes.
Why hasn't he caught on before now, then? Partly because he's not very appealing: he doesn't strike a particularly presidential figure, showing little of Romney's authority or Perry's swagger. (Indeed, he often comes across as a bit whiny.) Perhaps more importantly, he is very much a family values conservative at a time when the party and the country are gripped by economic issues. His staunch positions are in many ways reminiscent of the battles of the Clinton and Bush eras, but he's running in the time of Obama. He has failed to catch the public's imagination.
By simple process of elimination, however, the anyone-but-Romney train has pulled into his station with just days to go before the Iowa caucuses. He has dedicated himself to the state, visiting all 99 counties before any other candidate. He may only attract small crowds, but his perseverance may still reap some rewards. Polls show that he has some momentum going into the caucuses. And indeed, why not Santorum? A candidate who rounded up all the socially conservative voters who are currently splitting their vote among other non-Romney candidates could be quite a fearsome figure. Perhaps his moment has come, though it still seems very unlikely.

Honorable Mention
Buddy Roemer, a former governor of Louisiana, is also running for the Republican nomination on a platform of attacking the malign influence of money in politics. Apart from a few appearances on the Colbert Report, however, he seems to have achieved little traction. After being out of politics for two decades, and having refused to take any donations over $100, it doesn’t look like his campaign is going anywhere.

 

Welcome to the 2012 Primary Season!

January 3rd has come! For anyone with an interest in American politics, that can mean only one thing: the primary season is about to start! 2012 is an election year – a big one, in which the presidency, a third of the Senate and all of the House of Representatives (not to mention innumerable state governors and legislatures) are up for grabs. How does it work? Who are the candidates? And what’s going to happen and what will it mean?

As is my habit, I’ll be blogging about the primaries as they happen, and the first important update will be in a couple of days, as the dust from the Iowa caucuses settles. But first, for those who haven’t been paying attention, let’s run through the basics of what promises to be quite an exciting political season! (Coming later: a rundown of the candidates, and a post about Iowa.)

The Process
The United States has probably the most bizarre and intricate public process for choosing its leaders of any country in the world. In principle, anyone can run for President: all you need to do is get enough signatures supporting your candidacy in each state where you want to be on the ballot, and that’s it. If you win enough votes in enough states, you’re President! Simples. (Well, not so simples, but the intricacies of the Electoral College are not today’s topic.)
In practice, though, if you want people to vote for you, people need to know who you are and what your policies are and why they should like you. For this, it helps to have three things: organisation, allies, and money. Like-minded people across the country therefore organise into the two great parties: the Republicans and the Democrats. Being the official candidate of a party gives you access to all three things that you need: a network of activists who will join your campaign, an across-the-board slate of other candidates for every major office in the country who will mention you in their own campaigns, and a nationwide community of political donors who will give you cash to pay for your staff, travel, literature, advertisements, donuts, haircuts, and anything else you might need.
So, how to become a party’s presidential nominee? By winning the votes of as many ordinary party members and insiders as possible, that’s how. Both parties have large conventions in the summer where representatives of the states, together with party grandees, cast their votes for who is to become nominee of the party. The party grandees make up their own minds about who to vote for. The number of votes (“delegates”) held by each state is decided by the party centrally, but each state then has a certain amount of freedom in deciding how to apportion its delegates. All of them organise a vote (co-ordinated with their state government).
Each state organises its vote in slightly different ways, but there are two main patterns of voting: primaries, which are just like a normal election (you show up to a polling place, fill out a ballot, and put it in a box), and caucuses, which are a bit more complicated (you have to show up to an entire evening of political speeches and arguments before the chance to vote comes). Since caucuses are more demanding, they tend to put off more casual voters and benefit candidates whose campaigns are better organised at getting their supporters to the polls (so-called “get out the vote” operations). Different groups of people are eligible to vote in each state: usually it’s any voter who’s registered as a member of that party, but sometimes it’s also voters registered as independent.
Crucially, states can decide the date of their vote. The result is a six-month cascade of votes spreading across the country. By tradition, the first one is the caucuses in Iowa, while the second (the “first primary”) is in New Hampshire shortly afterwards. These states seem slightly arbitrary, but there’s a certain logic to the sequence: they function as vaguely representative bellwethers of the mood of various bits of the country. After Iowa (the Midwestern heartland) and New Hampshire (New England), the votes move through South Carolina (the South), Nevada (the West), and Florida (the big, important states with concentrations of people, economic power and culture) before bursting on “Super Tuesday” when a dozen or more states all vote at the same time.
The process usually unfurls with a certain theatricality. Iowa and New Hampshire get long exposure to the candidates as they campaign there for months before the first votes, and their voters usually consider them very carefully before deciding who to vote for. The candidates, in turn, get time to hone their messages and prove their campaigning and fundraising mettle. There aren’t many delegates up for grabs in the early states, but after the first few votes a pattern of victories emerges as voters and donors coalesce around one of the candidates and the others’ supporters lose confidence. Usually, whoever wins Super Tuesday the most convincingly knocks out the other candidates, and gathering the rest of the delegates for the convention becomes a mere formality. Occasionally the voting goes on much longer.
So that’s the process. Candidates for the nomination of each party compete in the primaries to win delegates for the nominating convention, and whoever gets the most becomes the presidential nominee for their party. Since the nominees are the most important factors in deciding the general election, the primaries are therefore of crucial importance.
So who are the people hoping to become President? Check back later for my run-down of the candidates and their chances.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

 

US Elections: Special 2009 Edition

Republicans are rejoicing in their victories, but the details tell a more ambiguous story.

The Republican party has had an exceptionally bad few years, reeling from a stint in control of Congress that can charitably be described as an abject abandonment of conservative principles, and descending from there into a morass of ideological retrenchment and electoral collapse. No wonder, then, that Republicans are delighted with the results of this year’s elections: governorships won from Democrats in Virginia (where the popular incumbent, the Democrat Tim Kaine, was not standing because of term limits) and New Jersey (a blue state if ever there was one). Mayoral elections provided further success, and the icing on the cake was Maine – one of the most liberal states in the Union – voting in a referendum to repeal a law legalising gay marriage. Only a couple of off-year House seats spoiled the party.

But national Republicans are wrong to be overjoyed with these results. True, they provide much-needed momentum for the party; true, too, that they are egg in the face for the Obama administration, which had sent the President to campaign in both Virginia and New Jersey (the latter more enthusiastically than the former) for the Democratic candidates. But they are hardly the repudiation of the Obama administration that its critics had hoped for. Exit polls in both states showed a majority of voters approving of the President’s performance thus far. (Both states voted for Obama last November.) The victorious Republican candidates generally distanced themselves from the socially-conservative hardliners ascendant in the party’s internal debates. And the election for the House seat in New York state provided a nasty little surprise for the party.

The relevant district in New York has been represented (in one form or another) by Republicans for over a century, and the election was forced by President Obama tapping its incumbent Congressman to be Secretary of the Army. The district should have been a lock for a resurgent Republican party – and it might well have been, had Republicans stuck with their original candidate, Dede Scozzafava, a local Republican whose moderate tone on issues like abortion and gay marriage matches the general attitude in New England. Unfortunately for the party’s establishment, local capital-c Conservatives were appalled by some of Ms Scozzafava’s opinions and started jumping ship for Doug Hoffman, running for the local Conservative Party. The race quickly became the talk of the blogosphere and Mr Hoffman picked up numerous endorsements (including from potential 2012 Presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty, and media personalities Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck). As he gained steam, Ms Scozzafava found her campaign being completely undermined by her own side, and by last weekend she had had enough, announcing that she was dropping out of the race. She then stunned party bigwigs by making a White House-facilitated endorsement of her Democratic challenger over Mr Hoffman. Mr Hoffman duly lost.

The race had shades of the moronic attempt by the Democratic “Netroots” to oust Joe Lieberman from his Connecticut senate seat in 2006: a very moderate party member castigated by the fringes for being too soft, leading to a perverse outcome in which a suitably hardline candidate is duly defeated, handing a very winnable seat over to opponents instead. The reason why Republicans should remain worried at the national level is that the party’s strategy for a 1994-esque congressional sweep in 2010 could very easily be the same strategy that led to defeat in New York. Certainly, the Democratic mess in Connecticut in 2006 occurred in the context of a broader Democratic victory, with Democrats successfully broadening their party’s base by running candidates who were pro-gun and anti-abortion (hence the strength of “Blue Dog” democrats in Congress today). The Republicans have indeed been trying to attract moderate candidates for the House and Senate to run in swing states. But some of them – like Florida Governor Charlie Crist, now running for the Senate – are facing hard line primary challenges. Too many Republicans are still stuck with the illusion that the return path to power lies in embracing supposedly neglected basic principles – i.e. becoming more hard line, not less. Candidates like Ms Scozzafava – the precise sort of moderate candidate that Republicans will need to run when they eventually begin winning seats in blue states again – are currently being hounded out of contention.

In line with this, this week’s victorious Republican gubernatorial candidates distanced themselves from big-C Conservative principles and won largely because of local issues, not national ones. In Virginia, state Democrats sabotaged themselves by nominating a little-known figure ahead of a party heavyweight, Clinton stalwart Terry McAuliffe, who had a significant edge in fundraising and campaigning panache but ran into trouble before the primaries. The candidate, R. Creigh Deeds, was lacklustre and underfunded and would have had difficulty winning in the best of times. Robert McDonnell, the Republican candidate, kept quiet about social issues and hammered Mr Deeds on the economy; the surge of voters who turned out for Barack Obama last year stayed at home, and Mr McDonnell romped to victory. In New Jersey, meanwhile, the incumbent governor Jon Corzine had a lacklustre term in office, failing to achieve very much and conspicuously not bringing to bear the skills he had allegedly picked up as a Wall Street bigwig. (Governor Corzine used to be a senior executive at Goldman Sachs.) With Wall Street bigwigs being fairly unpopular anyway right now, Corzine was also facing an uphill battle, and engaged in an unpleasantly negative race. His opponent, despite being light on policy details, had won respect as an effective federal prosecutor who had several big corruption cases under his belt. He also benefitted simply from not being Corzine.

Republicans should not count on these factors presenting themselves again in 2010 at the national level. (They have a much better chance at picking up State governorships, where local issues predominate and Democrats have more to defend.) Democrats will be led by President Obama, an altogether different figure from the ineffective candidates Democrats fielded this time. And by that point, the political landscape may have changed significantly. Republicans need to change with it if they want to get anywhere.

In any case, they will have to be lucky, as the ball is mostly in Obama’s court at present. Less than a year in to his presidency, it’s unsurprising that he hasn’t achieved a vast amount yet – but the size of his pile of work in progress issues is impressive, and at some point in the next few months he will start to deliver. The economy is already picking up: thanks to the timely and effective stimulus and bailout packages started by the Bush administration and seamlessly continued into the Obama administration, the threat of a catastrophic failure in the financial system has faded and the imbalances in the American economy are beginning to unwind. Many bailed out banks have already paid back the government (at a hefty rate of interest), and more are doing so all the time; the car industry has also passed its nadir, as evidenced by GM’s decision this week to reverse its panicky sale of its main European subsidiary. Unemployment is currently the biggest factor contributing to economic misery, but it is a lagging indicator that will probably reach its nadir within the next six months. The broader economy is already starting to grow again. After a difficult winter, the Obama administration will be able to announce a string of good pieces of economic news through the summer and into next autumn.

On other initiatives, too, the benefits lie somewhere just around the corner. The flagship post-stimulus effort has been on healthcare reform, which has now tortuously emerged from committees and is close to being put to the floor of the House and Senate. It needs to be passed in both places, reconciled between the two chambers, and then passed by both chambers again. This will take several more months. In the meantime, passions will run high. The eventual form that the reform will take is unclear, but it is likely to be unsatisfactory to just about everyone. (Conservatives will be dismayed by the growth of government and the failure to reform horrendous medical tort laws, liberals appalled by the apparent retreat from the promise to make sure that provision is universal.) Nevertheless, a final version will likely be passed at some point this winter. Once the battle is over, passions will cool, and even the limited reforms that are achieved will be hailed – quite rightly – as considerably better than nothing. Health care will not be a hot-button issue in the 2010 campaigns.

The other signature legislative initiative moving forward at the moment is climate change legislation. The US is under intense international pressure to have a plan of its own (after the disgraceful, deliberate non-activity of the Bush administration), and the sentiment is shared by a large and growing swathe of American society. Although Congress will probably not be able to pass anything before December’s global climate-change summit in Copenhagen, most likely some sort of bill will make it into law before next summer to establish a cap and trade scheme. Like healthcare – and similar to comparable international efforts on climate change, like the European Union’s cap and trade scheme – this bill will likely be flawed in several important ways. But when it passes, Democrats will have three major pieces of progress under their belts (the economy, healthcare, and climate change). Republicans can influence the narrative on how these achievements are perceived, but without any sort of constructive policies of their own they will struggle to rival a party in power which is actually getting things done.

The main risks faced by Democrats, then, relate to a failure to deliver rather than to a resurgent Republican party. If the economy takes a turn for the worse – or if there is some sort of general tax hike to address the budget deficit before a recovery is safely entrenched – then they will lose credibility on their economic management. If the health care or climate change bills fail to pass, the initiative will have been lost and grave doubts will surface over Democrats’ ability to pass important legislation.

Another risk comes from foreign affairs, which the Obama administration has placed on the backburner (and has not been especially adept at managing thus far). A crisis, handled badly, could hurt a lot. Afghanistan is the likeliest place to generate such a crisis. While it would be disingenuous to accuse the Obama administration of “dithering” over Afghan policy (as Dick Cheney has), at some point a new policy will need to be announced. There are no good options on the table. The present situation is untenable. An Afghan surge could fail, and there is little enthusiasm for it after the awful mess of Hamid Karzai’s rigged re-election. But a retreat to a more surgical attitude towards eliminating al-Qaeda operatives risks abandoning the rest of the country to the Taliban (making the task of fighting al-Qaeda considerably harder), and has the added risk of making Obama look soft on security. Any right-thinking person ought to grit their teeth at such awful oversimplification of complicated strategic choices, but the simple fact of the matter is that a drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan that is followed by a terrorist attack in the United States – even if the two are unrelated – will destroy Obama’s presidency in an instant. The Obama administration will need to be both wise and lucky to manage Afghanistan successfully.

But assuming that Afghanistan doesn’t blow up, that the economy is once more gathering steam by next summer, and both health care and climate change go through by the end of next Spring – all, on balance, more likely than not – Democrats will actually be in a pretty good place going into the 2010 midterm elections. It was memorably pointed out – I forget by whom, though it may have been Joe Klein – that when pundits talk about spending political capital, it’s opinion poll points that they’re talking about. As soon as rhetoric begins its journey into reality, it is inevitable that some starry-eyed supporters will find their hopes dashed. By taking on so many big issues all at once, Obama has been playing a dangerous game with his support base – meaning that the real story in American politics at the moment is that he is winning it. It is striking how well his polling numbers are holding up. The President is consistently given a majority approval rating, and although this has been eroding down into the low 50s, it is line with past successful presidents at equivalent stages in their presidencies. It will improve when results flow in. The Democrats have all of the policy-making initiative at present, and are making good use of it; it is up to them how well positioned they will be by next summer.

Republicans, meanwhile, are not full of ideas, and don’t really know what they stand for at present. Opposition to whatever legislation is on the table is all very well, but a party looking to retake control needs to have credible alternatives, which Republicans largely don’t. Their opposition will be meaningless when the eventual bills get passed. More importantly, the Republican party at the moment is ideologically exhausted and retreating to its fringes. Its most charismatic leaders seem to be people on the rabid fringe like Sarah Palin and Bobby Jindal; loons like Michele Bachmann are getting their moment in the sun; responsible, competent administrators are either bending towards the loony end (Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney) or keeping their heads down and trying not to get too involved in the in-fighting (Charlie Crist, Arnold Schwarzenegger). Glenn Beck seems to be taking over from Rush Limbaugh as the most visible voice on the right.

Naturally, such figures on the far-right advocate a return to core principles. For ideologues on both ends of the spectrum, such a move is always the answer: it’s what Howard Dean and the Michael Moore wing of the Democratic party advocated so strongly in 2004 (hence the Lieberman fiasco), and in a comparative context (of 2-party systems) it can be seen as a fairly normal course of action for parties who have lost their way. In Britain, it was a major factor in making Labour unelectable in the 1980s (too far left) and in keeping the Conservatives unelectable after 1997 (too far right).

Such a strategy is an illusion. People haven’t gone off Republicans because they have been insufficiently anti-government, insufficiently anti-abortion or insufficiently anti-gay. It’s because Republican policies to fight the government have failed to shrink it but succeeded in hobbling its effectiveness; policies to restrict abortion have gotten nowhere; and policies to fight gay marriage have become tone-deaf in an era where a battle that is primarily symbolic has to compete for the attention of people who have bigger things to worry about and are increasingly tolerant of homosexuality anyway.

In short, Republican strategy is still stuck in Reagan-era mindsets and Bush-era tactics. But Reagan succeeded in a different time and place, and in any case had a mainstream charm and feel-good factor that no current Republican can even come close to replicating. And Bush’s political tactics succeeded so well in 2000, 2002 and 2004 because they stuck it to a divided, demoralised and chaotic Democratic party while maximising turnout by turbocharging the loony fringe.

Nowadays, the loony fringe has captured the party: the bedrock of moderate voters who reliably leaned Republican, especially outside of the South, has been substantially eroded. In large part this has happened because of the Republican agenda whilst in power; Republicans had eight years of President Bush in which to enact their agenda, and their failure to do so with successful results is what alienated so many moderates. The Republican agenda right now is substantially unchanged. It may continue to turbo-charge the loony fringe, but so long as Democrats manage to generate decent turnout of their own (a major issue for them in Virginia and New Jersey), that loony fringe will not be able to capture the country. (Even if it did, it would be turfed out before too long: voters outraged at Bush’s policies but jaded in a post-Obama funk would rediscover their passion fairly quickly if faced by a resurgent Republican party in its current state.)

One day – within the next decade – a moderate Republican party will begin to re-emerge. Its main emphasis will be competence and pragmatism, it will have softened its stance on homosexuality and (perhaps) the primary importance of religion in the public sphere, and it will be fielding candidates like Charlie Crist nationally and like Dede Scozzafava in blue parts of the country. That party will take back Congress and the Presidency. Its radical elements will be sidelined.

Today’s Republicans are not that party. Its victorious candidates this week were fighting against the grain of the party’s present direction; the candidates who best represented its current ethos were defeated. As we look beyond this week’s elections towards 2010 and 2012, the ball is mostly in the Democrats’ court. And Republicans won’t have a chance of sustainably returning to power until they raise their game a lot more than they have so far.

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