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.

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