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The GOP's Real Problems for 2012

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Ensign and Sanford scandals are beside the point. The Republican Party is going to have a hard time coming up with a strong presidential nominee in 2012.

The conventional wisdom, as recorded in the New York Times, is that the Republican party is in terrible trouble because of the confessions in the past two weeks of adultery by two possible presidential candidates, Nevada Senator John Ensign and South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford. I think this is overwrought, for reasons set forth in my Washington Examiner blog post. The Democratic party is surviving the confessions of adultery by 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards and former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, and the Republican party will survive the confessions of Ensign, who never seemed likely to be a serious presidential candidate, and Sanford, who seemed to have the potential to be an attractive candidate but whose quirkiness and eccentricity made him seem unlikely ever to be a successful one.

Nonetheless I still think Republicans are going to have a hard time coming up with a strong presidential nominee in 2012, as I reflect on their difficulty in doing so in 2008. For as I look back on that Republican nominating contest, it seems to me that none of the Republican candidates had a good strategy for winning the nomination. And if a candidate does not win the nomination, it does not really matter how strong he (or she) would be in the general election. Let’s look at each of the candidates.

John McCain. Yes, he did win the nomination. But his initial strategy of campaigning and raising money as the next-in-line failed conclusively by the end of June 2007. Staff was fired, spending was cut way back and a new strategy was adopted. It was the worst of all possible strategies: keep fighting and wait for every other candidate’s strategy to fail.

As a political consultant, I would never have recommended such a strategy to a client in a multi-candidate race, because someone else’s strategy might easily succeed. In McCain’s case it actually worked. But it was a close run. McCain won narrow victories in the New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida primaries in January.

As I pointed out in April 2008, if John McCain had won just 3 percent less of the popular vote in each of the January 19 and 29 and Super Tuesday primaries and Mitt Romney had won just 3 percent more, then the delegate count—thanks to Republicans’ winner-take-all delegate allocation rules—would have been not 516207 McCain (as it was after Super Tuesday) but 385–362 Romney (those are approximate numbers).

Implication for 2012 candidates: you can’t hope to win by waiting for every other candidate’s strategy to fail unless you have an in with Lady Luck.

Rudy Giuliani. He was the frontrunner in polls for most of 2007 yet won very few delegates in 2008. One reason is that his poll numbers began to drop in late 2007, especially after the indictment of his former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik in November. Perhaps no strategy would have worked after that.

But even so, Giuliani made another strategic mistake by choosing not to concentrate his efforts in a primary earlier than Florida’s contest on January 29. The one clear alternative was New Hampshire, whose primary was held on January 8, but he chose not to compete there because John McCain (who had beaten George W. Bush there in 2000) and Mitt Romney (who is from neighboring Massachusetts and has a vacation home in New Hampshire) were already doing so. But neither Romney nor McCain showed overwhelming strength in the Granite State. Romney’s neighbor state advantage got him only 32 percent of the vote. McCain got 37 percent, distinctly less than his 49 percent in 2000.

Giuliani’s decision not to seriously contest New Hampshire may have been affected by his apparent distaste for the sort of personal campaigning that is expected in this small state. But the numbers suggest that he might have taken some significant number of votes away from Romney and McCain and, more important, might have brought enough independents into the Republican primary (in which the turnout was only 1 percent higher than in 2000) to win or come a close second—either of which would have kept him very much in the race.

Implication for 2012 candidates: You cannot wait too long to compete. If you bypass New Hampshire, you must compete in Iowa, or vice versa, or very soon thereafter.

Fred Thompson. He actually spent more months as a possible candidate (from his announcement that he was seriously considering running in March 2007 until he announced his candidacy in September) than he did as an actual candidate (from his announcement in September to his withdrawal after his third-place finish in South Carolina on January 19).

Thompson apparently delayed his actual announcement that long because he did not want to compete in the August 2007 Republican straw poll in Ames, Iowa—an event that Mitt Romney and others were spending thousands to compete in. Thompson’s later attempts to compete in Iowa produced only a 13 percent, third-place finish in the January 3 caucuses.

Implication for 2012 candidates: Either compete strongly and early enough in Iowa to make a good showing in the straw poll or stay out of Iowa altogether (as John McCain did, to not significant detriment, in 2000 and effectively did, to no significant detriment, in 2008).

Mike Huckabee. He was the surprise contender in the 2008 contest, articulate and funny, the most effective performer in debates, the one candidate in both parties most in touch with popular culture. But his biggest asset—and liability—was the fact that he was a “Christian conservative,” as his Iowa ad put it. This enabled him to win in Iowa, where about 60 percent of caucus-goers classified themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians, and to win or run well in primary and caucus states with similar electorates. This group was large enough to make him competitive in Missouri, where he lost to McCain, 32 percent to 33 percent, and Georgia, where he won with 34 percent to McCain’s 32 percent and Romney’s 30 percent. But elsewhere he bombed: 11 percent in New Hampshire, 16 percent in Michigan, 13 percent in Florida, 8 percent in New Jersey, 12 percent in California. Once the field was winnowed down to him and McCain, he won in only one state, Louisiana, by a 43 percent to 42 percent margin.

Exit polls showed he was never a serious contender among those Republican voters who did not classify themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians. They evidently did not regard a former Baptist preacher, however experienced as a governor, however articulate and good-humored and engaging, as a serious possibility for the Republican nomination.

Implication for 2012 candidates (especially Huckabee): Huckabee or a candidate with a similar profile can corner the votes of evangelical and born-again Christians and, starting with Iowa, can round up a significant number of delegates. It is conceivable that such a candidate, with the help of Republicans’ winner-take-all delegate allocation rules and if he continues to face multiple opponents, could accumulate enough delegates to win the nomination. But otherwise he is in the position of Jesse Jackson in the 1984 and 1988 Democratic contests, able to run a significant second or third thanks to strong support from one of the party’s core constituencies but unable to run first.

Mitt Romney. He was the most well-organized Republican candidate in 2008 and he raised and spent more money than the rest of the Republicans combined. But he still lost. As suggested above, he might have won the nomination with a little help from Lady Luck.

But he might not have, and it has to be said that his strategy failed. One problem was that he switched positions on cultural issues, presumably with an eye on the dominance of cultural conservatives in Iowa; that and his vast expenditures did not produce a victory in Iowa (or in New Hampshire), but it did create an impression of insincerity which might very well account for that crucial 3 percent of the vote which went for McCain and not for him in post-Iowa primaries.

Imagine for a minute another possible Romney 2008 strategy: run primarily as a fiscal conservative, skip Iowa and concentrate on New Hampshire, get that extra 3 percent between January 19 and Super Tuesday February 5, and then enter the next run of primaries—Maryland and Virginia, Wisconsin, Ohio and Texas, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Indiana—running even with McCain in delegates and far ahead of him in money. In those circumstances it is conceivable Romney might have won the nomination and have been in a position to cast himself as an expert on economics and finance—more expert certainly than Barack Obama—after the failure of Lehman Brothers and the financial crisis in mid-September. President Romney? Might have happened. Romney’s strategy looked pretty smart at the time it was formulated, back in late 2006 and early 2007. It did not look so smart from the vantage point of February 2008 or, especially, September 2008.

Implication for 2012 candidates (especially Romney): Run as yourself. Emphasize your strengths and avoid contests that are not suited to them. This will not guarantee victory, but it will make a victory in the battle for the nomination worth more in the general election, since you will not have to visibly pirouette from appealing to a relatively narrow primary electorate to the much broader (and potentially expandable) electorate you will face in the fall.

A concluding note: We should not assume the next nominating contest will look like the last one. There is some possibility that the schedule of primaries and caucuses will be changed, though little likelihood, it seems, that Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation status will be challenged. There is some possibility the race may look more like the Democratic contest in 1992, when several potentially serious candidates avoided the race on the assumption that the post-Gulf war George H. W. Bush was unbeatable and Bill Clinton did not announce his candidacy until October 1991. And I have not said anything at all about Sarah Palin. But the 2012 cycle has not really started yet, so let’s try to learn what we can from what happened in 2007 and 2008.   

Michael Barone is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Barone recently wrote "No Bed of Roses for Democrats in the Garden State" on the outlook for the New Jersey governor’s race.

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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