Monday, June 4, 2012

2011 11 09

Now that the Republican campaign has taken a sharp detour into the realm of Uncharted Waters, just about exactly one year from Election Day 2012, I thought it might be an opportune time to take a look at where we’ve been, where we are now, and how it might unfold from here.

I define “Uncharted Waters” quite specifically…we have not seen a campaign where the person at the top of the polls has so little appearance of a serious candidacy, in terms of experience, infrastructure, money and a day-to-day itinerary that makes any sense.  Yes, Herman Cain is unconventional.  And when I last left you on October 5th, I was so focused on the imminent decisions of Chris Christie and Sarah Palin (and they passed, I got that right!) that I failed to predict the rise of the Hermanator!

So how do we find ourselves, one year from Election Day, contemplating a potential nominee who few had heard of a few short months before?  (Full disclosure demands that I had indeed heard of Herman, even met him many times…a few of us on this list got to know Herman when he served on our former company’s board from 2001-2007.  Speaking for myself, I can duly report that he was indeed friendly, gregarious and enthusiastic.  We never talked politics!)

How We Got Here

There have been five contested Republican campaigns from 1980 forward, and each of them was won by the so-called “next in line” candidate, with the exception of George W. Bush in ‘00, who was a special case if ever there was one.  Reagan in 1976 finished second behind incumbent President Ford in ‘76 and became the candidate in ‘80; George Bush (the Elder) was second to Reagan in ‘80 and the nominee in ‘88; Bob Dole, second in ’88 and got the nod in ’96; and John McCain, #2 in ‘00, was the nominee in ‘08.

The problem this year is that there was no clear #2 coming out of 2008:  Mike Huckabee had 282 delegates and Mitt Romney 272, and the even split neatly reflected the ever-growing schism of the Republican Party between moderates and conservatives.  And apart from Huckabee and Romney, 2008 VP nominee Sarah Palin also had a competing claim, complete with a very strong following among what became the Tea Party.

So these events alone guaranteed that the 2012 process was not going to be neat and tidy.  (Of course, neither was 2008….at this time four years ago John McCain was down the list, having squandered his “next in line” status on very poor campaign management in the spring of 2007.)  But then things got even more complicated.

The complication is that the “Tea Party” wing of the party has not been able to find an acceptable candidate to challenge Mitt Romney, who they simply do not believe is a real conservative (with good reason!).  Huckabee and Palin led the conservative candidates in the polling through the early part of 2011, joined briefly in April by Donald Trump, riding the “birther” issue to the top of the polls.  But when Huckabee and Trump each dropped out in May, and Palin did not jump in, it was time for tryouts.  

First, Michelle Bachmann broke through with a win in the Iowa Straw Poll in August, but quickly gaffed her way down the polls.  Then it was Rick Perry’s turn – he entered the race on the day of Bachmann’s win -- and his awful performances in the September debates sent him down the same path.  Herman Cain is this month’s darling, riding on the strength of his performance in the debates, his folksy manner, likable presence, outsider status and yes, even his “9-9-9” tax plan.  To date in 2011 there have been five different contenders who have been at the top of the polls:  Romney, Huckabee, Trump, Perry and now Cain.  And two others, Palin and Bachmann, have achieved a close second.

All this is indicative of the antipathy with which the Tea Party wing of the party holds Romney.  They are willing to go through any and all “true” conservatives rather than throw in with Mitt, at least at this stage.  He hovers in the 20-30% range – or even 20-25% of late.  Can he break through these levels?

Where We Are Now

At this very moment Herman Cain is embroiled in a series of sexual harassment charges that are, indeed, threatening his candidacy.  As serious and real as the charges appear, what is also hurting Cain has been his completely amateurish response to crisis-management, especially since, which broke the story, gave him plenty of warning.  The theory of the day is that while the sexual harassment charges could be weathered (polls indicate the faithful are not terribly troubled by them), the crisis management buffoonery could sink him, since it speaks to the very heart of his appeal – that he is a straight-shooting, problem-solving business person.  He has been anything but straightforward, and he certainly has not picked the best path to “solve” this problem.

Is it hurting him?

Cain jumped from 7% to 17%, virtually overnight, in polling that began right after the Fox debate on September 22nd.  From there he rose to 27% in an NBC/WSJ poll from October 6-10, and he stayed in the 25-30% range in a variety of polls between then and November 2nd.

But in two polls released in the last week, when the allegations became known, he has slipped to 23% and 21%.  Fairly minor slippage thus far, but the issue is hardly over, despite his attempts to stay “on message.”  Jon Hunstman and Haley Barbour both called for Cain to come clean on everything on “Meet The Press” this past Sunday, and two woman came forward this week before cameras to contest Cain’s denials, in one case quite graphically.  It will certainly be interesting to see how Cain handles the heat in tonight’s debate on CNBC.  Polls move quickly….it only took Rick Perry about two weeks to drop from 30% to the 10% level that he has settled into since Cain took off.

The current Gallup poll, released on Monday, has Cain and Romney at 21%, followed by Perry at 12%, Gingrich at 11%, Paul at 8% and then Bachmann (3%) Santorum (2%) and Huntsman (1%).  “Undecided” remains at about 21%.  As Cain has trended down, Romney has not benefited…instead Cain’s defectors are going to Perry, Gingrich and Paul in more or less equal measures.

Perhaps more troubling for Cain has been his fall off on what Gallup calls his “Positive Intensity Score” – the percentage of people who view him “very favorably” minus the percentage that view his “very unfavorably,” among those who are familiar with him.  Cain has long had the highest “positive intensity” in the field, even when his familiarity scores were quite low.  But for the first time they are shrinking, from a +34 in mid-October to +25 now.  Still high, but falling.

While Romney is not rising in the polls, two things are working well for him:

  1. His opposition candidates are doing terribly.  In a war of attrition, that can’t hurt.  At some point he is likely to be the last candidate standing.
  2. While he has done well in debates, he has never really been the focal point of them.  Rick Perry was the story of the first round of debates, and then more recently Cain has been and will continue to be on the hot seat.  I truly believe Romney has not taken any hard shots yet.  That’s good for him – for now.

Quite apart from the polls is the fact that Cain is not really actually “running”….he’s spent most of the last month on a book tour, in places like….New York City.  Rather than places like….Iowa.  It’s odd.  And neither Gingrich or Paul are really running either.  The three of them are quite similar, on quixotic missions to bring their particular philosophies and personalities to the fore, it seems to me more to satisfy their egos – and enhance their future TV and speaking careers (Roger Ailes is certainly watching!) -- than to actually become the nominee.  All are benefiting greatly from the personal exposure they are getting.

Where Are We Going?

The Iowa caucus is a mere two months away, and after much wrangling the early caucus/primary schedule has been set:  Iowa on January 3, New Hampshire on Jan 10, South Carolina on Jan 21 and Florida on Jan 31.  (Pity the poor Republican National Committee, who wanted no elections before February; they were all but ignored by the states, who in turn will apparently forfeit half of their delegates at the convention.)

Here are the lessons of the last five contested Republican campaigns (1980 through 2008).  Iowa goes for someone.  New Hampshire, stubbornly, goes for someone else.  They have never gone for the same person.  So the winners face off in South Carolina.  And the winner in South Carolina….wins the nomination (eventually).  Every single time.

That pattern is not very good news for Romney.  He came in 4th – yes 4th – in South Carolina in 2008, behind McCain (33%), Huckabee (30%) and even poor Fred Thompson (16%)…Mitt had 15%.  South Carolina is a very tough state for him.  (Though he is second in the polls there now at 23%….behind Cain at 30%…in polling conducted in late October.)

But…who will be his opposition?  Iowa voters have a very tough choice to make.  Stick with Cain?  Bring back Bachmann?  She’s totally focused on Iowa.  Give Perry another chance?  (Not likely with that immigration record).  Send a protest vote and go for Paul or Gingrich?  Or give up and go for Mitt?  He came in second there in 2008, not a bad showing….Huckabee 34%, Romney 25%.  A Romney victory in Iowa and it is all over, case closed, since he is well ahead of the polls in New Hampshire (40% versus Cain’s 18%).  This could happen.  It would be ironic if the “not quite the next in line” candidate became the first one on over 30 years to win both Iowa and New Hampshire!  My brother pointed out that the three lead stories one day last week couldn’t have been written better if Mitt was writing them himself: 1)  “Cain camp points finger at Perry.”· 2)  “Perry aide: ‘I didn’t leak Cain story.’”  3) “Perry: ‘I wasn’t drunk.’”  (This last in reference to a Perry speech in New Hampshire where he seemed…um….drunk.  At least I hope he was; if he was sober, it would be even worse!  Check it out on YouTube!)

Or maybe….just maybe…December will be Rick Santorum’s turn in the spotlight.  Sure, he’s been to all 99 counties in Iowa and is still under 5% in the polls there.  They’ve seen him, examined him very closely and they, um, don’t like him.  But guess what….he’s a true, blue social conservative.  It’s in his bones.  And he’s got some depth to him since he’s been arguing the case for twenty years.  He’s not cramming for the debates.  He’s a policy wonk.

So do I dare call a boomlet coming for Santorum?  The upcoming debates give him another shot.  By the time of the Iowa caucus, he might even be the Republican frontrunner (from the right, that is).

If not Santorum – and I’m hedging here, of course – then maybe Gingrich.  There is actual evidence of a Gingrich boomlet….he has risen in the polls from single digits to the 10-14% range nationally over the last few weeks.  He’s actually spending time in Iowa, and despite the fact that Newt has no organization and little money, who knows what the Iowans will actually do.

Whether it is Santorum or Gingrich, it boils down to two predictions:  1) I don’t think Cain will last at the top of the polls, and 2) I don’t think the Iowans will turn to Romney yet -- someone else will rise from the right in the next two months.

Having said that, everything still points to a Romney nomination:  the lack of a strong opponent from the right; his excellent debate performances; his ability to handle his weaknesses thus far; his fundraising prowess; his “electibility”; and the nature of primary season, which this year is more of a marathon than a sprint (which gives him some recovery potential is he loses South Carolina).  At some point it seems inevitable that he will secure enough delegates to win.

But while he is the strongest Republican candidate head-to-head against Obama, that does not mean his nomination will lead to victory.  Monday’s NBC/WSJ poll has him losing to Obama by 6 points (Cain loses by 15).  Of course much will happen in the next year.  George H.W. Bush was 30+ points ahead of Bill Clinton at this point in 1991.  But even as it stands, the tepid Tea Party support for Romney will hurt Republican turnout, in the same way that Obama’s relatively weak hand will hurt Democratic turnout.  

Obama won by 10 points or more in states that now account for 253 electoral votes.  If he can hold them, he only needs 17 more out of the remaining roughly (per redistricting effects) 110 more that he won in 2008.  One year from now we will be looking very closely at traditional swing states like Ohio and Florida, but also at Virginia, North Carolina and Colorado, states Obama won in 2008 in part on the strength of changing demographics.

Or, of course, the Tea Party could nominate Sarah Palin in protest of Romney, or Mike Bloomberg could run, and Obama wins in a walk.

One year to go!!!!

Comments eagerly awaited!

And, of course, a new campaign song, this one for Herman Cain, called “Hermanator”, a parody of the old Jim Croce tune, “Operator.”

Oh can you stay atop these polls?
You see the numbers on the spreadsheet are good but fading
She chats about her day…back at the good old N.R.A.
The things she says about you are quite degrading…

Isn't that the way they say it goes?
But let's forget all that,
And give me the message and you stay on it
So I can write this and tell 'em you’re fine and to show
You've overcome the blow, you've learned to spin it well
I only wish your words could just convince myself
that it just wasn't real…but that's not the way it feels

Oh could you help me with your plan?
'Cause I can't…get it to show any savings
There's something in the rhyme, you know they love that 9-9-9
They seem to think your rantings are not just ravings

Isn't that the way they say it goes?
But let's forget all that,
And give me the message and you stay on it
So I can write this and tell 'em you’re fine and to show
You've overcome the blow, you've learned to spin it well
I only wish your words could just convince myself
that it just wasn't real…but that's not the way it feels
No, no, no, no
That's not the way it feels

Can your campaign remain this strong?

You may not…manage to brush past this one
Thank you for your lines….your entertainment value’s fine
You can keep the nines……

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