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Campaign Notes: The little engine that couldn't

By John Barron in Sydney, Australia

12 April 2012


The first time I saw Senator Rick Santorum in person he was standing in the media “spin room” at Iowa State University just minutes after a Republican candidate debate.

It was getting on towards 11pm on a Thursday night last August, two days before an influential straw poll was to be held at the campus in Ames, about an hour’s drive north of Des Moines across seemingly endless fields of corn and soya beans.

Santorum was trying to win Iowa and the Republican presidential nomination the old fashioned way: going from door to door, store to store, and factory to factory across the Midwestern state's 99 counties.

That was how Presidential candidates from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama had done it: winning grassroots support for the Iowa caucuses that were to be held five months later and using that as a springboard to the nomination.

But on that warm late summer night last August Rick Santorum didn’t seem to be going anywhere. The main contest in Iowa back then was between two candidates from neighbouring Minnesota: Governor Tim Pawlenty and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

There was also considerable buzz building around a candidate who wasn’t even in the race but would soon become the national frontrunner: Texas governor Rick Perry.

Santorum’s appearance in the post-debate spin room was in itself an acknowledgement that he was an also-ran being starved of media attention. Top-tier candidates send surrogates in to face the throng of press; various state politicos and members of their campaign staff are paraded in front of reporters from around the world offering sound bites on why that particular candidate won the debate.

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But Rick Santorum wasn’t claiming victory, he was looking tense and red-faced, claiming media bias against him. He’d only been asked two questions as the usually affable Fox News moderator Brett Baier tried to goad a fight out of Pawlenty, Bachmann, and Mitt Romney.

Santorum was telling anyone who would listen that he was “the little engine that could,” and that he would perform strongly in the Straw Poll and win Iowa.

Not many people were listening. Unimpressed, I turned my microphone towards another long-shot who seemed to have a better chance of going places: businessman Herman Cain.

Two days later at the Ames Straw Poll, Santorum won only 1657 votes to come a very distant fourth. Tim Pawlenty, who came third, immediately dropped out of the race. All the attention was on the winner, Michele Bachman, and Rick Perry, who after a day of fasting and praying upstaged everyone by declaring his candidacy.

Little engine indeed.

But five months later it was Rick Santorum, not Michele Bachmann, or Rick Perry who tapped into the large evangelical Christian vote and won the Iowa Caucuses (although on the night Mitt Romney was incorrectly declared the winner) and it was Bachman who dropped out of the presidential contest.

And so it was Santorum, along with Newt Gingrich, who emerged as the unlikely “anti-Romney” candidates.

But money matters in American politics, and while Gingrich could count on casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson to write him cheques for $10 million for a few months, Santorum struggled to find either a sugar-daddy or a broad donor base.

As the weeks passed in January and February, a familiar pattern emerged: Santorum would pull ahead as various caucuses and primaries approached only to be torn down as Mitt Romney spent millions in negative TV ads.

Santorum promoted an ultra-conservative agenda, raising fears he was dragging the campaign too far to the right. Along the way he did register victories in Colorado, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, and Louisiana, but Mitt Romney won a lot more.

But every time Santorum won, or came close to Romney, he underscored the frontrunner’s weakness.

The writing has been on the wall for weeks — if not months — so its hard to say why Santorum chose this week to drop out. Maybe it was the poll last week that showed him trailing Romney in Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania, which votes on April 24th. Maybe it was the hospitalisation of his three year old daughter Bella, who was born with a genetic disability, or maybe it was just having a few days at home over Easter that had him assess the realities of the campaign.

Romney is now effectively unopposed for the nomination. Santorum’s lasting impact may be to show just how uninspiring a candidate the former Massachusetts governor really is.

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Winning back women

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

12 April 2012


I mentioned yesterday that Rick Santorum's effect on the Republican race had been to help usher in social issues that Republicans had for many years left alone and in which Americans had grown uninterested. If Santorum hadn't hyped up his opposition to contraception, it's doubtful the other candidates would have felt the need to decide where they stand on birth control, nor would it have been likely that they would have felt the need to placate their party's right wing by, for assistance, affirming their opposition to requiring employers to provide it as part of employee health insurance.

As presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney is reaping the effects of this, and it looks like it could be a big drag on his campaign. Via Ezra Klein, here's a finding from the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll of registered voters:

A wide gender gap underlies the current state of the race. Romney is up eight percentage points among male voters but trails by 19 among women.

Women have historically tended to prefer Democrats to Republicans, but this is an extraordinary gender gap that, if it were replicated in the general election, would significantly reshuffle American politics. It would make women a political demographic that did not just lean slightly to the left, but provided a solid base of support for the Democratic Party, akin to Jews or Latinos. Except women are 51 per cent of the American population, not 16 per cent, as with Hispanics or 1-2 per cent, as with Jews. 

The perception that the GOP is fighting a "war on women" is proving particularly damaging to Republican interests, and possibly much more so than the party's operatives realise. It's something that they must get under control. The problem for them, however, is that political reality is pulling in the opposite direction to the party's rigid and easily riled base. This is related to, but distinct, from the party's perhaps overstated difficulties with the country's changing demographics. In this case, it's not that social change is leaving the party behind. The American population hasn't experienced a sudden influx of women. The GOP's problem is that society has moved one way, but its base wants the party to head in the opposite direction.


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Santorum made the right choice

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

11 April 2012


Santorum withdraws

Rick Santorum’s unpredictable campaign for presidency drew to a close in Gettysburg, PA on Tuesday. His withdrawal confirms what has been apparent for some time now; Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee for president.

This was the right move for the former senator from Pennsylvania. Santorum had no chance of securing the 1144 delegates needed to win the nomination, and almost no chance of stopping Romney from reaching this magic number. Staying in the race at this point would have been delaying the inevitable. While there were no compelling reasons for remaining on the campaign trail, there were good reasons for bowing out.

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When Santorum lost his Senate seat in 2006 by 18 points it looked like it could be the end to his political career. But, the man who was crushed in his own backyard was able to assemble enough of a national coalition to give Romney a run for his money. He went from an afterthought within Republican circles to someone who may well play a prominent role within the party in the coming years.

However, he stood to lose a lot of this positive publicity by staying in the race. Mitt Romney had moved ahead of Santorum in the Pennsylvania polls, and given his enormous cash advantages the former Massachusetts governor looked poised to win the Keystone State on April 24th. Even if Santorum pulled off the upset in Pennsylvania it was unlikely to alter the race much given that candidates are expected to carry their home states. In contrast, a loss would have brought instant comparisons to 2006, and his withdrawal from the race would have been cast in a less favourable light.

Putting aside Pennsylvania, there was already a growing consensus amongst Republicans that the time had come to coalesce around Romney and start looking toward the general election. The longer Santorum stayed in the race, the more it would appear that he was hindering the Republican’s chances in November.

It’s unclear what the future holds for Santorum. While the runner up in the Republican Primary often goes on to be the nominee in the next election cycle, it’s less likely that this will be the case with Santorum. There are a lot of talented young GOP’ers who will be ready to jump into the race in 2016 if Romney loses in 2012. Additionally, Santorum’s brand of conservatism inevitably turns off a large segment of moderate Republicans and independent voters. That being said, whatever Santorum’s future aspirations, they were likely bolstered by his decision to withdraw today.

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The end of Santorum

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

11 April 2012


Rick Santorum announcing the suspension of his campaign

For the good part of half a decade, Rick Santorum has been a joke — and I'm not referring to the one propagated by Seattle sex columnist Dan Savage. The Pennsylvania senator lost his seat in 2006 by a humiliating 18 points, and, throughout 2011, ran a presidential campaign distinguished by its inability to attract support greater than the margin of error in most polls. With the national economy stumbling along in a recovery not robust enough to get anyone particularly excited, it seemed that the last thing Americans wanted was a social conservative with an apparent fixation on keeping women away from contraception and gay folks away from each other.

America likely didn't want that, but a significant proportion of the Republican party did, and Santorum's threading together of ostentatious religiosity, blue collar boilerplate, and vigorous traditionalism was enough to give him a surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses. Santorum wasn't the perfect Tea Party conservative, but up against the suspiciously Northeastern Mitt Romney, the fervently unorthodox Ron Paul, and the mercurial and unfocused Newt Gingrich, the Republican base accepted him as good enough. Good enough to throw some support behind — and good enough to keep Mitt Romney from a too-easy ride to the nomination.

But even in forcing the Republican Party to take him seriously, Santorum struggled to make himself a candidate at whom the wider American public would have to take a look. He could not convert his Iowa victory into the campaign donations or party endorsements that would have permitted him to provide a credible challenge to Romney, and his campaign was beset by organisational problems that prevented him from maximising the impact of his victories — in some states, he failed to file full delegate slates, meaning that he couldn't fully convert his popular support to representation at the national convention. Even on his best day, when he won victories in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado, he failed to use the opportunity to jumpstart his campaign. Ultimately the Republican Party proved to be more diverse in opinion than its conservative base, and Santorum couldn't persuade enough of the party that he could beat President Obama in November. His suspension of his campaign, announced today, was a confirmation of the inevitable.

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None of which makes his campaign an irrelevancy. The religious right had been marginalised from American politics ever since it had helped give President George W. Bush a second term in 2004, and found itself roundly ignored by him once he was back in office. Santorum didn't just put debates over gay marriage, pornography, and abortion back on the national agenda, he asked Americans to consider the morality of contraception for the first time since the 1960s. He didn't singlehandedly stir up the social conseravtive furore that permitted Democrats to accuse Republicans of declaring a "war on women," but he was a leading voice for a vision of America that many on the right feared had slipped away: a place where order and propriety reigned supreme, and where they did not need to worry that the primacy of whiteness, Christianity, and traditional family structures and gender roles had eroded. Even though it didn't resonate with the general population, Santorum's message was won a lot of Republicans found irresistable, and his competitors, including the party's now presumptual nominee Mitt Romney, were forced into arguing on his territory. To keep peace with his party, Romney had to adopt an aggressively conservative stance that could well come back to haunt him in November — and, if he should win, beyond.

Romney had effectively secured the nomination after he had won in Florida — or, depending on how fervently party actors were looking for an alternative, possibly even earlier. Only now, however, can he turn his full attention to the sitting president. He will do so after a battle that forced him into positions far more to the right than he felt comfortable adopting. (Remember his unintentionally revealing remarks at CPAC, where he declared himself to be "severely" conservative?) Romney will be hoping that with Santorum exiting the race, so too will depart the most strident demands of the Tea Party and the religious right.

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Primary Preview: Wisconsinites have sights set on another election

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

3 April 2012


Wisconsin protest

Tomorrow, 98 delegates are up for grabs as voters in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Wisconsin head to the polls. However, there has been relatively little attention paid to these states. In fact, none of Monday’s headlines on Real Clear Politics specifically mention tomorrow’s primaries. Part of this has to do with the intense focus on Obamacare in the wake of last week’s Supreme Court oral arguments. The large issue, though, is a growing acceptance amongst both Republicans and the media that Mitt Romney will be the nominee. The declining interest in the primaries illustrates the incentive for states to move their elections earlier in the year. Sure, these states will be stripped of some delegates by the national Republican Party, but better that then hold your primary so late in the calendar that the outcome of the race is already all but decided.

Romney is a lock to win both Maryland and D.C. The Terrapin State is decidedly blue and quite wealthy, characteristics that favour the “Massachusetts moderate.” It’s also no surprise that Romney is slated to do well in the nation’s capital, where political insiders far outnumber Tea Partiers.

Wisconsin’s is a bit less cut and dried. Several weeks ago, Santorum lead in most polls. However, Romney has come roaring back, and now holds an eight point lead in the state. But what’s most interesting about Wisconsin is how uninterested its citizens are in tomorrow’s primary. It’s not that they don’t care about politics; it’s that Wisconsinites' primary concern is the gubernatorial recall election on 5 June.

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In February 2011, Republican Governor Scott Walker introduced the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill as a means of addressing the large state budget deficit. The Bill cut benefits for government employees and, most controversially, limited their collective bargaining rights to wage issues. The bill set off a firestorm. Democratic lawmakers left the state in order to prevent the Republican legislature from having the quorum needed to pass the legislation. Over 100 000 protestors flooded the capitol city of Madison in response to what they saw as an inexcusable infringement of worker’s rights. 

The bill eventually passed, but the controversy has not subsided. Opponents gathered the signatures necessary to force recall elections for six Wisconsin legislators including Governor Scott Walker. The Wisconsin Republican Party “as a whole is more united behind Scott Walker than it’s been for anything it’s ever done” said Mark Graul, a veteran member of the state GOP. This solidarity has led most Republican legislators to fall in line behind the frontrunner and establishment favourite Romney. It appears that key figures in the party don’t see much point in wasting time or opening up party divisions by publicly voicing support for the other candidates.

However, there might be one silver lining for Santorum. Nate Silver points out that the lack of interest in the presidential primary may very well lead to low turnouts, and the fewer people that show up the larger the chance of a result that defies the polls. This coupled with the fact that Santorum has previously outperformed his polling numbers on Election Day, means that he still holds a (very) small chance of upsetting Romney tomorrow.

Finally, here’s a song for the primaries. This is Holocene off the 2011 self-titled album from Eau Claire, Wisconsin natives Bon Iver.

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Gingrichian hypocrisy

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

16 March 2012


Gingrich

Newt Gingrich has spent the last several months waxing poetic about the fight for conservative principles, the liberal bias of the mainstream media, and the corrosive establishment culture within Washington. At its core though, the Gingrich campaign has been about one thing, Newt Gingrich’s desire to be president, and he’s been willing to do or say whatever he thinks will help him achieve this goal. This is a candidate who defiled Mitt Romney as the Massachusetts’s moderate despite having many a moderate skeleton in his own closet. This is a candidate who gave CNN reporter John King one of the harshest tongue lashings in presidential debate history, then made sure to tell him afterwards what a great job he had done. This is a candidate who complained about Washington elites despite receiving 1.6 million dollars from the mortgage lender Freddie Mac. And this is a candidate who proclaimed that a second Obama term would be a “disaster for the US” yet seems unconcerned that his own nomination would certainly hinder Republican chances of capturing the White House in 2012.

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The latest sign of Gingrichian hypocrisy is his continued refusal to drop out of the race. In late January, it was Gingrich who was pressuring Santorum to get out, telling him that they could unite conservatives together and defeat Romney.

“The fact is, when you combine the Santorum vote and the Gingrich vote ... the conservative combined would clearly beat Romney."

.......

"My hope is that gradually conservatives will come together and decide that a Newt Gingrich conservatism is dramatically better than Mitt Romney's liberalism."

These quotes weren’t an anomaly. Over and over again, Gingrich stressed that Romney’s establishment ties and lack of conservative credentials left him unfit to be the GOP nominee. Now the shoe is on the other foot; Gingrich has only managed to win one primary since he made these comments and Santorum has re-emerged, transforming the election into a two man race. If Gingrich can’t win in the Deep South, he’s not going to be making any noise in other regions of the country. Going forwards, he will likely play little role in the primaries aside from siphoning votes away from Santorum.

The very same reasons Gingrich gave Santorum for stepping down now apply equally to him. If Romney is actually the anti-conservative Gingrich makes him out to be, than surely the former speaker would want to do all he could to prevent him from getting the nomination? Further, at the same time Gingrich was criticising Romney, he was going out of his way to heap praise on Santorum. So, here’s Newt’s chance to play a key role in rallying the conservative forces in an attempt to defeat “Mitt Romney’s liberalism.”

However, Gingrich has refused to heed his own advice from a month earlier. The truth is, he probably never viewed the campaign as a battle between the real voices of conservatism and a Massachusetts moderate; it was just a narrative that he thought might win him some votes. And even if he does oppose Romney as passionately as he claims, it’s clear that fruitlessly chasing his own glory takes precedence. It’s easy to cite principles when they suit your own campaign, but when the same principles require a personal sacrifice, so much the worse for the principles.

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No, really. Say goodnight, Newt

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

14 March 2012


It seems the polls occasonally do lie: Rick Santorum won both the Mississippi and Alabama primaries today, despite prognostication suggesting Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich respectively would take pole position. It's the triumph of common sense over imperfect science. Rick Santorum, a social conservative, won a pair of socially conservative states. He'll be helped a bit by the perception that he defied expectations, but, in truth, he didn't, and Romney continues his slow trudge to the nomination.

But remember how, a month ago, I said it was time to stop pretending Newt Gingrich was a real contender in this race? With two second place finishes today, Gingrich has won a grand total of two states: South Carolina, and the neighbouring Georgia. He was done already, but let there be no mistake: he's really done now. I won't offer a prediction as to whether he'll drop out or not — his is a vanity campaign, and vanity campaigns don't heed the usual rules of viability — but I have to wonder for how much longer his donors and wealthy backers are prepared to sink money into a lost cause.


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The right's unhelpful Iran rhetoric

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

13 March 2012


Santorum Iran

Until recently, the Republican game plan for 2012 looked fairly straightforward: make the election a referendum on the economy. However, now that the US has added over 200 000 jobs in each of the past three months, opponents of Obama are looking to attack the President on a wider variety of issues. First among these topics is Iran’s nuclear program. Last week, Rick Santorum remarked that Obama has “turned his back on the people of Israel” and Mitt Romney added that if “Barack Obama is re-elected, Iran will have a nuclear weapon.”

How best to respond to the possibility of a nuclear Iran is an incredibly complex question, where every option presents potential pitfalls and hazards. Above all, it demands calm deliberation and clear eyed reasoning. As such, it’s incredibly frustrating to hear the polemic and warmongering from many of those on the right.

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Case in point, Santorum’s repeated comments on the campaign trail that Iran and al-Qaeda are more or less indistinguishable:

"[Iran is] just as radical as the people who run al Qaeda — their theology is identical. Again different strengths, but identical in their fundamentalist, Jihadist version of Islam," Santorum said. "We cannot allow the equivalent of al Qaeda to have this."

And this from a debate in New Hampshire:

"So when your principle virtue is to die for your — for Allah — then it’s not a deterrent to have a nuclear threat, if they would use a nuclear weapon. It is, in fact, an encouragement for them to use their nuclear weapon."

These quotes immediately reminded me of the excellent Erol Morris documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara; specifically McNamara’s first lesson: empathise with your enemy. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Santorum isn’t exactly heeding McNamara’s advice.

For starters, al-Qaeda is a Sunni terrorist organisation while the Iranian government is Shia — a distinction that probably should be recognised by someone who spent eight years on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Santorum is also off base with his suggestion that the Iranian government would gladly martyr themselves in the name of religious fanaticism. As Paul Pillar explains in a recent Washington Monthly article, the leaders of Iran “are overwhelmingly concerned with preserving their regime and their power — in this life, not some future one.”

These comments are collaborated by a 2008 study by Akan Malici and Allison L. Buckner, which attempts to characterise Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s belief system and then use game theory models to understand his decision making process and how the US should respond to it. They concluded that given Ahmadinejad’s “subjective representation of reality," his behaviour was not characterised by “irrationality” or impulsiveness and that he favoured cooperative solutions to conflict.

I haven’t just cherry picked articles either. Do your own Google search, and it becomes pretty clear that Santorum’s view is an extreme outlier amongst experts. The current Iranian regime is clearly radical, but this is no excuse for distorting their actual attitudes and motivations.

But this is the alternate reality that Santorum and many others in the GOP seem to reside in. It's a world where President Obama is portrayed as weak for seeking ways to avoid an air strike that would have numerous consequences and at best set the Iranian nuclear program back by a couple of years; where legitimate concerns about the safety of Israel are expressed through a campaign of fear rather than rational argument; and where the lessons of the last ten years are pushed under the rug.

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It's time to call this race

By Erin Riley in Sydney, Australia

7 March 2012


It's really over now. Mitt Romney is the nominee.

I mean, it was really over after Florida, but now the media will have to stop pretending it's a contest and Republicans will have to start acting like he's the presumptive nominee. Though Gingrich and Santorum may — and Paul will certainly — struggle on for a while, Romney can now pivot to the general.

Romney got Virginia and Vermont by reasonable margins — he got over 50 per cent in Virginia, which is impressive and will net him a lot of delegates, and beat Paul by a 14 per cent margin in Vermont, as well as completely destroying the competition in his home state — 70+ per cent there.

Gingrich got his home state of Georgia, but fell short of the 50 per cent he needed to lock in the delegates, so that won't hurt Romney in the long run. Santorum is continuing to do well in deep red states — they've called Tennessee for him, and he's looking good in Oklahoma too.

The only interesting contest left is in Ohio, where Santorum and Romney are neck-and-neck. Because Ohio borders Pennsylvania, there's something of a home state advantage for Santorum, but because of the importance of Ohio in the general, there could be some questions about Romney's electability if he doesn't manage to win there. But those questions won't actually mean anything, because with the number of delegates he'll net today, Romney's lead is unassailable.

No real results from Alaska, Idaho, and North Dakota yet. I suspect Romney will do very, very well in Idaho, but it'll be interesting to see the influence of the libertarian vote in Alaska and Idaho.


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In remembrance of Super Tuesdays past

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

7 March 2012


With the results of the Republican Super Tuesday primary contests set to be announced in mere hours, it's worth keeping in perspective the importance of these results. There's much to be gleaned from some of the immediate details, such as whether Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney will win Ohio, how well Romney can do in Tennessee, or how the delegates will be apportioned in the smaller caucus states. At the same time, however, today is unlikely to radically alter the direction of the race. Mitt Romney remains the front runner; he has the most delegates, endorsements, and campaign funds on hand, and there's a good chance he has, for all intents and purposes, wrapped this race up, and the votes today and over the coming month are just about confirming that.

I'd recommend thinking back to the 2008 campaign, and observing two things. First: although Hillary Clinton looked to have a rather successful Super Tuesday, when observers had enough time to look at the big picture and away from the state-by-state hurly burly, they realised that Barack Obama had done well enough on the day to put himself in an almost unassailable position for the rest of the campaign. It's tempting to look at campaign events on a micro level and disregard larger macro trends, but chances are, day-to-day occurences won't be game changers — even ones on as significant a day as Super Tuesday.

The other lesson from 2008 to keep in mind is that for a long time, Obama had effectively won the contest, but still had to go through the motions of campaigning against Clinton until the last state had voted. Whether you place the point Obama effectively triumphed at Super Tuesday, or the March 4th ballots in Texas and Ohio, or the April 22nd battle in Pennsylvania, it became increasingly apparent that though the primaries were continuing, only Obama could end up the winner. The same thing is likely to happen this year: Romney will move into a position where his victory will be inevitable, even if the opposing campaigns don't yet accept that.


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Super Tuesday: keep an eye on Ohio

By http://www.uselectionwatch.org.au/people/ in Sydney, Australia

5 March 2012


Ohio Flag

Less than half the number of states are holding Super Tuesday elections as compared to 2008, but that does not mean that this year’s contest will be small or insignificant. On March 6, ten states will hold primaries or caucuses and "more delegates will be awarded than in in the first two months of the Republican presidential race combined." Here's what to expect on the biggest day of the election so far.

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Mitt Romney has now won four states in a row, and is looking to try and carry this momentum into Super Tuesday. Romney will win easily in Massachusetts (where he served as governor) and Virginia (where only he and Ron Paul collected enough valid signatures to even appear on the ballot). Along with these two important prizes, Romney should pick up Vermont as well.

Out West, Romney has a very good chance of winning in North Dakota, Idaho and Alaska. However, these small caucus states could also be prime Ron Paul territory. Paul may not appeal to a broad segment of the electorate, but he does have a fervent base of supporters. Less than 14,000 Alaskans showed up for the 2008 Republican caucus, and a small but committed group of Paul devotees could flip the state in his favour. Still, the delegate count in these three states is not large enough to substantially affect the outcome of the primary process.

Standing between Romney and a Super Tuesday blowout is the South. Santorum should pick up the most delegates in Oklahoma and probably Tennessee as well. Gingrich (yes, he's still in the race) is the heavy favourite in his home state of Georgia. It's unlikely that Romney will win any of these three states, but keep an eye on the results nonetheless. A narrow win Tennessee or even a close second place showing in Oklahoma could be evidence that Romney’s re-establishing himself as the clear frontrunner.

That leaves one final state to discuss, Ohio. Ohio is without a doubt the crown jewel of Super Tuesday. It has the second most delegates of the day after Georgia, but its significance is more intangible. Two very different narratives could emerge out of Super Tuesday depending on who claims the "Buckeye State." It's often remarked that the road to the White House runs through the Midwest, and so far Santorum has outperformed Romney in the Midwestern states. A win in Ohio, probably the most important state in the general election, would allow Santorum to reassert his message that he's the candidate best equipped to win in these key swing states.

On the other hand, if Romney wins there on Tuesday, the entire script changes. If he can't carry a state like Ohio, it becomes much harder for Santorum to sell himself as the populist alternative to Romney. A Romney victory would be an important first step in repairing his image amongst middle class blue-collar voters.

At this point, the race between Romney and Santorum in Ohio is too close to call. Nate Silver's election model currently gives Santorum a 57% chance of winning. However, as I mentioned the other day, Santorum's polling advantage in the state has been steadily declining over the last several weeks. Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball goes so far as to declare Romney the favourite in Ohio. As they correctly note, the Romney campaign has done very well in the few days before previous primaries by effectively utilising its organisational and monetary advantages. Santorum’s lead looks much more tenuous when you consider the final wave of Romney ads that are hitting the airwaves in Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati.

Still, even if Romney performs exceptionally well on Tuesday, the proportional system of delegate allocation makes it all but impossible for him to pull too far away from Santorum. Super Tuesday will greatly influence the trajectory of the race, but it won’t decide it altogether.

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The right opponent

By Edward Okulicz in Sydney, Australia

2 March 2012


Mitt Romney still looks the favourite for the Republican nomination, but his strategy of taking aim primarily at Newt Gingrich might have made his quest harder than it needs to be. By attacking Gingrich and taking some of his votes, Romney may have in fact made it harder to win the nomination than if he had kept Gingrich afloat through a few more contests. Effectively, the primary election has taken on an almost non-monotonic quality.

A non-monotonic election is one in which the leader faces a number of candidates whose supporters’ preferences are asymmetrical, and the ease of winning at the end is determined partially by who ends up second. It is an uncommon occurrence, but occasionally found in elections that use the alternative vote.

Let’s picture a jungle primary, of the kind that’s used in Louisiana, for instance. If you are the frontrunner in a jungle primary, and have a plurality but not a majority of the votes, the first round of voting will decide your opponent. You would want to face the more polarising candidate: the one who is less likely to pick up supporters from the excluded candidate. Your best strategy is to hope the more polarising candidate comes second so you face them at the end. A middle-of-the-road candidate, acceptable to some of your supporters, as well as those who supported the candidate who came third, could pick up enough to topple you.

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Of course the Republican primary isn’t exactly like a jungle primary or an alternative vote election. But it has things in common, in the sense that the early rounds offer few delegates but trim the field, and the later states are winner-take-all and offer voters a smaller number of candidates to choose from; some voters help thin the field, and others make the final decision within that depleted field. Think of Iowans and Floridians as being participants in the jungle primary, and the later states being voters in the general election.

Essentially, by driving Gingrich's vote and poll standings down with attack ads in an attempt to improve his own lead, Romney has put into second place — his competition for the run-off voters in the later states — an opponent (Rick Santorum) who has real weapons, rhetorical and demographic, with which to challenge him. Had he not attacked Gingrich and let him have a few pollings points here and there, he'd be staring down a considerably weaker opponent in the long game. Yes, as strange as it seems, by increasing his vote share, he may have decreased his chances of ultimately prevailing because, amongst other things, Santorum and Gingrich's supporters have very asymmetrical preferences that may come into play depending on when (or if) they drop out of the contest.

Firstly, Santorum is more likely to be acceptable to Gingrich voters than the converse. We can see this from how when Romney attacked Gingrich, Gingrich’s vote went down, but not all of the balance went to Romney — some went to Santorum. Working out why is mere speculation, but Gingrich’s favourability ratings have always been diabolically awful. A voter who likes Santorum for whatever reason but also rates traditional values as important may find little to like in Gingrich — an adulterer who is on his third marriage — and is at least somewhat likely to flip to Romney (still on his first wife, and with not a hint of an affair to be found), or sit the primary out entirely if Santorum’s candidacy ends. Indeed, Gingrich even polled poorly with Tea Party-identifying voters, so his appeal to that flavour of fiscal conservatism appears weak, too.

However, the unabashed conservatism of Santorum is likely to be quite attractive to Gingrich voters if Gingrich drops out. Santorum is better able to speak authentically on social conservatism, and his profile as a senator — smaller than Gingrich’s as speaker — means fewer voters have already decided that they don’t like him, and there are fewer embarrassing stances from the past to bite him if he tries running as a fiscal conservative. (This is not to say they aren’t there, but there’s no evidence to suggest the average voter triangulates their vote to such an extent). Fewer people have made up their mind about Santorum, which is an advantage when fighting with a disliked candidate.

Secondly, Santorum’s voting base carries with it significant demographic advantages. Gingrich ran strongly in South Carolina before the Santorum surge, but apart from Georgia, it’s difficult to see too many states remaining that are good for Gingrich that will not also be fertile ground for Santorum. Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, and Arkansas are full of low-income values voters of the kind that vote Democratic at state level but Republican for president. They loved the Clintons but hate Obama, and many are strongly pro-life. Most of all, rural Pennsylvania, where Santorum runs strong, is not that different demographically from some Southern states. These voters are not natural Gingrich voters and may respond better to Santorum’s biography and style, which is tailor-made for them.

Thirdly, Santorum also has the ability to run more strongly against Romney in the Midwest. Despite his victory, Romney struggled in Michigan, and given his stance against the auto industry bailout, this isn’t too much of a surprise. Santorum has no such baggage in the Rust Belt, so coupled with his advantage in the rural parts of the Midwestern states and possible appeal to outer-suburban Republicans — and let’s not forget Catholics — a two-man contest between Romney and Santorum across this region is likely to be far more competitive than one between Romney and Gingrich, who has no particular strength in the area.

Romney may have been better advised to attack Santorum after Perry exploded to keep Gingrich in second place, a position from which it seems at least arguable he would have risen no further.

Commentators have said that the Republican nomination comes down to a fight between Romney and a candidate standing for anyone-but-Romney, with each of the more conservative candidates looking to burnish their conservative credentials to become the last man standing. This argument seems simplistic and unappealing: based on received wisdom rather than observation. With Santorum’s impressive rise, we may well yet see more Romney voters move across to him. It might just turn out lots of those Romney voters included a significant portion of anyone-but-Gingrich voters

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Leap Day double: Mitt-chigan and A-romney-zona

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

1 March 2012


It was a good day for Mitt Romney, depending on your definition of good. His convincing and entirely predictable win in Arizona was an uncomplicated positive for the man who is sorta-kinda considered the Republican frontrunner*. Romney's three point victory in Michigan, however, is only good whether your memory extends two days or two weeks. 

This, after all, was an impressive effort for a candidate who polls showed had been trailing his strongest opponent, Rick Santorum, in recent weeks. Romney put his money and political connections to work and won over an electorate that was supposed to recoil from his blueblood background and his harsh words for the bailout of the auto industry. If you think back a little further though, you'll remember that Romney originally presumed Michigan would be a cakewalk. It is the state in which he was born, and where his father, George Romney, served as state governor and chairman of American Motors Corporation. The meagre victory Romney scraped together was the result of a last minute scrable to avoid an embarrassing loss, but it was still much smaller than it should have been.

Still, it would be wise not to get too bogged down in this sort of minutiae. A loss would have boosted Santorum and revived a new wave of chatter about Romney's inability to appeal to this electorate or that electorate. Romney's victory, no matter how small, staved that off. Rick Santorum still has a gigantic task ahead of him — perhaps an impossible one. He probably won't do enough on Super Tuesday to turn the race around, and though he has been the subject of much news attention, he hasn't converted it into solid signs that the party would like him to be its standard bearer this fall; precious few endorsements followed his wins in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri. 

And it's the big picture that's important. Don't get too worked up about percentages or delegate counts. The most likely outcome is that one of the candidates (let's be straight: Romney) will establish enough dominance over the other that all the other candidates will fall out of practical contention. There's a chance this has already happened and we just haven't realised it.

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* Depending on how invested you are in casting the GOP race as competitive, you might have decided that Rick Santorum took the nominal lead at some point in the past couple of weeks. The former Pennsylvania senator certainly gave America a good look at his campaign, and made an impressive showing in some state-based and regional polls, but I don't think he really turned the underlying momentum of the race in his direction at any point. He remained very much the underdog.

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Michigan is not all it's cracked up to be

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

27 February 2012


The media and the pundits are doing all they can to raise the stakes of the February 28th Michigan primary. A Fox News article surmises that the Michigan primary “is threatening to turn [Romney’s] campaign into turmoil” and Aaron Goldstein of the American Spectator speculates that a Santorum victory could "put a dagger through the heart of Romney's campaign.”

I agree that Michigan is quite important. Romney was born and raised there and his father served as governor; losing in a state where he has such a homefield advantage would be a setback for the campaign. Still, I can’t help but feel that people are overstating the importance of the Michigan primary.

A Romney win in Michigan would quiet his sceptics temporarily, but with Super Tuesday right around the corner, the results of February 28th could be forgotten quickly. It looks all but certain that Santorum will win Oklahoma and Ohio on Super Tuesday, and Gingrich could do well in the Southern states of Georgia and Tennessee. Romney winning a state that he was supposed to win probably won’t affect the momentum of the race too much.

 Obviously, Santorum winning Michigan would be the more consequential outcome, but it wouldn’t necessarily spell doom for the Romney campaign. Romney’s looking likely to win Arizona on the same night, which would soften the blow somewhat. Additionally, Michigan is a unique case in that Romney was an especially outspoken opponent of the auto bailout; a bailout that affected so many workers within the state of Michigan. As such, the primary is in part a referendum on an issue that doesn’t hold the same importance to national voters.

We keep hearing that each successive primary is going to be the turning point in the race. Gingrich’s win in South Carolina was going to propel him back into contention, that didn’t happen. Romney’s win in Florida was supposed to have all but clinched the nomination; then Santorum won three states in one night. This has been a crazy primary season, and there is good reason to be sceptical of those who believe they know what the next chapter holds in store.


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The myth of the thoughtful centrist

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

23 February 2012


Jonathan Chait has a post up arguing that Rick Santorum might actually be more electable than Mitt Romney. His reasoning? Swing voters won't necessarily be turned off Santorum:

In fact, there are, very roughly speaking, two kinds of swing voters. One kind is economically conservative, socially liberal swing voters. This is the kind of voter you usually read about, because it’s the kind most familiar to political reporters – affluent and college educated. But there’s a second kind of voter at least as numerous – economically populist and socially conservative. Think of disaffected blue-collar workers, downscale white men who love guns, hate welfare, oppose free trade, and want higher taxes on the rich and corporations. Romney appeals to the former, but Santorum more to the latter.

Chait is half right. Political reporters love imagining swing voters to be economically conservative and socially liberal, and that's partly because it's a school of thought familiar to political reporters. (Ross Douthat characterises them as "pining for a dream ticket of Michael Bloomberg and Olympia Snowe.") I suspect it's also because economically conservative, socially liberal voters behave as ideal citizens in a democracy; they consider both parties judiciously and make a judgement based on who best represents their viewpoint at the time.

Of course, that's why it's comforting to believe that if there is another kind of swing voter, it's one who maintains the opposite stance: economic liberalism and social conservatism. This voter is also behaving as an ideal citizen in a democracy.

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The problem is that citizens aren't ideal and these imagined swing voters are just that — imaginary. I've discussed this before, but it's worth repeating. There are very few pure independents. They comprise seven to ten per cent of the electorate. Most people who say they are independent actually consistently vote for one party over the other. The people who are pure independents — swing voters — are exactly the opposite of highly informed. They are what is known as "low information" voters. What's more, they're much less likely to vote than more partisan citizens.

Add that all up, and you don't get two distinct strains of centrists defined by strong beliefs captured not by either party. You get a mass of people who don't pay close attention to government and don't have strong views about politics anyway. For a simple maxim, refer to Jonathan Bernstein: " Americans are not liberal, conservative, or moderate in their ideology, because most Americans aren't ideological at all."

So what of Chait's argument that Rick Santorum isn't that much more unelectable than Mitt Romney? It depends on what voters find out about him. At the moment, they're finding out — if they're paying attention at all — that he doesn't like contraception and has firmly traditional views on marriage. Forget ideology; that just doesn't square with the way most Americans live their lives. It's no wonder women voters, in particular, are turning away from him.

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Dreams of a brokered convention

By John Barron in Sydney, Australia

15 February 2012


As the candidates trade victories in the 2012 Republican presidential primary contest and the race heads towards so-called “Super Tuesday” on March 6th, when a dozen states will conduct primaries, caucuses, or conventions, an intriguing possibility is emerging: what if nobody wins?

It’s a very big “what if.” But with new GOP rules awarding delegates in early states on a proportional rather than winner-take-all basis, and with the penalties for the states that voted in January,  it is possible that a protracted three or four-candidate contest will result in no candidate reaching the 1 144 votes he needs to win the nomination.

And that’s where we could just possibly see something we haven’t seen since the incumbent, appointed President Gerry Ford squeaked home over former California Governor Ronald Reagan in 1976: a brokered Republican National Convention.

What would that mean at the RNC in Tampa, Florida in late August?

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In the romantic imagination of we pundits, a brokered convention conjures up images of gravel-voiced party elders picking a future President in a smoke-filled back room, as idealistic delegates on the floor parade under red, white and blue signs wearing boater hats and ribbons.

A modern brokered convention is probably going to be smoke-free and involve a lot of hushed phone calls and texting on BlackBerrys, but the very uncertainty of it would be wonderful theatre (and scare the bejeezus out of the party establishment).

In short, nobody knows what could happen — but it could even see a “dark horse” candidate like Jeb Bush, Sarah Palin, Chris Christie, or Mitch Daniels (who haven’t contested any of the primaries or caucuses) become the nominee.

The Republican delegations from the various states are bound to different rules, depending on whether they were elected in a primary or by a caucus, and state convention: some are “pledged” to support a particular candidate and some remain “unpledged” — and while they are expected to vote a certain way, that can change.

In a tight race, those “unpledged delegates” are effectively the GOP’s equivalent of the Democratic Party’s “super delegates.”

If, for the sake of this exercise the 2,286 delegates, including 488 unpledged delegates are allocated as follows:

Mitt Romney: 986
Rick Santorum: 614
Newt Gingrich: 408
Ron Paul: 275

No single candidate will have the 1 144 required votes on the first round of voting, and that’s when the games begin.

The same four candidates could stay in for several further rounds of voting and depending on the rules applying to various state delegations, there might be some movement — especially among unpledged delegates.

But then, what if Newt Gingrich took to the floor, and, in an impassioned speech, told his supporters he was dropping out and that they should throw their support behind Rick Santorum as the leading conservative candidate to stop Mitt Romney’s nomination?

The Tea Party movement, which lost its standard-bearers Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Perry now could emerge as king-makers.

Let’s say most, but not all, do give their vote to Santorum, while some decide to fall in behind Romney instead and just eight decide to vote for Ron Paul.

The new count would be this:

Romney: 1086
Santorum: 964
Paul: 283

Mitt Romney is close, but still 58 votes short of becoming the nominee. More rounds of voting are called and the numbers stay pretty much the same — it’s a deadlock.

Meetings are called behind the scenes in those now–smoke-free rooms; various party leaders and surrogates speak in support of Romney, Santorum and Paul, until, finally, a deal is done between Santorum and Paul to insert a plank in the GOP platform to establish a congressional committee to return the US to the gold standard.

Ron Paul is given special time to address delegates and withdraws from the next round of balloting. Despite his preference for Santorum, Paul doesn’t direct his supporters; some leave, unable to give their vote to either Santorum or Romney, party officials rush for the rule books and try to muster stand-by delegates — some of whom are as far away as Iowa.

It’s pandemonium!

Meanwhile, the party establishment, which has previously stood firmly behind Mitt Romney, sees the writing on the wall. A “Draft-Jeb” movement is formed by former George W. Bush staffer Karl Rove, who extracts a commitment for Romney to bow out in return for the vice presidential nomination.

The former governor of the state of Florida’s name is put forward in the next round of balloting as part of a moderate establishment “dream team.”

Another round of voting is finally called. Most Romney supporters, fearful Santorum would be just too conservative to beat Barack Obama, pledge their votes to Bush, even though many others stand by Romney out of fear Karl Rove has hijacked the nomination.

The votes are tallied:

Bush: 1162
Romney: 646
Santorum: 478

John Ellis “Jeb” Bush becomes the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nominee, without standing in the primaries or even leaving the state of Florida.

Possible?

Sure, technically.

More likely in a brokered convention scenario is that a conservative “Stop Romney” movement could see Santorum or Gingrich emerge.

Much more likely still is that Mitt Romney will have the 1 144 votes he needs to become the nominee well before the convention.

But in this hiatus between primaries, it’s fun to ponder the possibilities.

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Where does Santorum go from here?

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

9 February 2012


Rick Santorum had struggled to build on the momentum off his impressive performance in the Iowa caucus, but it looks like a return trip to the Midwest has gotten him back on track. The general expectation was that Santorum would win Missouri, probably win narrowly in Minnesota, and lose to Romney in Colorado. In actuality, Santorum won all three states by a fairly comfortable margin.

This is certainly an excellent result for Santorum, but what effect is it likely to have on the race? In the New York Times, Katherine Seelye explains that the results raise two important questions:

Can [Santorum] eclipse his immediate rival, Newt Gingrich, and become the conservative alternative to Mitt Romney? And will he be able to pose a realistic threat to Mr. Romney, who remains better financed and better organized in other states?"

My answer to the first question is yes. As I explained here, Gingrich was never well equipped to run a campaign as the anti-elite conservative alternative to Romney. Simply put, he's a Washington insider who's probably flip-flopped on more issues than Romney has. Next, while most members of the Republican Party establishment probably favor Romney, they don't have the same sort of visceral distaste for Santorum that they do for Gingrich. In fact, if Santorum were to continue to do well, I would expect many politicians, and especially conservative members of the media, to get behind his candidacy. Finally, Gingrich probably has the most appeal in Southern states, which the Republican Party will win regardless of who is the nominee. Santorum, in contrast, has performed well in the Midwestern states, states that will likely determine the outcome of the general election.

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As for the second question, it's possible, but let's be clear, Romney remains the favorite. His advantages in fundraising and organisation are extremely important, and only become more so as the campaign drags on. Further, Romney is able to take certain states "off the table" in the way that Santorum can't. There was never any real doubt that Romney would win easily in New Hampshire or Nevada, and there are plenty of other upcoming states like Massachusetts or Virginia where he is the prohibitive frontrunner. Santorum has an excellent chance of winning in plenty of states, but there aren't any where he'd be considered the overwhelming favorite at this point. As such, Romney doesn't need to catch as many breaks in the upcoming weeks and months as does Santorum.

Still, don't count out the former Senator from Pennsylvania. His longstanding commitment to social conservatism obviously plays well to the Republican base, but he can potentially win support on other issues as well. He's done a good job of defending the principles of capitalism while still appearing fairly emphatic to those who are struggling. This prudent strategy could potentially win the support of Republicans who are turned off by Gingrich's attacks on Bain but still feel like Romney can't identify with their situation. Further, he performed well in the last debate, explaining why he, and not Gingrich, was qualified to criticise Romney over healthcare.

In any case, it was certainly an exciting day in the race; both for Santorum supporters and those (like us in the media) who are just hoping for an extended and suspenseful primary.

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Say goodnight, Newt

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

9 February 2012


Newt Gingrich

Newt Gingrich (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

UPDATE BELOW

If you're looking for a takeaway from the results of tonight's caucuses — in Minnesota and Colorado, as well as the non-binding "beauty contest" in Missouri — you could do worse than marking this down as the moment the last fantasies of Newt Gingrich's viability vanished.

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Mitt Romney performed dismally in Minnesota, and with about 60 per cent of the Colorado results in, he's not far enough ahead of Rick Santorum to avoid the conclusion that he's had a woeful evening — whether he eventually pulls out a victory in the Mountain West or not. But in all likelihood — that is, barring genuine disaster — Mitt Romney will be the Republican Party's nominee. It will just take him longer to end the contest, and it will stoke further worries that he can't win in the Midwest.

Beauty contest or not, Romney's loss in Missouri, coupled with Santorum's victory in Minnesota, and a contest in Iowa that commentators are increasingly forgetting was a draw, is all adding up to the impression that Midwsterners don't like the son of Michigan scion George Romney. And any Republicans looking to feel extra gloomy about Mitt should acquaint themselves with the indicators that Barack Obama is improving his standing with swing voters across the Rust Belt.

But Newt! He finished last in Minnesota, drawing just ten per cent of the vote, and is struggling to take third place from Ron Paul in Colorado. He didn't even get on the ballot in Missouri. None of this means that Gingrich will drop out any time soon — his contestation for the nomination is about his ego before anything else, and that's something tough enough to withstand any number of losses — but it does mean the rest of America can stop pretending he's a going concern in this contest.

Goodnight, Newt. Goodnight to one and all.

UPDATE:

The cable news networks have called Rick Santorum as the winner in Colorado. Like I said, Mitt Romney is still the overwhelming favourite to be the eventual nominee, but he's showing a frustrating inability to wrap this up. They're not going to make this easy for him. 

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How it works: Next-in-line and momentum

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

8 January 2012


People waiting in line

Photo: ChrisM70

In June of last year, I mentioned the oft-repeated theory that the Republican Party likes its nominee to be whoever is "next in line":

Unlike Democrats, who are far more susceptible to the thrill of charming newcomers, Republicans have a habit of handing their party's nomination to the candidate next in line. John McCain was a runner-up to George W. Bush in the 2000 primary contest, and sure enough, he got the nod in 2008. 1996 candidate Bob Dole had previously challenged then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988. Ronald Reagan had come close to securing the nomination over Gerald Ford in 1976 and against Richard Nixon in 1968 before winning it in 1980. Nixon himself became the party's nominee after losing the 1960 general election and a contest for the governorship of California in 1962. Democrats will give a shot to a relative newcomer like Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, but Republicans prefer someone who has been through the process once or twice already.

Eli Lehrer has a plausible explanation for why Republicans "take turns" like this. Rather than party culture, he credits structure:

Nearly every part of the Republican primary process and, indeed, the party’s overall structure gives a massive advantage to people who have run before. The lack of super-delegates (ex officio convention delegates), for example, means that simply becoming well-known in the national media and among national figures conveys much less advantage than it does in Democratic contests. Republicans’ relatively greater reliance on low-dollar direct mail donations, likewise, means that having a well-tested list from a previous run for office conveys a fundraising advantage. Even the structure of grass roots groups on the Right conveys an advantage to those who have run before: the single greatest source of on-the-ground manpower on the Left, unions, are national organizations with top-down structures while the churches, community organizations, and tax reform groups important on the right are rarely centralized. And some right-of-center groups that have central structures–Americans for Prosperity, for example–don’t directly engage in electoral politics.

Mitt Romney will hope those advantages to past runners hold. In an unrelated matter, though still in the realm of intuitive explanations for political phenomena, Nate Silver has a smart guess about how momentum works:

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...Voters in Iowa participate early in the process and therefore have less information about the candidates than those who vote later on. Momentum may represent a learning process by which some voters come across salient information about a candidate sooner than others.

If this model is true, the momentum Rick Santorum built leading up to the caucuses yesterday started when a small number of Republicans learned some information about him that convinced them to back him. Then, as time passed, other voters learned that information, and switched their support to him as well. Of course, the increased media exposure this momentum drew in turn informed even more potential supporters about Santorum, adding further to the momentum he'd already accumulated.

The concept as illustrated by this New York Times report:

Mr. Santorum would become openly frustrated when it seemed that every other Republican candidate would enjoy a surge except him. “When’s my bump coming?” he asked Mr. Laudner early last month.

Mr. Laudner replied that when he started to move a little bit, the effect would snowball; if he got to about 10 percent in the polls, “the 1 would be replaced by a 2 very quickly,” Mr. Laudner said.

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