Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Surge and Fall of GOP Presidential Candidates

The media is making a huge deal out of Mike Huckabee’s surge in Iowa, where recent polls have him usurping the lead Mitt Romney has maintained for months. The spin is that Romney’s support is slipping because Protestant leaning Iowans will as a matter of faith support Huckabee, an erstwhile Baptist minister, over Romney, an erstwhile Mormon bishop and stake president.

While I do not doubt that the religions of these two men play some role in how Iowans are choosing how they will vote in next month’s caucuses, I do not believe that this is the most significant factor. It makes for salacious press, but there’s a bigger, more mundane story to be told.

Romney chose early on to make Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina — the early primary states — the focus of his campaign. This was arguably a very risky approach. This used to be the standard model to follow. Lesser known candidates could get some recognition and bounce out of good performances in early primary states. But that worked well when the primary cycle was drawn out over many months. People in later primary states often waited to make up their minds or even pay attention to the race until they saw how the early primaries went. Candidates that performed well in early primaries were able to raise money that allowed them to campaign in the next round of states.

In next year’s highly compressed primary season, it is questionable how well this approach will work. There simply isn’t much time to raise funds and build good campaigns in other states between the Iowa caucuses on January 3 and Giga-Tuesday (or whatever they’re now calling it) on February 5. Rudy Giuliani is betting that good performance in January is not essential to good performance in February. His efforts in early primary states have been meager. He has spent most of his capital in the big states that will be voting on February 5. This too is a gamble. How well this will work is anybody’s guess.

Romney has spent more money than any other GOP candidate so far. And he has spent much of it in the early primary states. His campaign has argued all along that he is low in the polls because people don’t know who he is. By now Iowans know Romney as well as they’re going to. He isn’t falling in the polls. He just hit a plateau a few weeks ago and he is holding steady. Huckabee’s surging support has come from the vast numbers of heretofore uncommitted Iowans. What this means is that Iowans know Romney, but a lot of them want something different.

As for national polls, Romney has been holding steady for a long time now. His campaign has been betting that he would surge dramatically following the early primaries. While this might have been a fool’s hope to begin with, even that hope will vanish if Romney doesn’t perform well in those early primaries. Despite his modest standing in the polls, Romney has made lots of news because he has a strong campaign machine that knows how to cater to (sometimes lazy) reporters.

Many conservatives have long suggested that Giuliani’s lead would diminish as people got closer to actually voting. The trend seems to be going that way. Fred Thompson isn’t doing any better than he was when he was still unannounced. John McCain has gone through ups and downs, but his polling numbers are also pretty much in a holding pattern. The lower tier candidates are muddling around in the single digits.

Ron Paul has raised eyebrows with his fundraising, but he seems incapable of drawing much support from likely GOP primary voters. There is some truth to his supporters’ claims that the polls are skewed because much of Paul’s support is coming from people newly registering as Republicans to vote for him, so that they are underrepresented in polling that focuses on traditional GOP primary voters. But even correcting for this would not significantly raise Paul in the polls. His support is deep, but not broad. And broad support is what will be needed to prevail in next year’s GOP primaries.

Huckabee has surged in polls nationwide, despite the fact that his fundraising and spending has been only a fraction of what other “top-tier” candidates have raised and spent. One critic said that Huckabee’s TV spots look like they were filmed with the family video camera in somebody’s garage. And his surge is not limited to religious folks. To me, Huckabee’s policies seem like a strange mixture of conservatism, classical liberalism, populism and socialism. But Huckabee has something going for him that Romney never seems have captured and that Giuliani seems to have somewhat lost.

Whatever his policies, Mike Huckabee comes across as hopeful and positive. He performs well in debates and in public appearances. People come away from such experiences with a generally good feeling about him. For all of his magnificent assets, Romney does not seem to be able to accomplish this feat. Giuliani sometimes seems to exude positiveness, but he has seemed much less able to do so in recent weeks as he has engaged in a round of Mitt bashing. Romney goaded Giuliani into this, and Giuliani reacted. Some people have been turned off. While both Mitt and Rudy are using these tactics to distinguish themselves in the minds of voters, they have succeeded in allowing Huckabee to distinguish himself as the positive optimist among the GOP hoard of presidential candidates.

But don’t expect Huckabee’s surge to go unchallenged. As Byron York notes in this NRO article, Huckabee has his own Willie Horton problem, and it’s worse than Mitt’s. While the story hasn’t hit the national media circuit yet, don’t expect Huckabee’s challengers to leave it that way. This isn’t the only glop of mud they will sling at him. Even his name could be a challenge. As one acquaintance tells me, he can’t keep from giggling if he says “President Huckabee” out loud.

In the meantime, Romney has become convinced that too many GOP voters are holding his religion against him. He has decided to issue a major speech tomorrow morning on the role of faith in America. No doubt it will be a great speech. But that won’t stop it from being, as Jonah Goldberg suggests (here), a farce of JFK’s hallmark speech on religion and politics. Here again, Romney is attempting to achieve some positive product differentiation. He’s likely to achieve product differentiation, but I doubt it will work out in the way he wants.

We’re down to squeeze time now. The Iowa caucuses are 29 days away. Giga-Tuesday is less than a month after that. We will probably know by the time we go to bed on February 5 who the Democratic presidential nominee will be, but we may not know even by the next morning who the GOP nominee will be. The GOP field is quite broad. There may be, as Michael Barone suggests, a brokered agreement within a few weeks after the bulk of the primaries are complete. The candidates know that even if they don’t manage to break out into a significant lead, any votes they get can be used as bargaining chips if negotiations become necessary.

Like many other GOP voters, I find myself uncommitted to any candidate at present. I see pluses and minuses to all of them. Many conservatives want to vote for the next Ronald Reagan. But none of the GOP candidates seem to be the next Reagan. Bill Bennett is fond of making the salient point that at this time in the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan didn’t look like the next Ronald Reagan either. He grew into that as time went on.

While there are plenty of dour-minded conservatives, many reject the Pat Robertson view that America is headed irretrievably down the tubes. Many still have a very positive view of America, and they want leaders that reflect that attitude. Right now, Mike Huckabee seems to exhibit this kind of optimism. The other GOP candidates; not so much. Of course, things can change quickly in the current political climate. We’ll simply have to wait and see what develops over the next few weeks.


Mark E. Towner said...

Very well written. Could I use your post on the Spyglass?

Scott Hinrichs said...

Be my guest.