Monday, May 16, 2011

Presidential Primary 2012: The Contest Is Wide Open

Originally published in Red Racing Horses.

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What do Fox News, PublicPolicyPolling, and Rasmussen have in common? All three show no candidate above 20% in the national GOP presidential primary.

It is an open secret that Republicans are less than enthusiastic about their options in the 2012 primary. What happened to make the field so fluid? Here are a variety of potential causes.

Late Start

Candidates jumped into the presidential race way too early in 2008. This year, the opposite has happened .While candidates in waiting are busy building operations and working through PACs in the background (Jon Huntsman may be the prime example of this), we are only just now starting to see candidates actually take a leap of faith on formalizing runs for President of the United States.

Many candidates, to be fair, had good reasons for waiting. Jon Huntsman was busy being Ambassador to China; Mitch Daniels had waited to finish the Indiana legislative session; and Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, and Mike Huckabee have television contracts to honor. Still, one cannot help but think that, if they really felt it necessary to win, candidates would have found ways to enter the race earlier.

While fundraising and building a network behind the scenes helps erect the infrastructure necessary to run an effective campaign, it also detracts from traditional stumping with voters. This is a calculated gamble- most people are not plugged in right now, so candidates reason that it is better to compete for their votes nearer to caucus/primary with a well-greased operation rather than focus on it now with diminished returns and potential gaffes. However, such goals are not mutually exclusive, and garnering attention by committing oneself to the field may be a good idea for some candidates.

Low Name Recognition
 
Ever notice how Mitch Daniels and Jon Huntsman practically never crack 5% in a poll? One reason the field has not defined itself yet is that many candidates remain unknown to potential voters. We have only had one debate, no advertising, and little gladhanding thus far. There is still plenty of time for them to build an identity with the electorate. However, this explanation still leaves a big gaping hole- why aren't the well-known contenders leading?

An Incumbent

Let's face it- politicians tend to swarm open seats like Ron Paul supporters to an online poll; if you need an illustrative example see just how many candidates ran in the West Virginia gubernatorial primary Saturday. President Obama looks poised to run a $1 billion campaign and has pretty damn solid support with Hispanic and African American voters. While he has plenty of weaknesses (the economy anybody?), his strengths are enough to give somebody seriously looking at a run reason to pause.

The Missing Standard-bearer

In 2008 Republicans had Rudy Giuliani and Democrats had Hillary Clinton as their frontrunners.  Although neither ultimately won the debate, they were clear focal points in the 2008 campaign's narrative. This cycle has had that, but the phenomenon is less concrete. Such standardbearers have come only in two forms: latent or momentary. Th former include Huckabee and Romney. Mike Huckabee, who never seemed to have his heart in a run, finally officially declined a bid. Romney, meanwhile, has remained in the background.

Mitt Romney

Part of the problem may be the prohibitive Republican frontrunner, Mitt Romney. Romney is in the strongest and most consistent position in most polls with the exit of Mike Huckabee. He holds particularly strong leads in New Hampshire and Nevada while remaining competitive in most of the other early primary states.

Nevertheless, such a lead may be illusory. Romney will continue to face a barrage of attacks over Romneycare and questions about his Mormonism. He has a strong position, but if the narrative shifts to critiquing Romney he has plenty of openings to exploit. Rather than face those questions, the former Massachusetts Governor is dwelling in the background, avoiding South Carolina and Iowa. (fun factoid: Romney actually lost media coverage relative to previous months when he announced is exploratory committee).

Flavor of the Month

The second type of frontrunner has been momentary. This is where voters secondarily and  the media primarily are briefly distracted by some conservative wunderkind. We saw the seemingly endless media obsession with Sarah Palin as an example- even if Republicans were not always enamored with the former Alaska Governor as a candidate, she still dominated the debate. 
For example, check out this article on media coverage of the candidates.  Notice that among potential presidential candidates the news cycle is dominated by Sarah Palin in November, December, and Junuary. By March she drops down to more moderate levels of coverage as Trump surges in attention. Sometimes polls reflect these changes- the Rasmussen poll from late April pegged Trump at 19% nationally, while Fox and PPP have him with less support as he receives less attention post-bin Laden. Still, it is easy to remember the moment where it appeared Trump was poised to become the frontrunner.  

Expect more of these candidates of the moment to appear. Indeed, Byron York has a great article on the search for a fantasy candidate on the part of Republican voters. No matter that such candidates will likely not meet inflated expectations- the Republican electorate is disgruntled and looking for an alternative that sticks, even if it does not necessarily exist. This search leaves voters willing to keep their options open for 2012, hoping that something stronger emerges than the current batch of presidential candidates.

Fighting Factions

After 2006 and 2008, Republicans seriously needed to rebrand. The Tea Party enabled Republicans to repackage themselves and arguably enabled their massive wave in 2010.
This success has not simply settled the ideological landscape of the party. The anti-establishment feeling of the Tea Party remains potent, but success may have blunted the worst anger of a satiated electorate. Following behind the Tea Party is the growing libertarian contingent in the party which, with a powerful donor base and solid cadre of activists, will likely grow into a meaningful Republican constituency. Contrasting this group are the social conservatives who make up the base of the Republican Party. Foreign policy hawks lost ground with the victory of Obama in 2008, but the Arab Spring and death of bin Laden promise to thrust their issues, with a traditional sympathy from base Republicans, back into the limelight.

None of these cleavages are absolute; their value is more useful for conceptualization of the current state of the party rather than the creation of hardened battle lines. Candidates are forced to tread carefully in order to not step on too many toes within a polarized party. While remaining ambiguous enough to not piss anybody off, potential nominees also remain too undefined to excite voters.

Rivalries 

More direct are tensions between pairs of candidates. Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are both well-connected Mormons with executive experience who are set on a collision course in their respective paths to the nomination. Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann both hail from Minnesota, and the tension between the two campaigns is palpable. Gary Johnson and Ron Paul share a common libertarian base, causing discord in the online community which fuels their campaigns. Jon Huntsman and Mitch Daniels will likely compete for moderate support; Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum,  Herman Cain, Sarah Palin and perhaps TPaw will  feud for the Southerners. Such tensions, natural in a presidential race, contribute to an emphasis of jockeying for position in the background (hiring staff, fundraising, etc) over more overt forms of campaigning.

Excitement

Here is what it comes down to: people just aren't in love with the candidates. As Nate Silver puts it,
What makes the 2012 Republican race unusual is not that there isn’t much of a frontrunner at this point — that’s happened before — but rather that both the high-recognition and low-recognition names are underwhelming.
Every candidate has pretty glaring weaknesses. Romney's were already described above, Gingrich has his own personal issues, Palin has an electability problem, Paul has his ideology, TPaw has his lack of charisma, Bachmann has her bombastic rhetoric, Daniels has his truce on social issues, Herman Cain is unknown, and the list goes on and on. The current crop of candidates have a lot of work to do to surmount their own flaws.

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