Sunday, December 30, 2007

Do you see the GOP nominee?

Note: This post got long-winded. However, my campaign pledge to you is that I intend for this to be my last political analysis post on IJAB, or anywhere else, for quite a long while!

When I was 8 years old, I predicted to my mom that Howard Metzenbaum would defeat George Voinovich in Ohio’s U.S. Senate race that year. After my mom’s initial surprise that her little boy would offer an unsolicited opinion on such a topic had subsided, she asked me, “Why?” My answer was simple: I had seen a TV ad for both candidates and thought most people would like Metzenbaum’s better.

A few weeks later Metzenbaum went on to win in a landslide.

Now, I’m not sharing the aforementioned story to brag. After all, I was only 8 and based my prediction on a ridiculously small amount of information. Rather, I shared this story it to illustrate to you that I’ve been offering unsolicited, ill-informed opinions about politics for nearly 20 years.

Back in March I took a look at the Democratic presidential candidates’ chances at winning their party’s nomination, and at the time I said that I “might” offer up a similar post about the Republicans a few months later. The reason I was so noncommittal back then was because there were a few key variables that I wanted defined. First, I needed to know who would actually be in the race (as it turns out, Fred Thompson did hop in and Newt Gingrich didn’t). Second, I wanted to see which candidate would start to rally the Religious Right (looks like that’s Mike Huckabee). So I guess if I’m ever going to analyze the GOP field before the voting starts, it’s now or never…

Despite the national polls showing five Republicans still running strong in a fluid field, in my estimation the GOP race has essentially been narrowed down to three candidates with a legitimate shot to win their party’s nomination: Mike Huckabee, Mitt Romney, and Rudy Giuliani. But before I go much further, I should probably explain why John McCain and Fred Thompson are long shots.

In Fred Thompson’s case, he is a textbook example as to why all of the serious presidential candidates start running two years before the first votes are cast in Iowa. Most modern presidential candidates adhere to a formula similar to the following when launching their campaigns:

1) About two years before Iowa
  • Determine if you want to be president and if so, what experience and issues will you tout to rally people to your cause?
  • Do the necessary polling to see if your perception lines up with reality (i.e., if polling shows that only 17% of the people in your own state are impressed with your experience, then you probably should reconsider a presidential bid).
  • Go to the people who would campaign for you and only you, and see how much support they’re really going to offer. For instance, start with your spouse and gauge whether or not they’re on board 100%. If your spouse isn’t willing to sacrifice as much as you are to win, then it probably won’t work. Obviously, you then build out from here—talking to your kids and other close relatives and friends. Then go to your close professional/political relationships and see exactly who’s on board and how they can truly help. This is really the most important part, which is to find the core of your campaign, the inner circle of people who will stick with you no matter what; and this should be done about two years before Iowa.
  • Now that your inner circle of supporters is lined up, you start reaching out to other likely supporters, looking for money, advisors, potential endorsements, etc. At this early point, there are a lot of talented people in your party who would love the chance to be a part of a campaign but aren’t sure if they’ll get a chance. If you’re the first to ask them, then you’ve got a leg up. I am no expert on the nitty-gritty details of a presidential campaign, but it’s pretty obvious that most of the critical groundwork is set one to two years before the first votes are cast in the Iowa caucuses.

2) About one year before Iowa

  • a) You’ve focus-grouped every issue from every angle, organized your campaign as best you can, and lined up enough support to be taken seriously. Now it’s time to officially announce your candidacy.
  • Fund-raising goes into full swing. All of your preparation leading up to this point should begin to result in strong fundraising numbers within three to six months. If it doesn’t, then let’s face it, you’re not a frontrunner and need to re-evaluate either your message or your candidacy.
3) The three months leading up to Iowa (and the rest of the early voting states)…
  • Now it’s open political war. Not only are people paying attention to the debates in increasing numbers, but things really are heating up from a “skirmish” to a “war” mentality. At this point you must unleash both a strong ground attack and aerial assault. By “ground attack” I’m referring to precinct captains and others who are organizing and going door-to-door as well as making phone calls, etc. By “aerial assault” I’m referring to TV and radio ads. Two candidates might be neck and neck in the polls, but the one who has raised more money is likely to have the advantage at getting their message out effectively and organizing voters during those crucial last two days.
  • In the final push, having big-name endorsers actually go out on the campaign trail can make a difference, so long as it’s somebody who is truly respected by the voters you’re trying to court. If you’ll recall, back in January 2004 Senator Ted Kennedy, who is respected nationally by most Democrats, campaigned long and hard for John Kerry in the few days leading up to the Iowa caucuses. Furthermore, Kerry’s wife also campaigned vigorously in the few days leading up to the Iowa caucuses, visiting with voters in their homes and talking to them personally. In fact, Kerry, his wife, and Kennedy often campaigned separately in Iowa those last few days in order to cover more ground. Long story short, having a high-profile, respected person shake hands on your behalf with voters a day or so before voting takes place in a small (population) state can make a big difference. (Food for thought: You know Bill Clinton will be in Iowa on January 2. Will Oprah?)

By not following the conventional model outlined above, Thompson has put himself in a game of perpetual catch-up. Aside from being way behind in money and trying to ward off accusations of not having the required “fire in the belly,” one can only wonder how many thousands of Republicans working for Giuliani, Huckabee, McCain, Romney and others would have gladly worked for Thompson’s campaign had he only asked them first?

Okay, so how about McCain? There’s a poll out today showing him leading the GOP field nationally and running a strong campaign in New Hampshire which could see him repeat his 2000 victory. In fact, there’s a real chance he could come out of New Hampshire with the win and leading in the national polls. Shouldn’t he be considered among the top contenders to win the GOP nomination?

As much as McCain is respected both within the Republican Party and among Independents and Democrats, he is going to have great difficulty translating that widespread appeal into actually winning the GOP nomination. If one were to analyze the core values of the Republican Party (as difficult a task as that would be), McCain is just a little bit too much out of step on a few key issues to win the GOP nomination. In New Hampshire, Independents can vote in the Republican primary, so if McCain does win New Hampshire it will be on the strength of his appeal to Independents. However, after New Hampshire I don’t see his campaign gaining enough momentum to win the nomination.

All right, enough of the backgrounder stuff. Let’s examine the top contenders. In looking at what Huckabee, Romney, and Giuliani must each do to win, this GOP race is turning into a complicated game of Rock, Paper, Scissors. Each candidate has strengths and weaknesses in attracting certain types of voters, so this race could be all about the match-ups and, as the elder George Bush coined the phrase during an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1980, “The Big Mo.”

First up, let’s look at the former governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee. He spent more than a decade as the governor, so he can tout a resume which shows executive experience. He also has a long record of being pro-life and has done the best job of connecting with the GOP’s Religious Right on a deeply theological level.

Overall, Huckabee has run a great campaign. That I’m even writing about him here is evidence of that fact, especially considering where he started out this year in the polls. However, with his surge in the polls comes increased scrutiny from both his competitors and the media. The biggest hurdle he’ll face with GOP voters is what many could perceive as being “too liberal” while governor of Arkansas.

Huckabee has a great chance to win Iowa, and if he does that, then he has a decent shot at the nomination. However, his campaign made an unforced error recently which could be their undoing. In the January-February issue of the journal Foreign Affairs, an opinion piece penned by Huckabee’s campaign under his name stated, "The Bush administration's arrogant bunker mentality has been counterproductive at home and abroad.” Such a statement actually could work to Huckabee’s advantage in a general election if Bush’s approval ratings stay low, but such a statement will do more harm than good as he tries to court GOP voters in Iowa. Despite the fact that Huckabee has tried to back away from use of the phrase “arrogant bunker mentality,” Bob Dole, who won the Iowa caucuses in 1988 and 1996, has written an open letter denouncing Huckabee’s criticism of the White House’s foreign policy. If Huckabee fails to win Iowa, pundits will point to that Foreign Affairs opinion piece as one of the key factors.

Next up is the former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney. Of all the GOP candidates, he has come the closest to running a “textbook” campaign. His father had been a fairly popular governor of Michigan back in the day, and he had also run for the presidency. So not only has Romney launched this presidential campaign in an efficient manner, he’s seen firsthand how it’s done before (and has presumably learned from some of his father’s mistakes).

Romney has raised a lot of money (and has much of his own to add), and he’s appealing to a wider spectrum of GOP voters than any of the other candidates, evidenced by the fact that he is the only one polling in the top two for each of the first five states to vote: Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, Nevada, and South Carolina. Although, Romney has not made the deepest inroads, which is why some national polls currently have him running fourth.

We can’t discuss Romney’s campaign without considering how his Mormon faith will impact Republican voters. As far as I can tell, most GOP voters will take Romney at his word when he says that he believes in the separation of church and state; although one negative for Romney’s campaign will be its inability to connect with the Religious Right on a deeply theological level.

Perhaps a bigger area where Romney will be attacked by his opponents is when he was running for office in Massachusetts both in the 90’s and 2002, he ran on fairly liberal platforms, including the fact that he was openly pro-choice. So while Romney has definitely tried to change his stance on many issues as he runs for the GOP nomination, his opponents are eagerly pointing out what his previously stated positions were. Although, one thing that Romney has in his favor on the issue of abortion is that he tells a rather compelling story, saying that as soon as he became governor and actually had to start making decisions of life and death, he changed his mind to always protect the unborn. (I’m not here to comment on whether or not his story is true, but rather that it is, on the surface, a compelling story. It’s reminiscent of George W. Bush saying that after a hangover from his 40th birthday party he finally decided to give up drinking and experienced a spiritual awakening. History shows that voters respond well to those types of stories, which also serve to inoculate the candidate from criticism of their actions during those prior periods. After all, if your opponent starts to criticize what you did in that past era, you can just say, “Yeah, that’s true, and here’s why I changed…” If it’s a compelling story, you come out ahead in that exchange.)

And then there’s former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has executive experience, a record of cleaning up crime and a high-profile name from his steady leadership in the aftermath of 9/11. Last year both Giuliani and McCain were considered the frontrunners, but naturally, the field has been changing.

Giuliani is a tough politician, which is a great asset both for dealing with public criticism as well as for formulating strategies to attack your opponents. Despite the fact that he’s not in step with much of the GOP on social issues, he’s been leading in the national polls for a long time and has been able to raise a lot of money. He will be a formidable candidate at least up until the eve of Super Tuesday (Feb. 5). In fact, if every state had to vote today, then Giuliani would win the nomination because he leads in many of the most populous states such as California, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, etc.

But one curious thing about the Giuliani campaign is that not only has it been relatively absent in Iowa, one could make the argument that it hasn’t gone full force in New Hampshire either. When Giuliani is confronted with such criticisms about how his campaign is deploying its resources, his response is that he’s “running a national campaign.” If I’m not mistaken, his strategy is to let his opponents out-campaign him in Iowa and New Hampshire, states he feels he wouldn’t have won anyway, and he’ll out-campaign them in the Super Tuesday states where his high-profile name, ground organization, and massive TV and radio ad campaign will overwhelm and crush his opponents in one fell swoop.

And so the stage is set for Republicans to battle over the next five weeks, perhaps longer, for the soul of their party. Of the six contests before Super Tuesday, Romney could win all six. Huckabee could win five of six (it’s not looking good for him in New Hampshire), and Giuliani could win three of six (Michigan, Nevada, and Florida).

I have no idea who will win Iowa. It could go either way between Romney and Huckabee. Both need that state badly, but I’d say Huckabee needs it more because Romney’s still in the running for New Hampshire regardless. Funny enough, if Romney wins Iowa, the attacks on his campaign will reach a fevered pitch which could help McCain take New Hampshire.

While both Iowa and New Hampshire matter in terms of press coverage and momentum, the pivotal state for many campaigns will be Michigan. If either Huckabee or Romney wins Michigan, then that candidate will likely give Giuliani the biggest challenge on Super Tuesday. If McCain somehow wins Michigan, then that would likely just jumble the field more, giving Giuliani a bigger advantage on Super Tuesday. If Giuliani somehow wins Michigan, then he’ll be very close to wrapping up the nomination. With the exception of Giuliani, any candidate who loses the first three contests is facing dire odds at that point.

So who do I think will win the nomination? My brain tells me to stay out of it, but my gut does have a feeling as to who has the best chance to win the GOP nomination.

Back in 1980 when a little-known candidate named George Bush scored a surprise victory in the GOP’s Iowa caucuses, he told the national media that his campaign now had “The Big Mo” as in “momentum.” But do you know what happened? Ronald Reagan quickly stomped out that momentum by winning in New Hampshire.

So what about momentum? Is it real? Does it matter? Well, I don’t think that a state’s voters base their decision on how another state voted per se. But they do base it in part on how the media portrays the different campaigns. If you win a state, then the press is asking you, “Why did you win?” and they're asking your opponents, “Why did you lose?” In that sense, some (not all) of the press coverage turns to your favor. By winning a state, the perception is not just that your campaign did something well, but also that you the candidate did something right. On the flip side, if you start to lose too many states in a row in the early going, then a perception starts to build that you the candidate are doing something wrong.

Giuliani won’t win Iowa, and he very likely won’t win New Hampshire. The polling data isn’t looking good for him in Michigan either. If Giuliani loses the first three contests, which at this point is very probable, much of the media coverage he gets will be along the lines of, “How many states will he lose?” and “Is his campaign strategy incompetent?” The fourth contest is in Nevada where he’s currently in a dogfight for the lead, but if he loses that one too, I highly doubt his campaign will stop the bleeding in the fifth contest, which is South Carolina.

As former Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean could tell you, getting that first primary (or caucus) victory is the toughest. If you don’t get one early on, then you’re not sure if you ever will. That’s why I think Romney has the best chance at the Republican nomination. Even if Huckabee wins Iowa and McCain wins New Hampshire, Romney would still have a decent chance to pull out a close win in Michigan. Of all the candidates, Romney is the least likely to be shut out of the first three contests, and therefore, the most likely to have momentum break his way at the most important time, which will be for Florida on January 29 followed by Super Tuesday on February 5.


Chairman said...

Giuliani may be a big test of your "hair" theory...

In any case, I think that your initial, 8-year old reaction is the best predictor. People don't vote on the factors they say that they vote. If that were actually the case, Alan Keyes would be getting the GOP nomination every year. His profile fits: Harvard educated. Hates homosexuality. Pro-life. Pro war. Pro Jesus. Worked under Reagan. Unfortunately, he's black, so when people actually vote behind closed curtains, he gets like 3% of the vote.

Lesson here? Don't be a hypocrite. Vote Keyes '08.

Robby said...

Seriously though, Ron Paul is by far the best option and will very likely finish better than 6th. Not even a mention?

Greg said...

Chairman, yeah, this "hair theory" could get scary if somebody doesn't disprove it within the next decade or two.

Robby, okay, since Ron Paul raised $20 mil last quarter I suppose he deserves a mention...

When asked early last year if he were going to run for president, Ron Paul said yes and elaborated, "A lot of people want to hear my message and I'm willing to deliver it."

While I'm sure Paul's official campaign line is that he's in it to win it, at the end of the day the purpose and passion behind his candidacy isn't so much to win the presidency as it is to spark a national political movement.

In my view, the true measure of Paul's campaign's success will be if he's able to get increasing numbers of young voters to agree with his philosophy about reducing the role of federal government in their lives; from there, over the next decade it would be up to that next generation of leaders to slowly but surely change the political debates in this country by winning local elections and building up from there.

And you know what? Paul might actually be starting a movement. He raised more money than any other GOP candidate last quarter, and in a campus-wide poll taken at Yale Ron Paul got over 3% of the vote, which was almost as much as John Edwards and more than any other Republican candidate. From what I can tell, Paul's message is reaching the youth and some are responding. It could grow into a viable movement or it could subside like The Reform Party. (Note: I just went on the Reform Party's website and in Illinois they are "Currently Reorganizing.")

It's possible that Paul could score a surprise 3rd place finish in Iowa, but in today's world his political views are too far out of line with the Republican Party to win their nomination.

So what do you think, Robby? I'm curious to hear straight from one of Paul's supporters regarding what you think his chances are of winning the GOP nomination this year. Also, have you previously given much thought as to whether a broader movement could be started even if he doesn't win this time?

Robby said...

I think his chances are about 5-10%. I think Romney and Guiliani have around a 25% chance, McCain and Huckabee around a 20% chance. Thompson < 5%. That said, I do think Paul will beat his polling numbers in virtually every state and a 3rd in Iowa is quite possible.

The only reason Paul has any chance is because of how split the vote could be. I'm not positive but I think he could theoretically get the nomination without having actually won any states.

I don't think any of them have much of a chance in the general election. The GOP is losing all of its support for a variety of reasons. I hope the GOP is able to move towards Paul's positions to regain their popularity and not closer and closer to the democrats.

I do not think a 3rd party having a chance in a presidential election is something that will happen anytime soon. Both parties are too stubborn to allow that to happen and will just be forced to become more responsible or the US will go broke. I have already seen evidence of pretty much every candidate in the GOP adjusting their positions to get closer in line with what Ron Paul is saying so change can happen pretty quickly.

clauff said...

Personally, I think the caucus process is stupid. It totally benefits the candidate who has raised the most money, so that if less than promising results come back in the early states, he can still persevere knowing that cash is not a big issue.

Because I'm not a thought leader in this field, though, I have no other good options to replace it. I just like to moan about something and leave it to someone else to deal with the aftermath :)

Go Huckabee :)

Greg said...

Well, I was wrong.

For starters, Obama raised at least $20 million more than I would have ever dreamt he could have raised in 2007. I knew he could give a good speech, but now I know he can run an efficient presidential campaign. I'm not making any more predictions about who will win or not, but regardless of the outcome, Obama's fundraising last year far exceeded what I expected. Hats off to him.

And then there's McCain... whoops, didn't see that one coming. Quite simply, I thought that if he was in position to win South Carolina, then conservatives would have rallied against him in overwhelming numbers. However, once he took SC, my views on his campaign's strength completely changed (and truth be told, I hadn't realized that SC's primary wasn't closed to Independents). After he followed it up with a hard-fought victory in Florida, he had the proverbial sunshine in his face and wind at his back.

All that being said, this political theater hasn't disappointed. It has been quite a show!