Wednesday, January 11, 2012

How the Republican Primary Is Making South Carolina a Swing State

When the Republican party changed their primary system to foster longer, more drawn out primaries, what they had in mind was probably the Hillary - Obama war that raged on throughout 2008 and gave Obama a huge advantage in the general election in that he had already done groundwork in most states. What they definitely did not have in mind, is the cannibalistic blood bath now occurring on the right which is no longer threatening to weaken the eventual nominee, but is now overtly doing damage to the party's chances. (note: for the rest of this post I'm basically assuming Romney is the eventual nominee, if that somehow doesn't happen, then the extended primary has hurt the party by nominating someone in this field other than Romney).

The first signs of trouble started last week before the Iowa Caucuses when Mitt made the strange and probably unnecessary move of coming out against the DREAM ACT the day before the Caucus, vowing to veto it if it came to his desk as president. The move came too late to probably make any difference in Iowa (with an 8 vote margin you could make a case that it made the difference, if you think Mitt narrowly getting 2nd would make a difference) but is a very damaging move for the general election, where the Republicans badly need to start winning over Hispanic voters or risk obsolescence.

The proverbial dyke started to crack with the now famous gaffe "I like to be able to fire people." This is a perfect example of the old Washington saying: "a gaffe is when you screw up and accidentally tell the truth." This wound was self-inflicted and a longer primary greatly increases the chances of this kind of gaffe happening because it'll keep Romney on the ground, campaigning in person, where he's liable to slip up, rather than campaigning via tv ads which Romney is greatly looking forward to.

The dyke burst when the other Republicans used this gaffe to open up the Bain Capital line of attack against Romney. This is where the situation turns dire from the Republican party's point of view. Team Romney has to be furious that they're having to answer these attacks from Republicans. They were expecting Democrats to say these things, and I have zero doubt that they were laying in wait, convinced that they could turn this into a winning issue by calling Democrats anti-capitalists and shouting "Socialism!" "Fascism!" at the top of their lungs for months (to Republican candidates like Santorum, socialism and fascism are apparently the same thing). Now the Democrats will take a different tack in the general election, they will use the footage of Romney's rivals articulation of this attack, instead of having to make the attack themselves. This eviscerates the Romney camp's rebuttal because now they have to address this issue on substance and can no longer call the attack radical as it is bi-partisan.

None of this is as bad for the party as the catastrophe about to happen in South Carolina. Newt's SuperPAC has apparently already bought $3.4million in air time in the palmetto state and ostensibly plans to spend nearly all of it on anti-Romney attack ads emphasizing the Bain Capital - "Vulture Capitalist" line of attack. You don't have to be a political scientist to realize that a $3.4M dump in 2 weeks time with these viscous (and largely true) attack ads will diminish a candidate's favorability. The danger is that such intense anti-Romney push has a good chance of sticking. Unlike the general election where a candidate is campaigning everywhere and can pour resources into a place where its taking a beating, the Romney campaign will have to move on from South Carolina after the primary with little opportunity to repair his brand there until the general election starts. This is particularly dangerous because Romney is already relatively unpopular in the South and according to some polls is already trailing the president in a head-to-head match-up in SC. Newt's $3.4M in-kind donation to the Obama campaign in SC will likely put that state in play and minimally will force Romney to spend money and time there on defense during the general election to repair his reputation. South Carolina is just the beginning, Romney's unfavorables are so bad in places like Texas and Arizona that further missteps risk putting even these states into play as well, remember, Obama doesn't have to win these states necessarily, but if Romney has to play defense there, then he can't be on offense somewhere else.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Romney: does worse in Iowa, better

In last night's Iowa Caucus, Mitt Romney won fewer votes than he did 4 years ago when his campaign suffered a serious setback by finishing a distant 2nd in Iowa after spending over $10mil and much of his energy in the race. His vote total dropped by 6 from 30,021 to 30,015 while the caucus turnout increased by about three thousand votes, which is a bit over 2%. Despite getting slightly fewer votes in a slightly larger electorate, this time Mitt Romney is emerging victorious with a narrow six vote win over Rick Santorum. What does this tell us about the Iowa caucus?

Last night once again proved that objective performance in Iowa is much less important than the media and the electorate's subjective interpretation of a candidate's performance. Romney's Iowa campaign strategy this time around was the opposite of their strategy last time: they avoided excessive campaigning in Iowa so that the expectation was that another candidate who did put in a huge amount of time would win (like Santorum) and Rommey's team would have neutralized the damage Iowa did to them last time. This is exactly what  almost happened, the actual result was even better for Romney because now he can say he won without trying, its kinda like two wins.

On the loosing end of the numbers vs expectations game is Ron Paul. Looking purely at objective measures (the vote count) Ron Paul seems to have done very well. In an electorate that was 68% over 45, Paul managed to more than double his vote total from 2008 even though he typically does better with younger voters. Earning 15K votes more than last time, Paul moved from a 5th place finish to a 3rd. Subjectively though, Paul may have lost his only chance for the national media and the party to take him seriously.

Ironically, the Iowa Caucus, thought by some to be the zenith of democracy, results in being somewhat anti-democratic. Blame it on the media, the primary system, or possibly party elites, but in the end it doesn't seem to matter much what the voters actually said but how it compares to what we thought they'd say. Maybe it shows how broken/unresponsive the party is to the people who actually vote, that the voters can say basically the same thing about Romney two cycles in a row and yet it results in two opposite outcomes.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Nobody cares what I think about Iowa

Ok, so maybe not nobody, but very few people. That's sort of the problem, not many people seem to care about what I have to say. I don't think this is because I'm lacking a valuable voice, but mostly because I'm not reaching the right people. Hence this blog. 

I know nobody is reading this because its my very first post and so far only my mom and my roommate know I decided to start a blog. But on the off chance that someday somebody is looking back, perhaps next Iowa Caucus night, I suppose its prudent to say something as this will be a blog about politics emphasizing my perspective as an outsider who nevertheless possesses a political science education and an intuitive understanding of power relations.

I created this blog last night on the eve of the Iowa Caucuses because the race for the Republican nominee is incredibly entertaining and informative about the state of our country in ways that will be addressed more in depth with individual posts in the future (I can totally get away with punting cause they'll be there by the time anyone reads this).

Mostly what Iowa is showing us tonight is how divided the various factions of the Republican party are. As far as I can tell there are three factions of the party battling it out tonight. The establishment Republican camp hoping for Romney to grind out a bloody win, the fed-up/enthusiastic/"Libertarian" wing of the party hoping for a Ron Paul upset, and the religious wing (base) of the party holding its own mini-primary with Santorum, Gingrich, Bachmann and Perry vying to be the standard bearer.

Whats so interesting about this division is that Paul's enthusiastic camp seems to me to be unpalitable to both Romney's establishment and the bases' religious-right conservatives. Similarly, Romney is unpalatable to the other two groups, but the mutual aversion seems to break down in favor the religious-right: While most of Paul's camp would probably rather stay home, a significant percentage would come around to supporting a base pumping religious right candidate, and eventually the establishment could be persuaded to support one as well as they have in the past. So the path to the Republican candidate who could most unite the party is probably to pick one of the religious-right's candidates. Ironically, this is the wing of the party that the nation would be least happy with if its candidate won the nomination.

So the Republicans are trapped between a rock and a hard place, they can nominate the most uniting candidate that most of them would be most happy with, however this will alienate the rest of the country during the general election because Bush scarred the brand of this kind of candidate and the country has tired with the culture war, eschewing it for more tangible economic issues.

Very few Republican observers would dispute this I think, though they may downplay the magnitude of the schism. However, no observer in the mainstream that I know of has taken this piece of political conventional wisdom to its logical conclusion: If a nationally viable candidate cannot win the Republican nomination, and the only candidate that can win the Republican nomination cannot be nationally viable without inviting a 3rd party challenge from his right, then what we are witnessing is the death throws of the Republican party as we know it. 

The coalition as it stands now does not seem nationally viable any longer, some evidence of this is that money coming into the Republican party and candidates is very low, donors are holding back and electing to use their political contributions for independent expenditures. They probably don't run the risk of being replaced with a new party because gerrymandering and incumbency advantage will keep enough of them in congress for the party to survive and reconstitute itself into a new coalition. The party probably won't do this until they absolutely have to, so they'll clutch to the old coalition for a couple cycles before acknowledging its no longer viable and deciding to adjust their platform. When this finally does happen it will be to the benefit of our democracy because the Republican party today is so offensive to so many people, that for many who belong to a group that is the target of conservative ire, they have functionally no choice but to vote Democrat.

We functionally have a one party democracy: one centrist party - the Democrats, trying to please 55% -60% of the people all the time and thus annoying everyone in the process - and one right wing party in the Republicans who do a solid job pleasing only about 25%-30% of the people. 

So ya, vote Democrat, not because they necessarily have the better policies or candidates, but because rewarding a party behaving and functioning like the GOP currently does is actually bad for our democracy. Please don't misunderstand me as being a homer for the Democrats here, I'll get to their problems another day, but we won't even have a binary choice if we don't force the current Republican party to update its platform. This will have a domino effect and force the Democrats to balls up their platform as well. I dream of one day considering voting for a Republican, all I'm saying is that as a young person with a degree and gay friends, I can't do that now - I dream of a two party system, that's how bad its gotten.