Sunday, January 22, 2012

The GOP Presidential Primary: The Newt-Pocalypse

This week's events in the Republican presidential primary made it official. The Republican presidential primary has replaced "American Idol" and "Survivor" as America's favorite reality TV show. Until Monday the punditocracy was complaining that the race lacked excitement and that Mitt Romney's nomination had become a foregone conclusion. Then we saw four days of campaign higgledy-piggledy that will go down in the annals of American politics. After two debates, two dropouts and endorsements, one ex-wife, a fifteen-percent tax estimate, and an Iowa recount, Newt Gingrich stood triumphant at the top of the Palmetto State pack.

Here are yesterday's results from South Carolina, and a bit about the state of each campaign:

Candidate (Votes, Percent, Delegates)

Newt Gingrich (243,153, 40.4%, 23 delegates) - Gingrich won convincingly in the statewide contest, and swept every Congressional district to secure every delegate that was up for grabs. Whatever else happens, Gingrich's one-week comeback from a double-digit deficit in the polls to a double-digit victory in the actual election will forever be the stuff of campaign legend -- especially given the ex-wife scandal that only seemed to fuel his momentum. (It may also give an entire generation of politicians who are doomed to a thumping on Election Day false hope, but that'll be their problem, not Newt's.)

So, what happened? This result seems to have validated two theories about this year's election. The Anybody-But-Romney theory is alive and well.  There's a corollary to that theory. The Republican base has been energized by their opposition to Obama and emboldened by the success of Tea Party candidates in 2010. They are in no mood for a polite debate of issues and policies this Fall. They want a fight, and Gingrich's combative stance in this week's debates played perfectly to that zeitgeist.

So what happens next? If Gingrich can maintain his edge over Santorum in Florida, there's a very good chance that in another two weeks he will be standing alone as the only Anybody-But-Romney still in the race. But Gingrich also has some structural problems in his campaign that will work against him. He failed to qualify for the ballots in some states -- Virginia and Missouri are the larger ones I've heard about so far -- which will likely to hand some large delegate counts over to Romney by default.  That speaks to the lack of solid organization for Gingrich in many states, a problem that will worsen as the state-by-state, week-by-week nature of the primary process comes to the fore.

And though Gingrich was able to stand brilliantly atop his baggage in South Carolina, that pile of baggage can get awfully heavy as the primary campaign continues on. Voters in Florida (Jan. 31), Maine and Nevada (Feb. 4), and Colorado and Minnesota (Feb. 7) are about to get a SuperPAC-sized dose of reminders about Gingrich's past.  The upside for the GOP in Gingrich is that his past is so well known and so well publicized that it seems unlikely that the electorate will be shocked by anything new.

Mitt Romney (167,279, 27.8%, 0 delegates) — Romney fell from a double-digit lead a week ago to a failure to secure even a single delegate. We've all heard the well worn saying that you learn more from failure than success. But the most important thing about learning from failure is that if you pay attention you will learn the lessons you didn't want to learn or didn't think you needed to learn. If you don't pay attention, you will learn the wrong lesson and will soon enough get another opportunity to learn the lesson you should have learned.

Until this week I didn't think that anything Romney would do in this campaign would be interesting. Now I think that Romney's campaign has suddenly become the most interesting campaign because there's a truly pivotal opportunity for him to learn either the right lesson or the wrong lesson from Saturday's results.

Romney's decision not to release tax returns emerged as a major issue this week, especially after he said that he paid about a 15% rate and dismissed the money he earned from speaking fees as "not very much" when it turned out to be nearly $375,000, an amount that very few Americans would characterize as "not very much."

The reason I think this is especially interesting is that I think Mitt Romney is about to learn the wrong lesson from this week's collapse.  This is what Romney had to say this morning in a Fox News interview in which he said that this week he will release his 2010 tax returns and an early estimate of his 2011 returns:

"I know people will try and find something, but we pay full, fair taxes," Mr. Romney said. He said voters would see that he pays a "substantial amount" in taxes and had tithed to his church.

This sounds to me as if Mitt Romney learned the wrong lesson from this week's tax-return kerfluffle. The reason that gaffes and quotes out of context stick to a candidate is not because of the gaffe itself. All of these candidates have to talk non-stop for twelve months, so they're inevitably going to say something that sounds dumb. These things only stick to a candidate when voters think it encapsulates a basic flaw in the candidate.

In Mitt Romney's case, I don't think anybody believes he cheated on his taxes or broke the federal tax code, no matter how many Cayman Island banks may have been involved. The reason the tax-return issue sticks to Romney is because the perception has grown that he is so wealthy and so insulated that he doesn't understand the issues of everyday Americans. That perception is the reason it sticks with voters when Romney refers to himself as "unemployed", says "I like to fire people," or offers up a $10,000 bet during a debate. This is also why Romney's attempts to come across as a genuine man-of-the-people instead come across as inauthentic, a problem that increases the perception that Mitt Romney doesn't believe what he says on issues such as health-care reform or abortion.

In this case, a lot of Republican voters who are paying a considerably higher tax rate than 15% have begun to think that Mitt Romney doesn't really understand their anger at the tax code, since the tax code seems favor him.

So if I had one piece of good campaign advice to offer up to Mitt Romney this week it would be this: stop pretending that you aren't enormously wealthy. Americans like and admire wealthy people, even when they go so far as to be obnoxious about their wealth. Just ask Donald Trump!

Instead, Romney has developed a habit of insisting that people want him to apologize for his wealth.  The truth is that nobody wants Mitt Romney to apologize for being wealthy. Mitt Romney's wealth isn't his problem. His inauthenticity is his problem. He would do better if he started showing up to every single campaign event in a chauffered Rolls-Royce, wearing a three-piece suit, lighting cigars with hundred dollar bills, and reminding people that he's a very smart man who made a vast fortune for himself and his investors. He could at least then make a plausible case that if he created that sort of corporate wealth when he was in charge of Bain Capital, he could do the same for the entire nation if he was President of the United States.

The politics of belief are enormously important in campaigns. People will vote for a candidate if they think he believes what he says even if they don't agree with him on many or most of the policy issues. As voters it is enormously important to us that we elect officials who are being honest with us. And all the consultants and all the campaign ads in the world can't create that in a candidate.

If Mitt Romney does not understand this, he should know that Newt Gingrich understands this very much and also understands how to capitalize on it.

Despite all of that, I still think Mitt Romney is very likely to ultimately win the nomination. One of the best reasons was stated clearly this morning by George Will today on ABC's "This Week" show:

"Here's a small sliver of a silver lining for Mitt Romney. All across the country this morning people are waking up who are running for office as Republicans -- from dog-catcher to Senate -- and they are saying, 'Good God, Newt Gingrich might be at the top of this ticket.' And that can't make them happy."

Romney still has all the advantages of establishment support, a well constructed campaign apparatus that reaches across all 50 states, and personal wealth that he can call on if the chips are down.  He may very well emerge as a much stronger nominee if he learns the right lessons from his failure in South Carolina.

Rick Santorum (102,055, 17.0%, 0 delegates) — My money would have been on Santorum to emerge as the Anybody-But-Romney candidate, mostly based on all of the negatives that Gingrich brings with him. Finishing a distant third in South Carolina didn't help him, but his narrow post-recount victory in Iowa gives him a good case to continue on through Florida, Maine, Nevada, Colorado, and Minnesota.  If he hasn't won another state after those contests, there will be considerable pressure on him to depart the race.

Gingrich has already shown the ability to fall in the polls as quickly as he has risen, so hanging in and waiting to see what happens seems to me to be a very reasonable strategy for Santorum.

Ron Paul (77,993, 13.0%, 0 delegates) — His 13% in South Carolina seems likely to be a reflection of his future primary tallies, though that could change considerably in states like Virginia and Missouri in which he and Romney may be the only remaining candidates on the ballot. He seems much more likely to do well in caucus states where his enthusiastic Libertarian base may form a greater percentage of the vote, and that is likely to be where we see him concentrate his efforts.

Herman Cain (6,324, 1.1%, 0 delegates) — About 6,000 votes of this total is the proxy vote for Steven Colbert's pseudo-campaign, which has taken aim at the current campaign finance rules. I'm surprised the total was this low, even given the confusing "Vote Cain for Colbert" methodology. The low Cain/Colbert vote total seems to be an indication that the voters in South Carolina took the actual race at the top very seriously. It's also likely an indicator that Independents and Democrats who did show up to vote in the GOP contest thought their vote was better directed among the genuine candidates.

Rick Perry (2,494, 0.4%, 0 delegates) — Perry headed back to Texas and endorsed Gingrich. This endorsement may have done Gingrich more good than just handing over the five percent or so of voters who still favored Perry.  Perry's endorsement added significantly to the appearance that Gingrich has emerged as the genuine Anybody-But-Romney candidate. Frankly, I would've expected Perry's nomination to go to Santorum, since their platforms have been so similar.  I can't help but wonder what would've happened this week had Perry endorsed Santorum instead.

Jon Huntsman (1,161, 0.2%, 0 delegates) — Huntsman pulled out of the race and endorsed Romney earlier this week. That was about the only piece of good news for Mitt Romney this week.  Just imagine: without Huntsman's endorsement Romney could've finished even farther behind Gingrich!

Michele Bachmann (494, 0.1%, 0 delegates) — She must be sitting at home in the midst of a Minnesota winter, dreaming of the warmth of the Florida campaign, and thinking, "Why Newt? Why not me?"

Gary Johnson (213, 0.0%, 0 delegates) — Pulled out of the Republican primary in December to run for the Libertarian nomination.  I can't help but wonder if his vote total yesterday means that 213 Libertarians in South Carolina don't know how to spell "Ron Paul."

And that's the South Carolina wrap-up. What will happen in Florida? I don't know, and neither does anybody else. That's why this is such a fascinating campaign!


  1. Excellent point about Romney's wealth, America's perception of the wealthy, and "authenticity".

  2. Interestingly, it's tempting to say that there's also a point to be made about a quarter-billionaire who pays a 15% rate flogging a tax plan that would skew the rates even further in favor of the ultra-wealthy. But much though some might find that unseemly, that's more of a general election issue. I don't think that's at all an issue with the Republican electorate, since all of these candidates are running on a platform of further cutting taxes for the wealthy in one form or another.

  3. On the issue of taxes, the funny thing is that Gingrich's plan would, I believe, entirely eliminate taxing capital gains... reducing Romney's taxes to almost nothing.

    Keep sharing your thoughtful analysis, John.