Two significant political events will take place during the next two days. The first is tonight’s debate at the Reagan Library featuring eight Republicans vying for their party’s presidential nomination. The debate begins at 8 p.m. eastern time. The second is President Obama’s nationally-televised “jobs” speech, scheduled to air tomorrow at 7 p.m.
Let me focus here on the debate, and turn to the President’s speech in a separate post. Labor Day signifies that we are about halfway through the invisible primary – the roughly 10-month period in which the field of candidates that will compete in the series of caucuses and primaries is established. As always, there are two stories to follow: what the media says is happening in the nominating process, and what is actually happening. With that in mind, let’s look at the Pollster.com composite polling date here.
The polling trends prompt at least four observations. First, despite being declared by several major news outlets as the “winner” of the first two major Republican debates – largely because he refused to engage in much give and take and thus appeared “presidential” – Mitt Romney’s polling support hasn’t inched upward at all. Indeed, it dropped in the aftermath of Rick Perry’s entrance into the race. This has to be somewhat troubling to Romney, particularly since he entered the race with relatively high name recognition due to his failed 2008 bid. It suggests relatively soft support among potential voters. Even more problematic, he does much worse in polling of registered voters, as opposed to surveys of all adults, suggesting his candidacy is actually weaker than the composite polling indicates.
In contrast, Rick Perry has shot to the top of the national polls, with a bullet, since formally entering the race. He leads Romney by 6-8% among all adults, but his lead doubles in surveys among registered voters. Right now, in fact, if surveys are to be believed the race for the Republican nomination isn’t even close. This despite the obligatory media efforts to both a) take down the front-runner and b) to establish an unflattering candidate caricature. In Perry’s case, the stereotype is that he is “dumb”. This puts him in line behind a succession of stupid Republicans, dating back to Gerald Ford (really more clumsy than dumb), Ronald Reagan (described by Clark Clifford as an “amiable dunce”) and George W. Bush (“Shrub”), all of whom succeeded in becoming president despite their lack of intelligence. (Don’t get me started on Ike!) Perry has to hope he can somehow live up to his predecessors’ profound stupidness. Tonight is as good a night as any to demonstrate that he lacks what it takes to be characterized as “smart.” The key issue is whether Romney reacts to his lukewarm polling and decides to directly engage Perry, or insists on trying to sail above the fray. Much has been made of Perry’s “weak” debating skills, but those qualities are largely overrated in these types of events. What matters instead it if the candidate stays on message – and happens to pick the right message given the electoral fundamentals. For Perry, that means focusing on jobs, jobs, jobs and – yes – jobs. Avoid controversial statements, and instead reassure voters that you have a presidential temperament.
The second observation is Palin’s staying power in national polls. Although her polling arc mimics Romney’s, she has managed to remain in the top tier of candidates despite running a somewhat unorthodox campaign to date. Part of her polling success, of course, reflects name recognition based on her previous vice presidential run. And she has the highest negatives of any of the Republican candidates. Nonetheless, although she will not be participating in tonight’s debate, her presence will be felt. And she will certainly be watching as well.
The third fact is the media-contrived story-line that Bachmann’s candidacy is weakening. The recent reshuffling of Bachmann’s campaign staff has been interpreted by the media, not surprisingly, as an indication that her candidacy is struggling. Never mind that it might make her stronger. In fact, next to Perry, she has come the farthest of any Republican in putting together an electoral coalition, she retains strong support within the Tea Party, and she currently has the most cash on hand of any Republican, except for Romney, among those who have filed FEC fundraising reports. (Paul has raised and spent more. Neither Perry nor Palin have filed as yet.). And yet, because the media has difficulty handling more than three top-tier candidates, they have decided to pit Bachmann and Paul against each other for that coveted third spot (assuming Palin doesn’t announce). Let’s see if the two candidates take the bait tonight.
Finally, midway through the winnowing process, the bottom tier candidates – Cain, Gingrich, Santorum and Huntsman – are in full-blown survival mode. The danger here is that if the media decides they are not viable, it doesn’t matter how well they do in the debate. Gingrich, in my view, clearly was the strongest debater at Ames, but the media are simply not interested in his candidacy, and so his strong debate performance largely went unrewarded. If these four don’t attract media buzz, they can’t raise money because donors largely follow the Mayor Daley adage of “don’t back no losers.” Of this group, Huntsman seems to me to be closest to falling into the “Pawlenty of danger” zone. His effort to brand himself as the maverick “sensible” Republican hasn’t worked, I think, because it ignores a basic fact: the people he is appealing to don’t vote in Republican primaries. Moreover, his strengths – particularly his diplomatic expertise – are not what voters are looking for during this electoral cycle. Santorum, trying to find a place in the field, seemed determined to dislodge Paul during the last debate. Let’s see if he tries to reprise that tactic, or looks to pick on someone else – such as Bachmann.
A final point – most potential voters will not pay attention to tonight’s debate, with more of them watching America’s Got Talent instead. The debate matters much more to the issue activists, donors and media who collectively establish candidate viability during the invisible primary. So when you evaluate the candidates’ statements, and judge winners and losers, do so in terms of these audiences, and not the general public.
If I can, I’ll try to come on later tonight with the post-mortem.