Monthly Archives: November 2011

It’s Time to Put Up Your Mitts, Mitt

To date Mitt Romney has been content to adopt the classic front-runner’s strategy; except for the occasional veiled critique, he’s largely ignored his Republican rivals and instead has focused his attacks on President Obama.  In turn, strategists in Obama’s campaign have largely trained their guns on Romney, in the apparent belief that he is the President’s most likely rival.  While the media pundits have been hyping the anticipated Romney-Obama contest, Newt Gingrich has largely kept his big head down, obeyed Reagan’s 11th commandment and, primarily on the basis of a series of excellent debate performances, quietly marched to the front of the Republican race in most of the key early nominating events.

Somewhat belatedly, it appears that Mitt may be beginning to realize that the conventional wisdom may be wrong, and that without a change in strategy he is in danger of losing this nomination fight.  In an interview yesterday with Fox News’ Bret Baier  Mitt didn’t exactly take his Italian-made genuine leather exterior rabbit fur-lined gloves off. But he did loosen them a little to throw what by Mitt’s standards is a gentleman’s punch.  When asked about the Union Leader’s endorsement of Newt, Mitt replied that Newt was a “life-long politician” who was not as likely as Mitt to beat Obama in the general election. Romney concluded: “I believe that my views are essential to get this country going again, so, no problem with Newt Gingrich, good man, but very different person than I am based on our life experiences.” Not exactly fighting words, to be sure, but for Romney that passes for a political attack. Let’s go to the video (and note that caption “Robot Romney” is not mine).

Note that when Baier pressed him on whether his previously stated views on immigration were essentially no different than Newt’s, Romney went into front-runner mode again and refused to address Newt’s views, focusing instead on clarifying his own immigration policy which, essentially, is that illegal immigrants must “get in line” for citizenship, (or for some other legal status).  Notably, Mitt did not say whether that line formed outside or inside the United States.

As the interview went on, Mitt got a little testy (I thought I saw a hair strand or two move), particularly when Baier asked him to defend his Massachusetts health care policy, but except for the one gentle jab at Newt this was for the most part more front-runner posturing.  And it raises the question whether Mitt can afford to keep acting as if Newt is the latest Republican afterthought.  Because right now the political winds are blowing strongly in Newt’s favor. The latest poll in Florida has Newt trouncing Mitt, 41% to 17% in that crucial primary state, a margin that almost certainly reflects the movement of former Cain backers to Gingrich.  As the chart below shows, that puts Newt up in the RealClear Politics composite tracker by 16% over both Cain and Romney among Florida voters, with Cain dropping fast. (Newt is green, Romney purple and Cain red in this poll.)

Meanwhile, Newt continues to lead the polls in both Iowa and South Carolina, and the latest New Hampshire poll – and the first since the Union Leader endorsement – has him down only 10%, 34%-24%, to Romney. That represents a gain of 23% for the Newtster in the last month in a state that Romney simply cannot afford to lose.  Today Romney rolled out his second television ad in New Hampshire.  Although the tone is positive, the message touting Romney’s private sector experience can be construed as an implicit attack on Newt, the career politician. Time will tell whether Mitt is going to have to engage Newt more directly in the New Hampshire media campaign.

And what of Cain?  As of tonight, it appears that he will remain in the race, so he will likely retain at least some of his dwindling support.  But, consistent with my post from yesterday, Mark Halperin at the Pollster website cites additional evidence based on two more polls indicating that should Cain choose to drop out, Gingrich will be the primary beneficiary.

We are still a month away from the first caucus.  Much can change in 30 days. So why bother parsing polling results at all?  Because, for better and for worse, candidates must use something to gauge whether their message is resonating, and how they are faring against the competition.  At this stage, polls are important less for their predictive capacity than for signaling to the candidates whether their strategies are working.  And right now, Mitt’s strategy is not.  It may be time, gosh darn it, for Mitt’s valet to roll up Mitt’s suit jacket sleeves, muss up his hair, and tell him to put up his…er…mitts.

10:09 P.M. Addendum – A second Florida poll just came in, and it shows Newt up over Mitt by an even bigger margin: 47%-17%, with Cain at 15%.

The Cain Mutiny

As the  vultures begin to circle over Herman Cain’s candidacy, one has to wonder where his supporters will go if, as the media speculation suggests, Cain will end his presidential bid.  Early indications are that Newt Gingrich will be the primary benefactor if Cain drops out of the race.  According to the pollsters at Public Policy polling Gingrich is the second choice of Cain voters at both the national level, and in key states.  Discussing Gingrich’s ascendancy in the polls, PPP writes: “Gingrich’s leads are a result of Cain’s support finally starting to really fall apart.  For an 8 week period from the end of September through last week Cain was over 20% in every single poll we did at the state or national level.  Over that period of time we also repeatedly found that Gingrich was the second choice of Cain voters.  Now that Cain has slipped below that 20% threshold of support he had consistently held, Gingrich is gaining.”  This suggests that if Cain does suspend his campaign, a significant proportion of his support will move to Gingrich, bolstering his front-runner status nationally and, perhaps more importantly, in the early nominating contests.

If so, this raises an interesting possibility – as the pundits continue to debate whether Romney can deliver the knockout blow and clinch the Republican nomination within the first few primaries, or will instead have to endure a rather protracted battle before finally emerging as the Republican nominee, events are conspiring to put Gingrich, and not Romney, in the better position to close this race out.  As this Gallup poll indicates, Mitt’s “positive intensity score” has declined, while Newt’s are on the rise:

In short, it’s not clear to me that Mitt is any position to even consider delivering a knockout blow, although the Republican establishment is desperately trying to make his nomination appear inevitable. In fact, based on the latest polling data, it is conceivable that if Gingrich can parley his recent rise in the polls into the resources need to put boots on the ground in Iowa, he might actually win that event come January 3.  That, in turn, might give him enough momentum to finish a strong second to Romney in New Hampshire the following week, which the media might conceivably spin as a defeat for the Mittster.  Then it is on to South Carolina, where Gingrich currently leads in the polls, and where he expects to do well.  If he wins South Carolina, Mitt would go into Florida needing a victory.  Should he lose there, it is possible that the Republican race would be over – with Newt, and not Mitt, as the nominee.

This is all speculative, of course, and as I have repeatedly cautioned, nomination races – unlike the general election – are inherently less predictable.  Moreover, we need to keep in mind that the Republicans have changed the manner in which they allocate delegates; rather than the winner take all format that they have used in the past, they have opted to adopt a proportional allocation system this time around, at least for the early nominating contests.  This should make it harder for a front runner to deliver a knockout blow, so conceivably Mitt can survive early losses and hope that he will prevail in the long run due to his superior resources.  But I can’t help but think that events are far outstripping the conventional wisdom as embodied in the prevailing sentiment among the pundits that Mitt is the default nominee. While the pundits contemplate how Mitt’s inevitable march to the coronation will play out, Republican voters seem determined to write their own script.  And right now Newt – not Mitt – has the leading role.

It’s Newt’s-paper!: the Union Leader Endorses Gingrich

I was on the road yesterday, and so am late getting to the big news story: the decision by the New Hampshire Union Leader to endorse Newt Gingrich in the upcoming New Hampshire Republican primary.  Make no mistake about it – this is a big news story which is why it led most of the major political talk shows yesterday.   Coming just as Newt is beginning to surge in polls, and with only about 40 days before New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation Republican primary, the timing of the endorsement could scarcely be more auspicious, not least because it is the second presidential election in a row in which the Union Leader failed to back local guy Mitt Romney.

Nonetheless, despite the media buzz,  it’s hard to tell whether this is going to be as substantively important as pundits suggest.  I, for one, am skeptical.  Longtime readers will recall that I generally don’t put much stock in the power of endorsements, either by individuals or newspapers, to independently impact the outcome of presidential races.   Now, it’s possible that this endorsement will have a marginally greater impact because it occurs in a highly visible primary race – the New Hampshire primary typically gets far more media coverage than almost any other nomination event – during a period when the outcome of the Republican fight is still in doubt.  Given the fluidity of the race, one might argue that this endorsement  is potentially different than, say, Colin Powell endorsing Barack Obama in the closing days of the 2008 election, an event that in my view had zero impact on that race.

In fact, however, the Union Leader has only a mixed record in picking New Hampshire primary winners, as the following table shows (contested races only):

Year and Endorsed Candidate Win New Hampshire Primary? Win Republican Nomination?
1976 – Ronald Reagan No – finished 2nd No
1980 – Ronald Reagan Yes Yes
1988 – Pierre Du Pont No –  finished 4rth No
1992 – Patrick Buchanan No – finished 2nd No
1996 – Patrick Buchanan Yes No
2000 – Steve Forbes No – finished 3rd No
2008 – John McCain Yes Yes
2012 – Newt Gingrich ? ?

Of course, we can’t be sure that the Union Leader’s endorsement didn’t help even in those years in which their preferred candidate didn’t win – maybe the newspaper’s backing made the race closer than it otherwise might have been?   It’s true that if you look at the roster of their endorsees through the years, it is a who’s who of longshots and iconoclasts.  I’m mean, Pierre Du Pont?  Steve Forbes?  Occasionally, as in 1996 when Pat Buchanan narrowly beat Bob Dole, one could argue that the newspaper’s endorsement made a difference.  But even in the other  years maybe a Forbes or Du Pont benefitted even though they didn’t win.   I tend to think historically the Union Leader has been more interested in making a point of principle by backing  underdogs that fit with the paper’s conservative ideology rather than embracing the candidates favored by the Republican Party establishment, but this doesn’t mean their endorsement doesn’t matter at all.

The problem becomes trying to assess the independent impact of the endorsement against all the other factors that are influencing Newt’s rise in the New Hampshire polls.  Consider that Newt had already gained about 12%, on average, in New Hampshire polls in the period from Nov. 15 through yesterday, when the Union Leader endorsed him.  You can see the trend here – Newt is in green, Romney in purple (source is RealPolitics poll aggregator).

If the current trend holds, Newt might gain an additional 20% in support by the time of the New Hampshire  primary, putting him close to 40% overall, particularly if other candidates drop out. Now, if you ran a simple analysis in which you regressed Newt’s final share of vote (say 40%) against his polling average at a point just before the Union Leader endorsement (say, 18%), and included a measure for the Union Leader’s endorsement, and your regression includes all the other Republican candidates who did not get an endorsement, you might conclude that the Union Leader has a pretty big impact on Newt’s final vote tally since he’s likely to end up with more votes than his current poll status indicates.  But you could also be wrong – the Union Leader might in fact have simply jumped on the Newt bandwagon without having any independent impact at all on the final vote, given that Newt’s surge predated the endorsement.  Put another way, the Union Leader might just be very good at spotting candidates who are moving up already, or are poised to do so.

This is all a long way of saying that while it is certainly nice to get the endorsement of the state’s largest paper, that event by itself is probably not going to make Newt the winner in New Hampshire.  Of course, as I’ve stated repeatedly, the nominating process is still in a very fluid state, one in which it is difficult to specify with any certainty what events matter, and by how much.  So I could be wrong about this latest endorsement – maybe it will, by itself, push Newt to the top.  Then again, a few weeks back everyone (but me) was trumpeting Chris Christie’s endorsement of Romney, one of the several dozen he’s tallied already.  Mitt’s status in the polls, however, has remained relatively flat despite all those endorsements.

Bottom line: is this a big story? Yes.  Does it help Newt in New Hampshire?  Maybe.  Is Newt now the favorite to win the first primary?  No.  (But it doesn’t mean he won’t!)

The Gingrich Who Stole Iowa?

J. Ann Selzer, the highly-respected polling director for the Des Moines Register gave a fascinating interview for the Atlantic magazine recently that has implications for the upcoming Iowa caucuses.  As regular readers know, perhaps the most significant issue coming out of the most recent Republican debate was Newt Gingrich’s effort to stake out a more moderate position on immigration.  Newt’s basic point is that we aren’t simply going to deport all 11 million illegal immigrants, many of whom have been in this nation for decades and have strong community roots. Any effort to reform immigration policy, Newt argues, must begin with this fundamental reality. His Republican rivals, particularly the Mittster, immediately jumped on Newt for advocating “amnesty” for illegals – a characterization the Newtster understandably rejects.

That exchange takes on added significance in light of Selzer’s analysis of Iowan voters’ concerns heading into the Jan. 3 first-in-the-nation Republican caucus.  Selzer’s basic point is that those most likely to vote in the Republican caucus are primarily concerned with economic issues, not socially conservative cultural matters.  She notes that Mike Huckabee’s surprise victory in the 2008 Iowa caucuses has been widely misinterpreted by media pundits as a sign of religious conservatives’ strength in that state. That’s the crowd both Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann are playing to this time around, but so far with lackluster polling results.  The reason, Selzer points out, is that 2008 was something of an anomaly, in that the fiscal conservatives fragmented the field, while Huckabee was really the only social conservative running.  And so he emerged on top.  Selzer’s conclusion?  “And I think they’ve misread Iowans in thinking that there would be that holdover wish for that kind of candidate. Really, times have changed, things have moved on. So I think you end up with candidates who aren’t resonating because they’re not talking about fiscal ideas to solve the economic problem. They’re focusing on the social ideas they think Iowa caucus-goers would spark to… “

Selzer’s analysis would seem to be good news for Mitt Romney, who is largely running on his private sector job-creating record, and avoiding faith-based and other social issues.  And in fact, amid positive polling results that place him second in the state, the evidence suggests that after wavering for several months, Romney has now decided to go all in in Iowa  despite his dismal performance there four years ago.  In this regard, it is possible that the immigration issue could play to his advantage if he is successful in framing it as an economic concern rather than playing to the nativist sentiment among social conservatives.  However, hidden within Selzer’s interview was a fascinating observation that, if accurate, bodes well for the Newtster.  Remember my earlier post questioning whether Newt’s “twitter revolution” in campaigning would actually translate into votes in caucus states like Iowa? It turns out, however, that although Santorum and Bachmann have a greater presence in Iowa so far, Newt’s appearances have been more effective.  Here’s Selzer again:

 “In our Bloomberg poll we had an analysis of how many people had been contacted by each of the campaigns. Ron Paul was first, followed by Michele Bachmann. And the secondary analysis was to say, OK, if you’ve been touched by that campaign, who’s your first choice? So we could kind of look and see the effectiveness of those touches. Santorum goes from 3 percent to 6 percent among people his campaign has touched, and that’s double, but if you’re a small number it’s easy to double it.

Michele Bachmann gets a one-point lift [among voters her campaign has contacted]. It’s not doing her any good. Who gets the lift is Gingrich. His campaign contact number is high 20s, low 30 percent. But he gets 32 percent first-choice votes among people his campaign has contacted. That’s almost double the 17 percent he gets overall in the poll. That number is a very strong number for him. What [voters] have seen of him they liked, and what they have seen of other candidates didn’t impress.”

 If Selzer is right, that is evidence that Gingrich’s path to success in Iowa depends on ramping up his reliance on traditional retail, face-to-face contact with potential voters that has been a staple of campaigning in this caucus state in previous elections.  The question remains does he have the funding and infrastructure to match Romney, who appears now to be staking much of his campaign on winning Iowa?  The problem for Romney, at least in the past, is that he does not get the bounce from these personal contacts that Gingrich seems to based on Selzer’s analysis.

There is an additional complicating factor in Iowa: Ron Paul.  He consistently pulls in about 10% of the Iowan vote in polls, but there is evidence that .his extreme libertarian views may put a ceiling on his support. Thus, this Rasmussen poll indicates that Paul, “while placing fourth overall, is also the candidate Iowa voters least want to see win the nomination. Eighteen percent (18%) name Paul as the least favorite candidate followed closely by Bachmann at 15%. Thirteen percent (13%) don’t want to see Romney or Huntsman grab the nomination, while 11% would like to see Cain miss the nod.  Newt,  on the other hand, is named by only 8% of Iowans polled as the candidate they least want to see to win.”  This suggests that Newt may be the second choice of at least some Iowan voters if their favorite falters in the next month.

It is early, of course (at some point this observation will be wrong!), but all signs are that Newt has some hidden strengths in Iowa. To activate these strengths, however, he will need to go beyond his reliance on a social networking-based campaign of ideas, particularly now that Mitt is committing his prodigious resources to building up an infrastructure in Iowa.  If he can do so, we  may be rewriting the words to that holiday classic come January to begin with:

“He’s a Keen One, Mr. Gingrich”



Hillary Clinton: Biden Her Time?

Last August, I wrote a somewhat controversial piece at Salon that laid out a number of reasons why Democrats should favor a primary challenge by Hillary Clinton against President Obama.  Last week, Democratic pollsters Doug Schoen and Pat Caddell, coming late to the party, revisited the points I made in their Wall St. Journal op-ed piece titled  “The Hillary Moment” .  Rather than a primary challenge, however, they suggested that for the good of the Democratic Party, Obama ought to emulate Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson and bow out of the presidential race, ceding the nomination to Clinton. After making many of the same points as I did regarding why Clinton was the stronger candidate, they conclude that, “But this is about more than electoral politics. Not only is Mrs. Clinton better positioned to win in 2012 than Mr. Obama, but she is better positioned to govern if she does. Given her strong public support, she has the ability to step above partisan politics, reach out to Republicans, change the dialogue, and break the gridlock in Washington. “

Not surprisingly, public reaction to their piece mirrored the reaction to mine, with Democrats about equally split between supporting the President or backing Hillary. In the end, of course, the point is moot, since Clinton has repeatedly denied any interest in challenging Obama, and there is no evidence that Obama is going to reprise Johnson’s surprise announcement  from March, 1968 that he was not going to seek his party’s nomination.  Of course, no one anticipated Johnson’s decision either, but I would be completely shocked if Obama took himself out of the race.  One big difference between Truman and Johnson, and Obama, of course, is that the former two both won reelection after becoming president upon their predecessors’ deaths.   Obama’s political circumstances are slightly different – by 2012 he will have only served four years in office.

The Schoen/Caddell editorial did have one new consequence:  it refocused media attention on the long-simmering rumor that Obama is contemplating replacing Joe Biden on the ticket with Hillary.   Yesterday, in the latest version of this rumor, former governor Pete Du Pont made the case for why Obama should dump Biden. Du Pont acknowledged that given the current political climate Obama faces an uphill reelection fight.  He notes, however, that Obama is unlikely to voluntarily relinquish his place on the ticket. DuPont’s conclusion? “[I]t seems possible that the Democrat Party will pre-emptively decide that the time has come for some fresh thinking about its ticket…”  Rather than step down, however, Obama “might … decide to switch to a vice presidential candidate who will be stronger, better, and change the thinking of a majority of the Democrats–namely, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.”

This is not the first time we have heard rumors of a Clinton-for-Biden switch, and barring a significant economic upturn, it won’t be the last.  But is it a good idea for Obama? Let’s look at the historical record. Since FDR’s presidency there have been only a few occasions when the incumbent president has contemplated dumping his vice president but only three occasions when it actually occurred.  Two took place during Roosevelt’s presidency.  Roosevelt’s first vice president, John Nance Garner,  served eight years as VP before actually stepping down to run against FDR for the Democratic nomination in 1940.  Garner did so in part to protest Roosevelt’s breaking the two-term pledge, and in reaction to FDR’s failed court-packing plan and unsuccessful effort to purge conservative Democrats from the party during the 1938 midterm elections.  Garner’s bid failed, of course, and his vice presidential replacement, Henry Wallace, lasted one term before he too was booted off the ticket in 1944, an action engineered by party leaders who viewed his foreign policy views as dangerously out of step with the party’s principles, but which appeared to have FDR’s tacit support.  His replacement, of course, was Harry Truman, who became President on FDR’s death in April, 1945.

It would be more than three decades before another President reprised FDR’s strategy but for different political motivations.  In 1976, Gerald Ford, facing a tough election fight under adverse economic conditions, accepted Vice President Nelson Rockefeller’s offer to leave the ticket, and eventually replaced him with the more conservative Bob Dole.  Ford did so in light of dissatisfaction among the conservative wing of the Republican Party with Rockefeller and facing a likely primary challenge from Ronald Reagan. Ford went on to lose a close election to Jimmy Carter.  Looking back, Ford wondered whether he might have won several key states – New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania – and thus the race with Rockefeller on the ticket. Interestingly, there is strong evidence that Reagan was willing to take the VP position, but Ford apparently was not aware of this and never offered it.  In later years Ford expressed regret with his decision to dump Rockefeller.

On at least one other occasion, an incumbent president facing a difficult reelection fight considered jettisoning his vice president – but did not do so.  In 1992, George H. W. Bush was in a tough race against Bill Clinton, and there was active discussion regarding whether to replace Vice President Dan Quayle on the ticket.  In an oral history, James Baker – who ran Bush’s presidential campaigns – alluded to Ford’s decision as one reason why Bush decided to keep Quayle on the ticket.  Baker was asked whether Bush regretted choosing Quayle as Vice President in the first place. He replied:  “Maybe later. Maybe later, because the coverage was so uniformly negative for the four years that I think he would’ve been pleased perhaps even to see Dan volunteer to step down in ’92, but that wasn’t to be. And he certainly couldn’t take the ax to him because the press would say, Hey, you dummy, the problem is not the Vice President. It’s you. That’s why you’re running low in the polls. So he couldn’t do that. In fact I think [Gerald] Ford made a mistake when he let [Nelson] Rockefeller go. And if it had been Ford and Rockefeller, I think they would’ve won that election in ’76, instead of Ford and Dole.”  So Bush stuck with Quayle – and lost anyway, in large part because Ross Perot’s third party candidacy siphoned votes from Bush.

Despite the negative outcome, Baker’s reasoning still seems to me to be applicable to Obama’s predicament today.  He can’t fire Biden without signaling that he knows his reelection is in doubt.  And it would be even more difficult to replace Biden with Clinton for the simple reason that half of the likely Democratic voters are going to want the ticket reversed, with Clinton on the top. Now, if Biden “volunteers” to step down, as Rockefeller did, that may ease Obama’s problem superficially, although even then there will be the inevitable whispering campaign that Biden was asked to resign. And I doubt Joe, who undoubtedly has his own eye on the presidency, wants to endure the public humiliation and long-term political repercussions from being forced from the ticket after one term.

There’s a final reason why I think the Clinton-for-VP proposal is a bad idea: it does nothing for her.  She’s played the loyal soldier admirably for three years now, largely staying above the political fray and garnering strong approval ratings in the process.  Why jeopardize her political rehabilitation for second billing on the Democratic ticket?  If she’s going to get down into the political mud to save the party and risk tarnishing her reputation, it makes far more sense to do so for the ultimate prize: the presidency, rather than taking a backseat to Obama for four more years.

But then, you’ve heard that argument before. Ultimately, Obama has to decide if the electoral gains from having Clinton rather than Biden on the ticket outweigh the certain cost of publicly acknowledging that without change he’s in significant danger of losing the race.  Even if he concludes that the trade is worth making, he still must convince Clinton that it’s in her interest as well.  Looking at both calculations, my guess is that Obama will stay with Biden.