There is a growing consensus among the talking heads that with his victory in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney is on the fast track to win the Republican nomination. That sentiment, judging by comments from Tom, Paul and others last night, is one that many of you share. In response, I want to develop an argument I started in this U.S. News and World Report opinion piece suggesting why it is too early to anoint Romney as the Republican nominee. In fact, I will go further here to explain why New Hampshire confirms that Romney may be one of the weaker candidates Republicans could nominate.
It is true that he won New Hampshire decisively, with his 39% share of the vote almost exactly matching the average winner’s share in contested primaries dating back to 1988. That represents a gain of 7% over his performance here four years ago. But that decisive win masks a second important point: Romney did not broaden his coalition at all in the intervening four years. Consider this graph put together by MIT Professor Charles Stewart that compares Romney’s support in New Hampshire towns yesterday (the left-hand vertical axis) to his support in those towns four years ago (the horizontal axis). (Courtesy of the Monkey Cage website.) Each circle is a town (bigger circles=bigger proportion of overall turnout). What does it show?
Essentially, geographically speaking, Romney drew on the same voting coalition as he did four years earlier, but his vote total was boosted about 5-7% in those areas. (If he had exactly the same vote total in a town in both elections, it would be situated on the diagonal line running just below most of the circles.) What explains the boost in his support? I suspect it is mostly because Jon Huntsman, a much weaker candidate, was running in the place of John McCain and Rudy Giuliani this time around. In short, there’s no evidence that he expanded his voting coalition geographically or widened his support to new voting blocs.
And, as Stewart shows, this is almost identical to what happened in Iowa; there Romney also largely drew on the same voting coalition in 2012 as he did in 2008. However, his support actually declined in most areas of Iowa in the intervening four years, but that decline was almost offset by a substantial boost he received from voters in Polk County.
Pundits have seized on the fact that Romney is the first non-incumbent Republican presidential candidate to win both the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire’s primary. Given the states’ dramatically different demographic pool, this is evidence, they suggest, that Romney has put together a broad Republican Party coalition capable of carrying him to the nomination. But this is nonsense. Never mind that he likely didn’t win Iowa (the votes there have not yet been certified but there is credible evidence that Santorum’s vote was undercounted.) The voting results indicate he hasn’t broadened his support at all beyond the Republican banking/country club set that backed him four years ago. In Stewart’s words, “Thus far at least, Romney has almost nothing to show from five years of presidential campaigning. Romney stands at the top of the heap right now because he has the traditional Wall Street/Country Club wing of the party to himself.”
My point is simple: the reason Romney is “winning” this race has almost nothing to do with his gaining strength as a candidate, and everything to do with the fracturing of the non-Romney vote among several candidates.
In addition to overestimating Romney’s support in this election cycle, pundits have made a second mistake: underestimating the strength of the Tea Party movement. Ezra Klein, among others, suggests that Romney’s success indicates that a desire for moderation is driving Republican voters during the current election cycle. In fact, the center of the Republican Party has moved Right, driven by the Tea Party influence in the last four years, and not to the Center where the moderates reside. Rather than losing influence, the Tea Party remains as potent an electoral force as it was in 2010. The problem is that no single candidate has been able to unify the economic populists with the social conservatives, two voting blocs that live uneasily together under the Tea Party label.
As Stewart persuasively argues, some of the Tea Party strength has been siphoned off by Paul, which explains how he has gone from a fringe candidate supported by the small libertarian wing of the party to a second-place finisher in New Hampshire. Republican voters may be turned off by his isolationist/non-interventionist foreign policy views, but his argument against spending and corporate bailouts are exactly the issues that motivated the Tea Party movement in the first place, even if they don’t buy his more extreme views on ending the Fed or monetary reform.
Paul’s influence has expanded to fill the vacuum left by the implosion of the other Republican candidates who might have been expected to represent the Tea Party. The most logical candidate to unite the anti-Mitt forces is Gingrich, but his candidacy wilted almost entirely because of his link to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac – the government-backed mortgage giants that most Tea Partiers see as the Prime Movers behind the housing collapse. Gingrich never came up with a satisfactory answer to the negative ads touting his lobbying for these firms, and it likely fatally wounded his candidacy. The other possibility was Rick Perry, but he was simply unprepared when the spotlight turned on him. Santorum’s success in Iowa had much to do with Gingrich’s and Perry’s collapse. But he also tapped into the economic populism that fueled much of the Tea Party movement. It’s not clear, however, that he is poised to build on his Iowa success.
My point is that Romney would be losing this race if any of the three – Gingrich, Perry or Santorum – had not stumbled out of the starting gate. And he is still vulnerable if any of them can regain their footing – or if a new candidate with Palinesque stature enters the race. In this vein, the Republican establishment has been busy trashing Perry’s and Gingrich’s “attack on capitalism”. But in fact the Bain-as-job-destroyer theme is precisely the one that should have been used against Romney from day one because it capitalizes on the original sentiment – opposition to crony capitalism – that fueled the Tea Party movement in the first place, and which may yet resonate in South Carolina, where unemployment is much higher than in Iowa or New Hampshire.
Romney is ahead not because he is a strong candidate. It is because his opponents and their supporters face a classic collective action problem: each would prefer any of the other non-Mitts as the nominee, but none are willing to sacrifice their own candidacy to make it happen. There are only two ways Republicans are going to solve this problem. One is to negotiate an agreement, one brokered by Tea Party activists and social conservatives, to back one of the three non-Mitts (perhaps in return for promises to be placed on the ticket or to have a place in the administration). The second is to let the process play out and hope that two of the remaining three are winnowed by the voters in time to stop the media-induced rush to coronate Mitt. The problem is that as long as the media buys into the Republican establishment’s mantra that Mitt is the One, the harder it will be for the non-Mitt’s to raise money. And when the money goes, so does the candidate.
Mitt may yet win this nomination by default. If he does, I have no doubt many Tea Partiers and social conservatives will hold their nose and vote for him in the general election. But we ought not to overlook the reason why – it’s not because he’s the strongest Republican candidate. It’s because the majority of the Republican Party cannot make their mind up between three candidates – any one of which might beat Romney in a head-to-head matchup.
That’s my argument because I think that’s what the data shows. Now let’s hear your objections.