Winners and Losers
Over the first few months of the 2012 Republican primary campaign, two groups have been wishing and hoping for someone to overtake Mitt Romney as the likely Republican nominee: (A) supporters of the president who recognize that Romney is the biggest threat to President Obama’s re-election; and (B) conservatives who don’t trust that Romney is a true conservative. Unfortunately for those of us in group (A), those in group (B) have been unable to pick a Romney alternative to rally behind. Rick Santorum’s surge to a virtual tie with Romney in the Iowa caucuses made him the latest in line of more conservative candidates to join Romney in the top two, following Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, and—yes, it actually happened—Donald Trump. And as the other candidates have yo-yoed around him, Romney’s polling has been about as steady as any primary candidate in recent history, and he is now considered more likely to be the nominee than ever before.
Tuesday’s night’s New Hampshire primary did little to change this dynamic. Romney was expected to win comfortably and did win comfortably, neither enhancing nor diminishing his frontrunner status. The solid second and third place finishes of Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman also do little to change the dynamic of the race. Paul’s heterodox views in areas like foreign policy and criminal justice make it unlikely that he’ll ever expand his support in a Republican primary much beyond the 23% he got in New Hampshire, even as other candidates drop out of the race. He’ll stick around—probably longer than any other candidate besides Romney—and continue to have respectable showings, but his zealous base of supporters is unlikely to increase or decrease significantly as the race moves forward.
Tuesday was Huntsman’s best night of the campaign, but it is likely to remain so. New Hampshire is the state where Huntsman spent the vast majority of his time and resources so far, and is a state well suited for his independent streak (he believes in science!). The next major contests—South Carolina and Florida—do not suit Huntsman as well, and the polling from these states suggests that he will quickly lose any momentum he has coming out of New Hampshire (a recent poll found him behind Stephen Colbert in South Carolina). Huntsman’s biggest problem, though, is that his CV is too similar to Romney’s—the good-looking son of a wealthy, politically-connected Mormon family with a business background and history of moderate positions—to offer himself as a real alternative to the frontrunner.
Despite Tuesday’s results, the candidates best suited to overtake Romney are those who appeal the most to the Republicans who like Romney the least—social conservatives and Tea Party favorites like Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum. Each has his strengths, but also very large weaknesses. At this point, each candidate’s biggest weakness is another candidate. The longer all three remain in the race, the less likely it is that any of them will emerge as a real threat to Romney. For instance, had either Gingrich or Santorum performed significantly better than the other in New Hampshire, that candidate may have gained enough momentum to challenge Romney’s lead in South Carolina. Instead, they finished within 50 votes of one another in fourth and fifth place, and now the polling in South Carolina shows them close to one another but significantly behind Romney.
Santorum’s biggest virtue (virtue, as used here, means virtue for the purposes of doing well in a Republican primary—you may judge for yourself whether it is a virtue in any other context) is that he is a principled right-wing conservative, especially on social issues. He refuses to moderate his positions and holds true to his beliefs, even when doing so means losing an election by 20 points. The problem for Santorum is that being principled means saying what you believe and being a right-wing conservative means believing crazy things. Saying crazy things leads to, well, losing elections by 20 points.
Of the potential challengers to Romney, Perry looks the best on paper—he’s in his third term as governor of the country’s second largest state and, most importantly for this election, a state that gained jobs while the rest of the country was hemorrhaging them. The downside for Perry is that, in flesh and blood, he comes off as something of joke, as if he’s doing caricature of Will Ferrell’s caricature of George Bush. Perry entered the race at the top of the polls, but his campaign has been one embarrassing moment after another, bringing a steady slide to the low single digits.
Gingrich is a talented politician and an engaging public speaker. He excelled in the debates, attacking the president with more flair than his rival—a valuable skill considering that a majority of Republicans believe President Obama is Muslim socialist with no regard for the Constitution who is going to take their guns and turn the country over to Ban Ki-moon. Gingrich also, by his own admission, has the self-discipline of a four-year-old, and easily gives into his whims both in his personal life and his policy pronouncements. Unfortunately for Newt, his indiscretions have been playing out in front of a national audience since Boyz II Men was at the top of the charts. After Gingrich shot to the top of the polls, all Romney (and Romney-supporting PACs) had to do to bring him back to earth was to flood the airwaves with ads reminding people “Hey guys—that’s Newt Gingrich.”
So, yeah, it’s gonna be Romney. But that doesn’t mean it won’t stay interesting. Three things to watch for over the next few weeks: 1) will Perry, Santorum, or Gingrich be able to separate himself from the other two and establish himself as the one alternative to Romney?; 2) will Huntsman be able to do well enough in South Carolina and Florida to stay viable when the race moves to more favorable ground; and 3) just how much damage will the also-rans inflict on Romney on their way out?