The blowback from the right against the Republican National Committee’s autopsy of the 2012 election has begun with a barrage of bitter attacks from supporters of Rand Paul and Rick Santorum. But no one should be under the assumption that the critique of the report—especially its blueprint for revising the 2016 presidential nominating process—has anything to do with better representing the grass roots of the party or enhancing its chances of winning the next election.
As I mentioned earlier today, the RNC’s “Growth and Opportunity Project” is a comprehensive attempt to assess the failings of the party and cited the article by our Pete Wehner and Michael Gerson on “How to Save the Republican Party” in the March issue of COMMENTARY. But it also recommends streamlining the nominating process and making it less likely that well organized minorities can hijack the delegate selection process in some states via undemocratic caucuses and state conventions rather than primaries. While some on the right are curiously uncomfortable with the notion of a methodical look at where the GOP fell short in 2012, some are particularly unhappy with any idea of shortening the process, reducing the number of debates or diminishing the number of states that pick their delegates in a manner that requires the fewest number of participants.
While keeping the system just the way it is makes sense if you are running a campaign that appeals primarily to a narrow ideological faction, it doesn’t make sense if the purpose of the whole exercise is to choose the Republican with the most broad-based support or the best chance of winning in November. That’s why the huffing and puffing about the RNC report, especially from the Paulbots, strikes a particularly disingenuous note.
One trip to Iowa does not a candidacy make, but you don’t have to be a political junkie to interpret Marco Rubio’s star turn at a birthday party fundraiser for the state’s governor as the first shot fired in the race for the 2016 presidential race. As Politico reported over the weekend, the Florida senator’s appearance at Governor Terry Branstad’s shindig set off speculation about his intentions.
With three years and two months to go before the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus, all this talk about 2016 may seem incredibly premature. But in a state where you can never spend too much time buttering up the voters, Rubio has sent a clear signal that he isn’t shy about starting early to win their approval. Just as important, his speech reminded Republicans that what they need is not just a Hispanic but also someone who can appeal to middle class sensibilities in a way that Mitt Romney failed to do. Which means we can expect to hear a lot more about Rubio’s bartender father and his hotel maid mother than we ever did about George and Lenore Romney.
During the long winter nights when Ron Paul and his boisterous supporters were raising hell in caucus states, one of the regular themes sounded by many mainstream media political observers was the damage the libertarian outlier was doing to the Republican brand and ultimately the party’s chances of defeating Barack Obama. Paul’s cheering throngs were loud and clear at the GOP’s presidential debates, and his strong showing in Iowa seemed to presage a dangerous extremist tilt to the opposition party.
But today, as Paul announced that he would no longer be campaigning in the remaining primary and caucus states, those warnings ring hollow. Paul may have had his moments during a fractious race, and his supporters will continue to make nuisances of themselves at state conventions, but in the end, his remained a symbolic candidacy that had little appeal to most Republicans. His libertarians will probably be heard from again in four or eight years if his son, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, takes the torch from his father and tries his luck at the presidential game. And some will claim he influenced the race and made great strides during his previous presidential runs. But the fact remains that his efforts fell flat as soon as the real voting started. Ron Paul ends his presidential run pretty much the way he began it: as someone outside the broad consensus of the Republican Party.
There’s still no clear winner – and never will be – thanks to eight precincts in Iowa whose results are missing and couldn’t be certified before the deadline. But as it stands, Rick Santorum now leads Mitt Romney by 34 votes, though state Republican officials are still calling it a tie and saying it won’t change the delegate count:
GOP officials discovered inaccuracies in 131 precincts, although not all the changes affected the two leaders. Changes in one precinct alone shifted the vote by 50 — a margin greater than the certified tally.
The certified numbers: 29,839 for Santorum and 29,805 for Romney. The turnout: 121,503.
It’s not a surprise that the ultra-thin gap of eight votes on caucus night didn’t hold up, but it’s tough to swallow the fact that there will always be a question mark hanging over this race, politics insiders said.
In South Carolina, the polls are showing the same trend we’ve been seeing on repeat throughout the GOP race: the hot new rising star (in this case, Rick Santorum) is skyrocketing in the polls, while the old one (in this case, Newt Gingrich) is fading fast.
Exactly one month ago, Gingrich had peaked in South Carolina, leading the field at 42 percent in the NBC News/Marist poll. Today, he’s dropped down to third place, with just 18 percent in today’s Rasmussen poll. Meanwhile, Santorum – who was clocking in at 1 or 2 percent support last month – is now the frontrunner:
In assessing what happened last night in Iowa, I agree with the conventional wisdom in several respects.
The first is that what Rick Santorum achieved in the Iowa caucuses was remarkable. It was a testament to his skills as a candidate and his virtues (including fortitude) as a man. Santorum was methodical, patient, and committed to his cause. He has proven to be a formidable debater. And in the last few weeks in particular, Santorum came across as less intense, less abrasive, and more likeable. His speech last night was at times touching and uplifting, as well as politically smart.
Mitt Romney’s eight-vote win in the Iowa caucuses had to leave him feeling a lot better than an equally narrow loss to surprising Rick Santorum would have felt. His first place finish will undoubtedly be followed next week by another victory in New Hampshire that will set him on what has to be considered a fairly secure path to the Republican nomination. But the shakeout from the end of a torturously long night in Iowa brought with it some bad news along with the good.
If, as he seemed to indicate in his concession speech, Rick Perry ends his presidential bid, then that will, along with the collapse of Michele Bachmann’s campaign, leave Santorum as the only one left standing of the trio who competed for the votes of social conservatives. Just as ominous for Romney was Newt Gingrich’s all but spoken vow in his speech to spend the rest of the primary season attempting to exact revenge on Mitt for the barrage of negative advertising that helped drop him to fourth. Though that still leaves Romney free of the nightmare scenario in which the relative moderate is left to face a single ascendant conservative, his path the nomination looks a bit less rosy today than it did just 24 hours ago.
Mitt Romney’s critics are pointing out right now that the candidate who claims to be the frontrunner and the most electable is still unable to get more than a quarter of Iowa Republicans to back him. They’re right about the fact that social conservatives and Tea Partiers simply can’t abide him, but in a six-way race, the idea that a top three finish (right now, he’s in a virtual tie with Rick Santorum and Ron Paul) is some kind of defeat is a misreading of his situation.
The greatest danger to Romney’s hopes of winning the nomination was for one of his conservative rivals to break out from the pack. So long as the various not-Romneys are fighting each other, the actual Romney wins. So no matter who comes out ahead in this three-way tangle, the fact that there is no single rival for him in the top tier constitutes a strategic victory for him. Even so, his own inability to do better than the same 20-25 percent he’s had all along doesn’t make him look good. That’s why a first place finish would be sweet for him no matter how narrow the margin of victory. And a third-place finish will feel like a defeat.
The first result that appears to have been decided in the Iowa caucus is that Michele Bachmann has finished sixth with only Jon Huntsman (who didn’t compete in the state) behind her. That Bachmann should have fallen so far so quickly says a lot about what a tough game presidential politics can be. Only five months ago, most pundits assumed Bachmann would be the leader in Iowa. Her victory in the Ames Straw Poll in August was purely symbolic, but at the time, she looked to have the social conservative and Tea Party vote in her pocket. But she never recovered from the entrance of Rick Perry on that very same day, and a few goofy comments about Texas vaccinations later, she was sent back to the second tier.
Bachmann’s demise shows that although the primary/caucus system can seem like a circus, it does perform a vital service in the way it vets candidates and rejects those who are unworthy of national attention. Bachmann is a passionate ideologue, but she never made a case for herself as a potential president. In the end, even those who shared her strong beliefs saw her as not at the same level as a more experienced Rick Santorum or even Rick Perry. Bachmann claims to be willing to go on and fight it out in other states, but she is kidding herself if she doesn’t realize her quest is finished.
Fox News just released its “entrance polling” of caucus-goers in Iowa. I’m not sure how accurate this is as a prediction method (assuming that people who attend caucuses may be less certain about which candidate they’ll end up voting for, as opposed to traditional primaries). But it still includes a few stats to mull over:
1. As predicted, Ron Paul seems to be the most popular candidate with the young caucus-goers. Fifty-five percent of survey respondents between the ages of 17 and 29 say they’re supporting Paul. But, also as predicted, their turnout is far lower than the older age groups, and they make up just 14 percent of the total respondents.
2. Paul’s supporters are long-term, true believers, while Santorum’s supporters seem to be jumping on the bandwagon. A plurality of Paul supporters in the poll said they decided to back him “before December,” while a plurality of Santorum supporters decided to back him “just today.”
Mitt Romney is in a prime position heading into the Iowa caucuses tonight. But even though he’ll almost certainly finish in the top three, that doesn’t mean he can’t “lose.” Obviously, the best case scenario is Romney takes the top slot, and the second best is he finishes second to the untenable Ron Paul. A slightly worse outcome is if Romney comes in second to Rick Santorum, and the losing scenario is if he finishes in third, behind both of them.
The Washington Post sums up the impact a third-place showing would have on the Romney campaign:
With just hours to go before the caucuses in Iowa start, this is a moment for Rick Santorum to dream big. He’s got all the momentum heading into the final days with his rivals for the social conservative vote all fading fast. Ron Paul’s surge may be slowing as his record gets more scrutiny. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney, the frontrunner and likely nominee, is in a strong position to finish first. But if he does, it will only be because he held onto the same 25 percent or so of the vote he had all along, which may keep him within range of Santorum’s last-minute push. Even a vicious public insult directed at him–such as the attack launched by Alan Colmes on Fox News yesterday that Peter wrote about earlier–has turned out to be a plus for Santorum. It not only garnered him sympathy but allowed the public to see a human side to a candidate who is more of a policy wonk than a glad-hander.
Let’s assume for a moment Santorum’s months of hard work beating the bushes in the backwoods counties of Iowa is about to pay off with an incredible upset victory. The question will then be not so much a post mortem of the losers’ efforts but whether the former Pennsylvania senator has a viable path to the nomination, or if he will be this year’s version of 2008 Iowa victor Mike Huckabee?
The CBS “Early Show” interview with Newt Gingrich that Alana discusses below begins with Gingrich asking: “Am I the Humphrey Bogart role or the John Wayne role, in this movie collection you guys are putting together?” In a strange way, this may serve as an accurate postscript of Gingrich’s month leading up to tonight’s Iowa caucuses.
Gingrich has always been given to imagining himself playing a certain role–usually a leading role–in the political dramas of his career. Some scoff at what they see as the childishness of it, but Gingrich has often used it to his–and the Republican party’s–advantage by allowing him to overcome the cynicism of those around him and take a broader view of each challenge as they come along. But because Gingrich’s knowledge of history, as well as his imagination, are usually superior to those around him (especially the media), it was, forgive the pun, out of character for him to ask someone else what role he is to play.
The conventional wisdom among liberals is that despite a sinking economy and poor personal polling numbers, President Obama is actually in a good position to be re-elected. Democratic optimism stems from a belief that the Republican field is so poor the president can’t help but be made to look good by comparison. The evidence of considerable support for Ron Paul, who is a genuine problem for the Republicans, the unlikely rise of Rick Santorum, the comic antics and mishaps afflicting Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and the now withdrawn Herman Cain have been enough to convince even some conservative commentators that the GOP dustup in Iowa has been an embarrassment for the party.
But Obama and his political team would be well advised to put aside this foolish optimism. The GOP field’s behavior hasn’t always been edifying, but the way the race has developed is not to the president’s advantage. Whether or not Mitt Romney finishes in first tonight, the most electable Republican will emerge from the state strengthened and with no credible alternative in position to stop him. That is the last thing Obama wanted to see happen in Iowa and what will follow in the upcoming states is likely to bring him even worse news.
Most of the recent polls have shown Ron Paul fading fast in Iowa, which is why this Public Policy Polling survey showing him, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in a statistical dead-heat has been greeted with some surprise today:
The Republican caucus in Iowa is headed for a photo finish, with the three leading contenders all within two points of each other. Ron Paul is at 20 percent, Mitt Romney at 19 percent, and Rick Santorum at 18 percent. Rounding out the field are Newt Gingrich at 14 percent, Rick Perry at 10 percent, Michele Bachmann at 8 percent, Jon Huntsman at 4 percent, and Buddy Roemer at 2 percent.
The latest polls out of Iowa confirm two things as we head into the caucuses: Ron Paul has peaked, and his support is now on the downswing. And Rick Santorum is surging, going from single-digits to third place in a matter of days.
If the Des Moines Register survey holds true, Santorum may just be getting started:
The poll, conducted Tuesday through Friday, shows support at 24 percent for Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts; 22 percent for Paul, a Texas congressman; and 15 percent for the surging Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.
But the four-day results don’t reflect just how quickly momentum is shifting in a race that has remained highly fluid for months. If the final two days of polling are considered separately, Santorum rises to second place, with 21 percent, pushing Paul to third, at 18 percent. Romney remains the same, at 24 percent.
On its face, this would seem to make Santorum the latest of the “flavor of the month” candidates, following the rapid rise-and-fall of Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. The difference is that Santorum may have more staying power than the others.
As we approach the eve of the Iowa caucus, the broad outlines of the GOP race remains what it has been from the beginning: Mitt Romney is doing well among less conservative/non-Tea Party voters while the more conservative voters have not coalesced around any alternative to Romney. And contrary to the impression of some, Romney is not deeply disliked by most conservative voters. He may not be their first choice, but he’s done more than enough to make him acceptable to most Republicans. Governor Romney may not inspire passionate support on the right, but neither does he inspire passionate opposition.
Beyond that, National Journal’s Ron Brownstein points out that since 1980, no Republican (in a contested race) has won both the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. In fact, the pattern has been the same: one candidate wins in Iowa, another wins in New Hampshire, and one of those two wins in South Carolina– and, eventually, the nomination.
Two months ago, just as Herman Cain’s campaign was about to start to unravel, I wrote that perhaps it was Rick Santorum’s turn for a surge. I was, of course, wrong. It was Newt Gingrich’s turn back at the end of October and the beginning of November to take off and to be, at least for a few weeks, something of a frontrunner. But with only days to go before voters in Iowa cast the first actual votes of the caucus/primary season, it looks like Santorum’s moment has arrived. A CNN/Time/ORC poll released on Wednesday shows Santorum surging ahead of his competitors for the social conservative vote into third place among likely caucus goers with 16 percent.
Santorum’s timing is impeccable. With Gingrich collapsing (the poll shows him fading to fourth place with only 14 percent, which is down from 33 percent less than a month ago) and Michele Bachmann’s campaign in chaos as her Iowa chairman defected to Ron Paul yesterday, the former Pennsylvania senator looks to be in excellent shape to win what he called the “conservative primary” over Bachmann and Rick Perry.
With just one week to go before the Iowa caucuses, uncertainty is the word that can best describe the situation in the Republican presidential race. The polls have been all over the place in recent months as one candidate after another took turns trying on the mantle of frontrunner. Newt Gingrich’s moment appears to have come and gone. The affections of the social conservative and Tea Party wings of the party are split between three candidates who can’t seem to shake each other. Libertarian Ron Paul is making a splash — largely on the strength on non-GOP voters — but revelations about his extremist connections and hate-filled newsletters may limit his chances at a first place finish. Which leaves us with the same guy whom the media anointed as the frontrunner back in the spring as the most likely to be nominated: Mitt Romney.
New York Times statistical analyst Nate Silver asks today whether it is possible for Romney to lose. The answer is yes he can, but the odds still favor him for the same reason they have the past few months: none of the alternatives turned out to be viable. A poor showing in Iowa would be a setback for Romney, but it is still difficult to construct a scenario by which any of his rivals can chart a path to the nomination. For all of his manifest flaws as a candidate and his inability to convince conservatives that he is one of them, it’s hard to envision Romney losing at this point.
Many Republicans have spent the last several months grousing that they don’t like the choices available to them in their party’s presidential contest. But if the polls are correct, it may be that one core GOP constituency has a completely different problem: they have too many appealing choices.
The ability of Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum to stay in the race though all are trailing badly in both polls of likely Iowa caucus-goers and national surveys is that each has managed to hold onto a loyal cadre of social conservatives. They are very different in their backgrounds, personalities and governing styles. But they share a devotion to social issues such as opposition to abortion, and the success of their candidacies depend on their ability to capture the lion’s share of the evangelical voters who propelled Mike Huckabee to an upset win in Iowa four years ago. They also share a problem: with all three hanging on, it is becoming increasingly apparent they will cancel each other out and ensure the victory of a Republican who doesn’t share their social passions.