By Edward Roeder
Eleven months before the U.S. conducts the most expensive general elections in history, it's worth recapping what's just happened in pre-primary politics, and previewing what's to come.
Since the first debate of the 2012 Republican presidential nominating process last May, 13 debates and no elections have been held. The pace is about to quicken. In January, six debates are scheduled as political junkies prepare for the first three Republican presidential primaries on January 10, 21 and 31 (in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, respectively.)
Last summer, Mitt Romney, the multimillionaire former governor of Massachusetts, led a big field. With seven or eight candidates plus a huge chunk of undecideds in most polls, Mr. Romney's 25% was generally enough to put him way out ahead.
The Tea Party was riding high after its success in the mid-term elections, wielding its new power in the House of Representatives in an effort to curtail the size of the government by refusing to allow more federal borrowing. By the time a deal was reached, most of the country had soured on the tea partiers, public approval of Congress was in single digits, and the credit rating of the United States had been downgraded for the first time in history.
Still, the calendar beckoned candidates to run for the GOP nomination, and at least a dozen names were floated as possible Republican standard-bearers to oppose the reelection of President Barack Obama.
Two of the classiest potential contenders, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, whose credentials include a stint as director of the Office of Management and Budget in the first term of President George W. Bush, and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, dropped out early, apparently unable to find sponsors and unwilling to drink the Tea Party's Kool-aid.
Former vice presidential nominee and Alaska governor Sarah Palin never moved into campaign mode, perhaps because she can make far more money as a celebrity than as a politician. Dealmaker Donald Trump, who has never sought election to public office but can flip-flop with the best of them, led in the polls briefly. But after reviving the canard that President Obama wasn't born in the U.S. (which, if true, would make Mr. Obama ineligible to be president), Mr. Trump decided not to lower himself into the mosh pit of the primary process.
Newt Gingrich, a failed teacher at a small Georgia college who got elected to Congress in 1978, became Speaker of the House in 1995 and was forced out by his colleagues four years later after being fined $300,000 for ethics violations, is now a Washington political entrepreneur whose various operations have grossed more than $100 million since he left office.
Mr. Gingrich’s campaign all but collapsed in June, shortly after it began, as 16 aides, including almost all of the top staffers, quit in a dispute over the candidate’s refusal to commit to basic scheduling. Yet Mr. Gingrich participated in the debates, and while he wasn’t asked many questions because he was so far behind in the polls, he was articulate when he spoke.
Ron Paul, the perennial Libertarian now in his last term in the House, appealed to idealistic young people, but is seen as unacceptable to the party elders.
Shaken, not stirred
The debates have done well in the TV ratings, but it's unclear whether that's because viewers are interested in politics or entertainment. Mr. Romney, who always does well in debates, has perfected the art of suffering fools gladly; he resists the temptation to roll his eyes as his rivals reveal how unprepared they are.
The debates may have left voters feeling like a 007 martini -- shaken, not stirred. Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota Congresswoman and fundamentalist Christian who has embraced all things Tea Party-ish, won the Iowa straw poll last August, making her the first to challenge Mr. Romney's lead.
Then Texas Gov. Rick Perry threw his Stetson into the ring, and soared in the polls. He espoused Tea Party and right-wing values, but as a big guy and governor of a big state, projected more substance than Ms. Bachmann, whose accomplishments in Congress are limited to rhetoric. Mr. Perry became "flavor of the month," leading in the polls, in September.
Mr. Perry proved to be terrible in televised debates, and the shadowy Tea Party leadership soured on him after he failed, in Florida debates, to adhere to the party line trashing undocumented immigrants. In Orlando's straw poll they threw their support behind Herman Cain, a glib former Godfather's Pizza executive and radio talk show host, the only black person on the stage. Cain had acquitted himself well in the first debate, in May.
Mr. Cain won the Florida straw poll and became the new hit flavor for October, as Southerners often like to deny their racism by suggesting that they have nothing against black people like the celebrity/athlete/success/hero before them. But Mr. Cain soon flamed out, partly due to flubs in the debates and partly due to a burgeoning sex scandal that he handled classically wrongly.
Meanwhile, Gov. Perry continued to implode onstage in debates, at one point fumbling through 53 seconds of silence as he failed to remember the names of all the federal agencies he wanted to abolish.
By mid-Fall, the ABM (Anybody But Mitt) forces were getting frantic, seeing the race as a choice between fundamentalist Christian right and Tea Party conservatives such as Ms. Bachmann and Mssrs. Perry, Santorum and Gingrich on one hand, and moderates like Mr. Romney on the other.
They didn't believe Mr. Romney's pledges of ideological purity, and sought a challenger who would hew closely to right-wing dogma. (Ironically, in one of their debate conflicts, on immmigration, Mr. Perry advocated allowing the children of undocumented parents to attend college at in-state tuition rates while Mr. Romney took the hard right line.) New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie declined the entreatments.
Then, apparently channeling his inner Jim Lehrer, Trump announced he would moderate a presidential primary debate. After Trump's bid became the object of derision and all but two of the candidates opted out, he dropped the idea, and later indicated he might support a third-party candidate. Not that anyone had asked.
Mr. Romney didn’t need to win in Iowa; he just needed to assure that no apparent alternative developed. By December, Mr. Perry had self-destructed, along with Mr. Cain and Ms. Bachmann. Ron Paul represented no threat, because his libertarian views were scary to the party elders. That left Mssrs. Gingrich and Santorum. The latter was the lesser threat, far less well-known, less wealthy, and less qualified than the former Speaker.
Smartest guy in the room
After Thanksgiving, Newt Gingrich became the leading alternative to Mr. Romney. But Mr. Gingrich, who is the oldest, most obese and most accomplished of the candidates, is accustomed to being the smartest guy in the room, in rooms eschewed by smart people.
Due to an incredible and entirely unjustified belief in his appeal or to an uncommon ignorance of modern presidential politics, Mr. Gingrich was blown away during December by Mr. Romney, and by a “superpac” set up by friends of Mr. Romney to do the dirty work.
Mr. Gingrich had pledged to avoid negative advertising, and had not spent the money on organization or advertising to counter Mr. Romney’s stealthy Iowa campaign. Overtly, Mr. Romney was not negative. But his sound bites and ads, such as one pointing out that he’d been married for 42 years, invited unfavorable comparisons with Mr. Gingrich, who is in his third marriage. And the superpac’s ads were biting, accusing Mr. Gingrich of accepting $1.6 million from federal mortgage underwriter Freddie Mac at the peak of the housing bubble, and of producing an ad with former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi supporting policies to curb global warming.
As more of Iowa’s undecided caucus-goers decided, poll numbers went up for candidates who hadn’t embarrassed themselves, except for Mr. Romney, who stayed around 25%. Thus, the new hot flavor became former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who had made more trips to Iowa than any other candidate.
Ultimately, Mr. Romney won the Iowa caucuses by eight votes over Mr. Santorum, with Mr. Paul almost 4,000 votes behind. But it was so close, for so long into the night, that Mr. Santorum’s excellent victory speech, given when he led by 18 votes and before Mr. Romney spoke, reached a far larger chunk of the electorate in future primaries than Mr. Romney’s.
With a bit more than half as many votes as the front-runners, Mr. Gingrich ran fourth, trailed by Mr. Perry and Ms. Bachmann. Mr. Romney had gotten almost exactly what he wanted. He won first place, albeit narrowly. Second went to Mr. Santorum, an underfunded unknown, with no known base of support. Third went to Mr. Paul, unacceptable to most of the party. Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Perry had to settle for distant fourth and fifth place finishes -- not a good record to take to donors to inspire funding the South Carolina primary, on January 21.
Going into the New Hampshire primary, Mr. Romney is solidly positioned at just over 40% in the polls. Mr. Santorum raised a million dollars after his showing in Iowa, but can’t put together much of an organization in one week. Nor can Mr. Gingrich.
That makes it very likely that Mr. Romney will compete in South Carolina -- and debate on TV -- as the only candidate who has won anything, having won Iowa and New Hampshire. The right-wing vote will be split among Mssrs. Perry, Santorum and Gingrich. (Ms. Bachman has decided to “step aside” after garnering only 5% of the vote in Iowa caucuses. Former Utah Gov. John Huntsman, who skipped Iowa to concentrate on New Hampshire, will only serve to further split Mr. Romney’s opposition.)
The first January debate, scheduled for tonight (Saturday night), should provide some interesting fireworks. Mr. Gingrich, an angry elephant, will be trying to stomp, shove, and gore Mr. Romney, in hope of helping Mr. Santorum, who Mr. Gingrich feels confident he can beat.