Political science is the science of what is possible—under certain constraints. In order to profit or make gains, political actors must act on often-temporary asymmetries of strategic information, lie or dissemble about that information, or else transform public perceptions of public knowledge. Failing that, there is only the status quo—and ironically very few questions for political scientists (who generally want their field of research to be counted as a positive science) to ask. This is why predictions of the sort I’m about to make are inherently-fraught, almost begging to be overtaken by surprising developments.
So, with (what at least should be) the usual ironic deference to the great upsets on which politics, economics, and life in general turn, the Liberal Ironist is calling the 2012 Republican Presidential Primaries for Mitt Romney. Actually, I consider the assertion a bland one.
Last week, Governor Romney managed an upset by winning the usually Conservative-trending Iowa Caucus. Granted, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum came in an extremely-close 2nd (at just 8 votes behind), but it’s not at all uncommon for a Conservative insurgent hopeful to come in 1st in the Iowa Republican Caucus—and this time, the more-moderate, establishment-preferred candidate actually came in 1st. Governor Romney took 24.55% of the Caucus vote last week, Senator Santorum took 24.54%, philosophically-Libertarian Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) took a competitive but unambiguous 3rd place with 21.45% of the Caucus vote, former House Speaker (and before Christmas, party front-runner) Newt Gingrich took 4th with 13.29% of the vote, Texas Governor and walking disappointment of a Presidential candidate Rick Perry took 10.31%, and Minnesota Congresswoman and self-appointed Tea Party leader Michele Bachmann took a weak 6th place with 4.97%–leading her to drop out of the race.
To put the importance of moderate establishment favorite winning in Iowa into perspective, consider the 1988, 1996, 2000 and 2008 Iowa Republican Caucuses. In 1988, while then-Vice President George H. W. Bush was the Republican heir-apparent and would indeed win the party’s nomination and the Presidency later that year, he placed 3rd in the Iowa Republican Caucus with just 19% of the vote there; Senator Bob Dole (R-KS) came in 1st with 37% of the vote, and Christian Coalition demagogue Pat Robertson (who unlike Bob Dole from neighboring Kansas could not claim any kind of personal connection to the State) came in 2nd with 25%. In the 1996 Caucus Senator Dole—the eventual Presidential nominee—took 26% of the caucus vote, but arch-paleoconservative Pat Buchanan came in a close 2nd with 23% of the votes, Tennessee Governor and future Senator Lamar Alexander taking 18% of the Caucus vote, and New York businessman and flat-tax advocate Steve Forbes taking 4th with a marginal 10%. In 2000 Iowa did turn out to be a legitimate bellwether, with Texas Governor and soon-to-be President George W. Bush taking 40.99% of the vote, with Forbes registering a much-improved but still rather-uncompetitive 2nd with 30.5% of the vote, and full-time social conservative hack Alan Keyes coming in a distant 3rd with 14.24% of the vote. Even then, it is telling that Arizona Senator John McCain barely registered in the Iowa Caucus, when he would put up a serious challenge to Bush for the Republican Party’s Presidential nomination, at least for a while. In 2008, Iowa proved even less-relevant to the general election, putting former Arkansas Governor and Baptist minister Mike Huckabee in the lead with 34.36% of the vote, followed by Romney with 25.19%, former Tennessee Senator (and Law & Order co-star) Fred Thompson with 13.39%, and Arizona Senator John McCain (who was of course the eventual lead) in 4th place with 13.03%. The point of recounting all this is to underscore the importance of the difference between a caucus and a primary: As a caucus voter must essentially participate in a day-long meeting, only committed party members and activists are likely to participate in it. The Christian Right and other anti-establishment activists are prominent among Iowa Republicans, accounting for the early strength of Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, George W. Bush, Mike Huckabee and now Rick Santorum and Ron Paul in over the past 24 years. That said, the preferred candidate of more high-ranking elected Republicans and party insiders—Mitt Romney, former Governor of 1 of the most-Democratic States in the country and a Mormon and thus really a non-Christian—actually beat Santorum, after having previously written-off Iowa as too difficult a prospect to campaign in.
The polls in advance of Tuesday’s New Hampshire Primary suggested Governor Romney would take that State, too—and the final result for Romney there was as strong as the advance polling optimistically indicated. Governor Romney came in 1st with 39.25% of the vote, Congressman Paul 2nd with 22.88% of the vote, Utah Governor Jon Huntsman—who had staked his presidential candidacy on a strong showing in that state’s primary—an uncompetitive 3rd with 16.88% of the vote, and former Speaker Gingrich and Senator Santorum—both recently hailed as more-Conservative alternatives to Romney—trailing with 9.42% and 9.4% of the vote, respectively.
We have a growing delegate count now. As of mid-January Governor Romney leads with 40-46 combined delegates and superdelegates, Senator Santorum has 9-14 including superdelegates, Congressman Paul 3-10 with no superdelegates, Governor Perry 6-8 including superdelegates, Governor Huntsman 2, and Speaker Gingrich maybe 2. There are 2,286 delegates to be won in caucuses and primaries—some of which will be winner-take-all primaries but an unprecedented number of which will be awarded proportionately to voter support for the candidiate. There are also 132 superdelegates in the Republican nominating process this year, for their part not bound by vote outcome or geography but only by their own conscience. So in total there are 2,418 delegates up for grabs in this contest, and the front-runner has to win a simple majority—1,210—to win the presidential nomination. In a worst-case scenario among current pledges, Governor Romney has 40 out of 76 delegates already, or 52.63%; at best he actually has 46 out of a total of 66 delegates pledged thus far, or 69.7%. In other words, if Romney were only to do as well as he has done thus far in future primaries, he will win the nomination by taking an outright majority of delegates with no one else in the running.
Frankly, at this rate Governor Romney won’t have to worry about that; his opponents can’t keep up with his fundraising. Governor Romney has raised a total of $56 million thus far this primary season, including $24 million in the last 3 months of last year, and currently has $19 million on-hand. Speaker Gingrich, by contrast, raised just $9 million in the last quarter of 2011. Congressman Paul has raised a relatively large amount of money in his own right, but he isn’t competitive with Governor Romney, either. The result of the Iowa Caucus—where Governor Romney beat 4 more-Conservative candidates in a State they traveled heavily while he was conspicuously-absent—suggests that spending a lot of money on advertising makes a big difference in a crowded field. Senator Santorum—a darling of the Christian Right who has mostly comported himself well considering the populist extremism he stands for, a Presidential hopeful who traveled to more parts of Iowa than any other—came close, but both his good fit for this caucus and all his effort put him in 2nd to Governor Romney’s well-financed advertising campaign.
The Liberal Ironist previously wrote that the Conservative revanchist movement of the Tea Party hit its high-water mark in 2011, from Paul Ryan’s very-unpopular proposal to privatize Medicare in May to indefensible brinksmanship over raising the Federal debt limit in July to House Republicans’ attempts to nickel-and-dime disaster relief and the payroll tax cut extension later in the year, but particularly in last November’s elections. Republicans’ good news in Virginia was matched by Democrats’ good news in Kentucky, and in New Jersey Governor Christie was rewarded for fighting with the Democratic legislature with…a slightly-expanded Democratic majority. In Ohio 68% of voters rejected Governor Kasich’s attempt to break the collective-bargaining power of public employee unions, after which the Conservative Governor promised some soul-searching. Now, finally, we see signs of a Republican electorate thinking pragmatically, supporting what we’ll call a “solid and substantive moderate” over so many ramshackle Conservatives. A political party cannot shift its ideological dimensions without experiencing some centrifugal forces for a time, but at some point it has to settle on its identity and on a new platform. It looks like Republicans have decided against the gold standard, foreign policy isolationism, auditing the Federal Reserve, extreme State autonomy, eliminating all income tax deductions, a national sales tax, Coolidge-era immigration restrictions, and a family-centered anarchy in social policy. In short, Republicans seem to have settled on “just more-Conservative than it was,” and on Mitt Romney.
If the South Carolina Primary polling holds-out the way it looks right now, Republican primary voters will have made their minds up mighty fast considering the length of the primary season.
My roommate felt that Governor Romney’s New Hampshire Primary acceptance speech sounded like a convention acceptance speech for the general election. I only had to add that it sounded like a convention speech in embryonic form; coming in at just over 6 minutes, there is much to add, including both personal and historical narrative, and a profession of principles Candidate Romney will fight for. But if this speech was anything to go on, it sounds like in addition to the most-moderate candidate running, Republicans have found the readiest and the hungriest as well.