The Republican party has held its first significant debate of the party presidential primary. Much was made of it among the political cognoscenti and the media, who were, as the New York Times’s Nate Silver pointed out, the overwhelming majority of its audience. Most primary voters won’t tune in enough to form opinions until closer to the state primary elections, the first of which is seven months away.
Early performances are relevant, though. They shape media narratives and they give cues to major funders. A bad narrative and funding struggles aren’t necessarily the end of a candidacy (John McCain overcame both), nor is the race always to the swift, but that is the way to bet.
Mitt Romney showed why he’s the leading candidate; he was polished, collected, and articulate. This was predictable; appearing plausible is his stock-in-trade. He was helped by not having to go on the defensive about the healthcare reforms enacted during his governorship of Massachusetts.
This was a bit of a surprise, given that Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty had used the phrase ‘Obamneycare’ only a few days before. Pawlenty declined to attack Romney’s record despite being goaded by the moderator, and in so doing appeared vacillating.
In some respects, Pawlenty was the victim of the expectations game; he is not widely considered a benighted extremist or a buffoon, so simply showing up and being articulate was not enough to trump expectations. He had to do something noteworthy, and the only thing he could do was attack the frontrunner, violating Ronald Reagan’s creed that Republicans don’t attack Republicans. He declined, suffered for it, and later this week reversed course.
Pawlenty was under such scrutiny in part because he seemed the natural inheritor of a significant Republican constituency – social conservatives, usually identified with the Christian Right, with whom he has enjoyed a good relationship thus far. But, in the absence of a strong showing from Pawlenty, step forward Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.
If Pawlenty suffered from the expectations game, Bachmann benefited. She’s been strongly identified with the Tea Party, and her extremely conservative social views give her credibility with the Christian Right. She also carried a reputation as a wild-eyed fringe candidate, a poor man’s Sarah Palin; she rode the ‘birther’ train until she was physically shown a copy of the president’s birth certificate on live television, and once pronounced Disney’s The Lion King ‘gay propaganda’.
Instead of appearing as an undisciplined sideshow, however, Bachmann was cogent and professional, and has reaped the benefits – she now sits in the #2 spot behind Romney, with 19% of likely primary voters favouring her (compared to Romney’s 33%). Pawlenty is a distant 6th with 6%, and will struggle to raise money unless he can turn this around.
If the contest develops into a race between Bachmann and Romney, the trajectory seems set for Bachmann to win the first Republican primary state, Iowa, which favours social conservatives and which Romney isn’t even contesting. Romney now enjoys a substantial lead in New Hampshire, the second primary state.
In order to win the nomination, Bachmann would need a big victory in South Carolina, the third primary, otherwise it could become a long race, which would favour the better-funded Romney. If Romney wins South Carolina, it would seem to be plain sailing to the nomination.
Three things work against Bachmann:
1) History. The last time the GOP selected a newcomer to presidential politics over a familiar face was 1952. They almost invariably choose a recent 2nd place primary finisher or a former candidate. Romney finished behind McCain in 2008.
2) Herself. Bachmann suggested on national television that the media should look into which federal legislators might hold ‘anti-American views’. She once filed a police report that claimed that two women held her against her will in a restroom; investigators found that they were just trying to talk to her about issues. This kind of crazy is hard to keep hidden.
Bachmann was good this week, and has a great professional team who can help her stay away from campaign-ending gaffes. The trail is long, though. Candidates get tired and they say things, which brings us to…
3) Electability. Polls show that Republicans are more concerned with electing a candidate who can beat Barack Obama than a candidate who is lockstop with their values. Even in the absence of a major public gaffe from Bachmann, Romney’s more traditional economic conservatism, his corporate background, and his articulation on financial issues gives him an edge with practically-minded Republicans in an election that will likely be about jobs and the economy.
This race is not guaranteed to come down to Romney v Bachmann, though. There are other actors in play – just not in the field at the moment. More on them to come.
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