Thursday, March 22, 2012


Some gaffes are bigger than others. The gaffes that matter only matter because they confirm and reinforce some pre-existing negative narrative or view of the candidate.

Eric Fehrnstrom's etch-a-sketch metaphor is damaging because it comes from someone who presumably knows Romney and his campaign plans well and because some conservative voters already suspect Romney's policy positions are as malleable as an etch-a-sketch screen.

The Romney campaign's damage control message has been that Fehrnstrom was referring to the campaign's need to "re-organize" and transition to a general election mode. This damage control effort is both untrue and unhelpful. It is patently untrue that that is what Fehrnstrom was talking about. He was asked about how Romney had been pulled to the right and how he would appeal to independent voters and Fehrnstrom was clearly saying that Romney would simply clear the etch-a-sketch screen of his previous policy positions and come up with new ones that match the general election electorate better.

The correct response from the Romney campaign was to treat the situation ... like an etch-a-sketch. Say that Fehrnstrom misspoke and used a poor metaphor. If Mitt Romney is so good at running organizations, why does his campaign look like amateur hour?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

"Enormous" Shot of Momentum

Jeb Bush is endorsing Mitt Romney providing what Thomas Roberts in MSNBC calls an "enormous" shot of momentum ... a few days before Romney loses Louisiana. Not to be outdone, Mark Halperin (who I continue to believe is the least insightful media personality out there) declared:
Mitt Romney’s Illinois win could be the beginning of the end of the Republican nomination fight.
That's right. It "could be" the "beginning" of the end ... of this one phase of the process. Or it "could not" be. Who knows? Thanks for the insight Halperin.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

It Ain't the Recipe, It's the Ingredients

David Corn had a piece in Mother Jones on Monday discussing the renewed round of hating on Michael Steele going on in Republican Party circles about the reforms he pushed through in 2010 that moved them from a predominantly winner-take-all system, to a system where delegates are awarded proportionally.

Yes, I know, it's hard to defend Michael Steele. He's just so...weasely (Though I must admit, I loved this groove at the 2008 convention, so much that I had my friend Greg make these t-shirts):

Anyway, leaving aside his "I wanted a brokered convention" throwaway line, this was his reasoning:

Steele watched the exciting 08' Democratic primaries -- where the 2 campaigns registered hundreds of thousands of new Democrats -- with envy. In the meanwhile, McCain (who was not a particularly strong frontrunner himself), was able to wrap things up early. After March 4th (Super Tuesday "II"), McCain had 1289 delegates locked up, effectively ending the campaign. These were the standings then:

McCain 1289
Huckabee 267
(Romney withdrew/endorsed McCain on February 14th)

Here are the standings now:

Willard 495
Santorum 252
Gingrich 131
Paul 48

Welllll.....looks like someone's gonna be limping into Tampa, either after hitting 1144 very late in the game, or coming up just short (though comfortably ahead of Santorum -- see Larry's recent post about this, btw).

Was Steele's idea "The dumbest idea anybody ever had," as Chris Christie says? (2/3 of Republican party officials voted for the changes, btw. Let's not forget that).

I think not. I mean, sure, if McCain had to run under '12 rules, it might have taken him a bit longer to wrap up the nomination. But once he got going, he was a much stronger front-runner than Romney is, by a mile. He won all of these states in the South, for starters -- SC, VA (for real), NC, KY, WV....and he crushed in Mississippi. And he wasn't running against these stiffs. Romney? Ah no.

The proposition I'm making here is very simple: if the product you're selling is good, and you have good salesmen, having them on TV all the time is not a problem (see Begala quote in Larry's recent post). This Republican argument is tantamount to admitting that Mitt Romney is essentially the Gomez Adams of American politics -- the most normal-seeming person in a family that's looney tunes.

In the end, the rules are not the reason why, when Romney finally secures the nomination, he'll have to lean hard against a door w/ a circus on the other side, and try to act casual. He woulda had to do that anyway, because of what the Republicans are selling these days -- any way you slice it, dice it, sauté it or filet it.

Does Romney Want Gingrich Out?

The conventional wisdom (and I agree with it) is that Romney will be worse off if Gingrich gets out of the race or if Gingrich stays in the race but fades as I argued last night he is likely to do.

But there is a counter-argument to be made that Gingrich actually hurts Romney more by staying in the race. It is exceedingly unlikely that anyone will catch Romney in terms of the number of delegates he accrues. But it is also increasingly possible (not likely but possible) that Romney could get to the convention without a majority of delegates in hand. Here is some data posted by Kos on the number and percentage of remaining delegates the candidates would need to win to get an absolute majority of delegates:

This was prior to last night's contests but Romney won about half the delegates last night so his percentage has not been significantly affected. He still needs to keep winning about half the delegates from here on out.

The argument for Gingrich staying in the race is that it might be harder for Romney to win half the delegates with Gingrich in the race than with him out of the race. Patricia Murphy argues this is exactly Gingrich's strategy. Gingrich figures that, like in Alabama and Mississippi, the number of delegates Santorum and Gingrich will win combined will be more than what Santorum could win on his own. But, for the reasons I pointed out last night, it is as stupid a Gingrich idea as his moon colony.

Gingrich's support among voters is drying up as we speak. His cash is basically all gone. He will be a more and more distant third place in future contests. That means he won't be winning delegates at all. Indeed, he'll likely be costing Santorum delegates in places by splitting just enough of the anti-Romney vote.

Democrats and possibly most Republicans would love for Mitt Romney to get out of the race as Paul Begala requests:
Let me be the first to call on Mitt Romney to get out of the race. By placing third in Alabama and Mississippi, losing to Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich in both states, Romney has gone from inevitable to unelectable. Somebody strap him to the roof of one of his Cadillacs and drive him off to one of his many mansions.

One of the great legends of political consulting is the Dog Food Problem: an apocryphal tale of a company that had the best packaging, the best advertising, the best marketing. But there was only one problem: the dog wouldn't eat it. Forevermore we should no longer call it a Dog Food Problem. We should call it a Mitt Romney Problem.
But that's not going to happen.

If the Republican primary electorate really doesn't want Mitt Romney, the best way for them to realistically avoid that is for Newt Gingrich to get out of the race.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Deep Trouble in the Deep South

Santorum's wins in Alabama and Mississippi are really quite bad news for Romney. They are not a problem in the sense that something major has changed. The problem is that nothing has changed. The tweet of the night goes to Chuck Todd:
In Sept '11, we said we didn't know how Romney gets the nomination and we don't know how he's denied it. Nothing has changed.
Precisely. Well, if nothing has changed, why is the result tonight such bad news for Romney?

It is bad news because Gingrich is now going to fade away. Gingrich may or may not get out of the race. He said tonight he won't. Sometimes, candidates reevaluate the day after. And sometimes (I'm looking at you Rick Perry), candidates even re-reevaluate. But it sorta doesn't matter as much in Gingrich's case. Santorum has clearly become the anti-Romney and Gingrich's cash is drying up. John Harwood reported on MSNBC tonight that Sheldon Adelson is not writing any more checks for Gingrich. Voters who do not like Romney have seen all they need to see. Romney outspent Santorum 5 to 1 in Alabama and even Gingrich outspent Santorum in Alabama ... and Santorum still won ... in a state that borders Newt's stronghold of Georgia. If Gingrich cannot win Alabama, he cannot win anywhere.

So, even if Gingrich stays in, voters will abandon him. Where do these voters go? PPP tweeted this tonight:
Our NC GOP poll coming out tomorrow shows an 8 point shift toward Santorum if Newt was out. Nothing but a spoiler at this point
And I think we'll see he's not a very good spoiler at that.

Next week, Illinois votes and the latest poll has Romney nominally ahead. So far, Romney has spent approximately $3.2M in Illinois and Santorum has spent exactly ZERO. How many times in this race have we said, "If Romney loses [insert state name here], then it will cause panic!!!" Well, let's all say it together then ...

If Romney loses Illinois, then it will cause panic!!!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

What's the Matter With Kansas?

Nothing ... if you're Rick Santorum.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Bummer Victory

Joe Klein summarizes the problem with Romney's victories:
In 2008, Barack Obama was able to turn his primary-night victories, and even a few of his defeats, into operatic gusts of wonderment. Eventually he went too far, slouching toward pomposity: 'We are the ones we've been waiting for' was a rhetorical bridge to nowhere. But watching him win was fun. Watching Mitt Romney win is as joyous as arthritis. And like Obama, Romney now has his own election-night brand: the bummer victory. He has had nights of sheer triumph, as in Florida. But more often, it's been like Super Tuesday: a handful of expected wins, on home turf like New England and the Mormon West; a handful of dreadful losses, in places like moderate-conservative Tennessee; and a signature squeaker, in Ohio, following similar performances in Iowa and Michigan.
Taegan Goddard described Romney's problem similarly in one word: Asterisk. You can see the video of the conversation with Mark McKinnon, Goddard, and John Avlon here:

I really like Goddard's characterization. Every Romney victory has an asterisk. He is the Roger Maris of presidential politics. He's going to be the nominee but it feels like there is an asterisk next to it. Everyone who is asked "who will be the Republican nominee?" says, "Romney, of course, but ..."

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Obama is Eager to Face Romney ...

... really? Yeah, "really."

Super Tuesday Not Super

There's a lot of media hype about whether Romney will win in Ohio and/or Tennessee and whether it means something. It doesn't. The fight for the nomination is over. The media always hypes things as more competitive than reality to try to draw in viewers/readers. But the hype about Super Tuesday is really more out of step with the reality of the situation than usual. There is just no path to victory for Santorum, Gingrich or anyone else.

My predictions for tonight's winners:

Ohio - Romney by a hair ... but it is really nice hair
Tennessee - Santorum
Georgia - Gingrich by a lot. His win will fundamentally alter history. But he's still toast.
Virginia - Romney. This one is just silly.
Massachusetts - All of the Massachusetts Republicans will step out of the phone booth and vote for Romney.
Vermont - The Vermont Republican will vote for Romney
Oklahoma - Santorum. No, Romney is not in danger of losing ANY county to Obama in Oklahoma. Not one county.
North Dakota - Romney ... I think.
Idaho - Romney.
Alaska - Romney ... I think but it will be so late nobody will hear about it or care.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Was Michigan a Crippling Blow for Santorum?

I think it really was but first, let me tell you all the reasons why you might think I'm wrong.

First, Romney's victory in Michigan was not a blowout and he had to employ some messy backroom dealings to win the most delegates. Furthermore, it is likely that Romney will lose badly in Georgia, the biggest Super Tuesday prize in terms of delegates. Indeed, when you look at the Super Tuesday map, there are a few other delegate-rich states where Romney will likely lose including Oklahoma and Tennessee. Finally, the latest polls seem to indicate Romney is still just a couple of points behind in Ohio. Romney will surely win more delegates in Ohio because of the ineptness of the Santorum campaign but a popular-vote loss in Ohio would really look bad. As for the delegates, I suppose one would rather win more delegates than not but (and I've argued quite a bit with Jon Keller about this) the delegate count is really irrelevant in just the same way that the Super Delegates really didn't matter in the end in 2008. There was simply no way the person "perceived to win" more states and more delegates was going to have the nomination taken away from him (or her) in 2008 because of elites in the party and it isn't going to happen in 2012 either.

In addition to all of that, there is the possibility that Gingrich will bow out of the race after Super Tuesday because he'll only win his "home" state of Georgia and won't be very competitive elsewhere. A little more than a month ago, John Sides and Lynn Vavreck posted some data to support their argument that Gingrich or Santorum dropping out would not help the other. In other words, they argue quite a bit of the "not Romney" vote would go to Romney rather than just coalescing behind the last "not Romney" standing. Nate Silver presented at least some data to contradict Sides and Vavreck.

So, that's a lot of reasons to think Romney has not quite locked down the nomination. But here's why the race for the nomination really is over.

1) The Narrative - The way Romney won Michigan was more important than the fact that he only won by 3 points. He was trailing in most polls (by a lot in some) until about a week before the primary. Because Michigan is one of Romney's "home" states, the race there became a key test of his campaign. So, expectations were set low (ie, "he may lose") and it was viewed as important (ie, "he has to win"). By winning, even by a little bit, Romney emerged with something a lot more important than delegates. He emerged with momentum and the sense that his campaign had exceeded expectations.

2) Organization - Ohio is not the only place the Santorum campaign's lack of organization has hurt them. Virginia votes on Super Tuesday and both Gingrich and Santorum failed to get on the ballot there. More generally, the Santorum campaign has been remarkably inept in its messaging. Santorum himself has a tendency to say things that are controversial. In some senses, this is what many of his supporters like about him. But it would help a lot to have a real campaign organization that would put the candidate's comments in context or put the right spin on them and it would help to have a campaign organization that can respond to Romney's criticism's of the candidate. These are all but absent.

3) Gingrich - Does Gingrich leave the race after Super Tuesday? My prediction is that he won't. Alabama and Mississippi vote one week later on March 13. I'm not a psychologist but Newt Gingrich's ego doesn't need much in the way of evidence to convince him America fundamentally needs him. His "big" win in Georgia might be enough and, if Santorum does even a little worse than expected on Tuesday, Gingrich will have even more reason to believe he is the alternative to Romney everyone has been waiting for. I know this is silly. But it is really how Gingrich thinks. He's silly.

4) Money - You may have heard that Mitt Romney is independently wealthy. Even with his fundraising troubles, Romney has the money to go on and the others simply don't. They can go on in the technical sense but they don't have much money and that gap is going to grow after Super Tuesday as fewer and fewer people believe there is a path to victory for Santorum or Gingrich. How bad is the money situation for Gingrich? To date, he's still raised less money than Rick Perry ... who quit the race for the second time before South Carolina and endorsed Gingrich. How bad is the money situation for Santorum? Even accounting for the $4.5M he's raised so far in the first quarter of 2012, he's still raised less money than Michele Bachmann and about the same amount as Jon Huntsman ... who quit the race after New Hampshire because nobody outside of New Hampshire supported him. The trickle of money Gingrich and Santorum were raising is going to dry up further after Tuesday.

I'm not saying Santorum (or Gingrich as I've stated above) will drop out after Tuesday. But the race is likely to be effectively over. And, when we look back, I think it will be the case that Michigan was where the race really ended. Before Michigan, Romney was in some trouble and there was a lot of discussion of whether someone else would jump in the race if Romney was defeated there. After Michigan, Romney has been viewed as back in the driver's seat and he followed up with a win in Washington where polls suggested he was losing just a week and a half ago. The worst-case scenario (losing Ohio by a small margin) on Tuesday still has Romney winning most of the states and the vast majority of delegates across all 10 states. There is simply not likely to be any more oxygen for Santorum or Gingrich.

Radical Conservatism

Bob Lacey has a piece out on what makes today's conservatism truly radical. It is worth a close read.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Will Romney Be a Credible Alternative?

Presidential campaigns in which there is an incumbent running for re-election are really about whether people want the incumbent to stay in office for 4 more years. There are generally two pre-conditions that must be satisfied in order for an incumbent president to lose: First, the incumbent needs to be unpopular. The most obvious measure of this is the president's job approval rating. When President Bush was re-elected in 2004, 51% of voters that day approved of the job he was doing (according to exit polls) and he received 51% of the vote. But job approval over 50% is not the only pre-condition. Even if the president is unpopular, the challenger must be a credible alternative. Generally, the party out of power does a good job of choosing someone who is a credible alternative. That, after all, is what the primary process is about. John Kerry satisfied that condition in 2004 but Bush was just popular enough to win a second term. Bob Dole was certainly a credible alterative in 1996 but President Clinton was quite popular. Bill Clinton was a credible alternative in 1992 and 41 was quite unpopular so Clinton won. A fair argument can be made that the last two major party nominees to not quite be credible alternatives facing incumbent presidents were McGovern (1972) and Goldwater (1964). Both lost in blowouts and both were facing presidents with strong approval ratings.

Let's take a quick look at where we are on these two measures. First, job approval:

Obama's job approval has improved steadily since the summer of 2011 and the improvement has arguably been driven by two things - improving consumer confidence and the ramping up of the Republican primaries which have made Obama look pretty darn presidential. Forgetting about the positive trajectory, it seems as if Obama is at a point right now where he would be likely to be re-elected if job approval were the only thing that mattered. But he's not a tremendous distance from a place where the second question, the credibility of the alternative, would matter. So let's take a look at the favorability ratings for one Willard Mitt Romney:

This is not good. Romney's unfavorables have shot up in the last few months. To give that the most negative spin, we might say that just as the American public has gotten to know Romney better and just as the American public has had to start digesting the idea of Romney as a potential nominee and a potential president, they have found more and more to dislike about him.

UPDATE: First Read posts favorability numbers for some recent party nominees. Romney compares rather badly. Most notably, John Kerry (also trying to beat a somewhat vulnerably incumbent) was at 42/30. To be fair though, Kerry already had the nomination effectively locked down for a few weeks by this point. I expect Romney's numbers to improve at least a little once the party rallies around him. But he still won't be where Kerry's numbers were and Kerry ... ya know ... lost.

A more sympathetic read of Romney's numbers might be that this has been a bruising primary and, when it is over, Romney's numbers will start to improve. That's probably true to some extent. But one thing about unfavorable numbers is that it is particularly hard to move the unfavorable numbers down. Voters who don't have a strong impression can certainly be brought over. Voters who do have a strong impression are hard to move. And negative impressions are harder to change than positive impressions.

The 2012 election is going to be about Obama ... as long as Mitt Romney is a credible alternative. If he's not, then Obama has a bit more room for error with the economy, Iran, gas prices, whatever. In 1980, Jimmy Carter lost because voters did not approve of the job he was doing but that was not enough. It was Reagan's credible performances in the debates and in the campaign generally that allowed voters to vote for him in the general election. It is a long way to go until November. But Romney has not yet passed that threshold and he seems to be moving in the wrong direction right now.