It’s not surprising that a lot is going on in the caucus race as we entered the December push before Christmas. Ads are on TV for several of the candidates, mailers are going out regularly, there were two debates in Iowa in the last week, two candidates are on multi-city/county bus tours, and more stories are being written about the campaigns than one can keep up with. Here are some highlights followed by my ranking for this period.
Perry and Paul have had television ads up for some time, but both have intensified their efforts. Both candidates (or PACs that support them) have been running anti-Gingrich ads to counter Gingrich’s surge in the polls. Paul’s ads have been particularly hard-hitting. Consistency has been a theme of Paul’s for some time so it’s no surprise that these ads have focused on Gingrich’s apparent inconsistencies.
Perry and PACs supporting him have continued putting a variety of ads up on TV. Some of these have been negative ads criticizing Romney and Gingrich for being flip-floppers or Washington insiders. Perry also has positive ads that focus on his values and how he is the one to help solve the problems we face. In one of these ads he contrasted the fact that gays can serve openly in the military but children could not pray in school. He also mentioned Obama’s “war on religion.” Not surprisingly, this ad got a lot of attention. Liberals didn’t like it, of course, but even some conservatives wondered aloud why Perry mentioned those topics. Some reporters wanted to “fact check” Perry on whether Obama was really waging such a war. As much as the ad was widely criticized and mocked, most of that attention was coming from the left. Conservatives in Perry’s target audience generally didn’t have a problem with the ad even if some would have preferred that those topics not be mentioned.
Several of the candidates received major endorsements over the last two weeks. Santorum received a key endorsement from Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz. Although Schultz is a relative newcomer to state-wide politics his endorsement carries some weight. Schultz had to work hard against a better known opponent to get the nomination and then to beat the Democrat incumbent. As a result of his victory Schultz is seen as an up and comer in state GOP politics. Schultz’s endorsement fits well with Santorum’s willingness to work hard in the face of long odds.
Another big “get” for Santorum was Pastor Terry Amann. Along with Bachmann and Perry, Santorum has been vying for the social conservative vote. The votes of social conservatives (also called Christian conservatives and evangelicals, though the three labels aren’t exactly the same) were particularly important for Huckabee’s 2008 caucus victory. The social conservatives have more choices for the 2012 caucuses and their vote appears split. That split might allow someone they prefer least to win the caucuses, but attempts to have these voters coalesce around a single candidate have been unsuccessful thus far. As a result, endorsements by well-known social conservatives such as Rev. Amann can be important. It’s worth mentioning, however, that Bachmann also picked up the support of several Christian leaders during this period. The split between Bachmann and Santorum has more to do with electability than their positions on social issues. Unless one or the other makes a major mistake in the remaining two weeks it’s unlikely that either will be able to make a convincing case that he or she is the more electable.
Romney also picked up some high profile endorsements over the last two weeks. The first of interest was that of Christine O’Donnell, the former US Senate candidate from Delaware. This probably wasn’t an endorsement that Romney wanted. I won’t bother with the details, but O’Donnell isn’t sufficiently important for her endorsement to be helpful. Nevertheless, the Romney camp politely thanked O’Donnell for the endorsement.
This past Saturday the Des Moines Register endorsed Romney. Although the DMR endorsement is significant, it’s also a bit of a mixed blessing. Iowa Republicans are wary of the DMR as being too liberal. Thus, the endorsement of Romney may confirm to some GOP caucus-goers that Romney isn’t sufficiently conservative. Within minutes of the endorsement, messages started appearing on Twitter making that exact point. (Along these lines, Santorum was apparently quoted as saying that he would have been worried if the DMR had endorsed him because it would have meant he was doing something wrong.) Although conservatives can discount the value of the DMR endorsement, it may have value to moderate Republicans and independents who may be interested in participating in the Republican caucuses. Romney still has a base of support in the state and this endorsement could help to firm up their willingness to come to a caucus to support him. As I said via Twitter the night of the endorsement, however, it would help a lot more if Romney made the case himself by being in Iowa more. (My Twitter handle is @ProfHagle if you are interested.)
Gingrich got into a bit of hot water this period by referring to the Palestinians as an “invented people.” From a historical perspective he was right, but that didn’t stop some harsh criticisms from those on the left. Even though many on the right likely agreed with Gingrich on the basic point, they thought it was poor judgment politically to say so in an offhand remark. Moreover, they saw this as an example of the Gingrich of old and used it as an example of why he shouldn’t be the GOP nominee. A frequent criticism of Gingrich is that he is undisciplined. This problem manifests itself in various ways, but one in particular is his willingness to talk about his ideas before he thinks through them, or at least before considering the political ramifications of them. Gingrich is usually able to explain what he meant, but it certainly puts him on the defensive and takes him off message.
The first of the two debates this period proved to be a fairly sleepy affair. The big take-away seemed to be when Romney offered a $10,000 bet to Perry over something that appeared in Romney’s book. It was rather silly that this became a big issue. It was basically one of those moments when you are so sure you are correct about something that you tell someone you will bet some huge amount of money. Who hasn’t said at one point, “I’ll be you a thousand dollars” or “I’ll bet you a million dollars”? I thought Romney actually got the better of the exchange as Perry seemed to hesitate before responding that he wasn’t a betting man (good thing as he was proven wrong on the point). After the debate, however, much was made of the fact that Romney could actually afford a $10,000 bet and this led to attempts to criticize him as being out of touch with working people, etc. Romney was also portrayed as being thin-skinned as a result of this debate, which emphasized a prior interview with Fox News’s Bret Baier in which Romney was uncharacteristically agitated.
Between the two debates more attention was given to the fact that Gingrich was paid about $1.6 million from Freddie Mac for consulting work. Some past comments Gingrich had made about those who profited from the failures of housing lenders Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae came back to haunt him and Romney called for Gingrich to return the money. Gingrich shot back that he would be willing to do so if Romney would give back the millions he had earned “bankrupting companies” while head of Bain Capital. This retort by Gingrich again proved to be a mistake as many conservatives noted the difference between Gingrich taking taxpayer money from a failing government entity and Romney’s earning the money in the private sector. Romney made a strong case for how his company saved many other companies, but couldn’t save them all. Gingrich ended up on the defensive by having to explain, again, that he hadn’t lobbied for Freddie Mac, was just a consultant, the money was over a period of several years, the money was paid to his company not him, and so on. Even to the extent all that was true, Gingrich’s “nuanced” answers may have been too reminiscent of the typical Washington insider for some people.
The second Iowa debate of this period, and the last debate before the caucuses, was billed as being particularly important. At the very least it was the last chance for the candidates to make their case before a state-wide (and national) audience. As is often true in the debates the goal for the front-runners is to not make mistakes and the goal for those behind to find a way to stand out. Romney returned to form and had a solid debate. Gingrich was hammered early by Bachmann over the Freddie Mac money. Many thought he recovered later with his complaints about activist judges. I thought he did a good job noting the problem, but was weak on the solution (subpoenaing judges and eliminating courts). Paul was given ample opportunity in this debate to expound on his foreign policy views. That proved unfortunate as he once again demonstrated why his appeal with the broader GOP base is limited. As in previous debates Santorum deftly responded to Paul’s foreign policy criticisms. Unfortunately for Santorum, he did so in a more low key way than usual and Bachmann’s one-liner about Paul’s position being “dangerous” proved to be the comment most repeated later. Perry had an acceptable debate, though he needed something more. One good use of humor for him came when he was asked a hard question about his debating skills and he replied that he was actually starting to enjoy them and would even “show up early” to debate Obama.
With the debates over the candidates now have to do what they can in the remaining two weeks to firm up their support and “seal the deal” with caucus-goers who are still undecided or persuadable. This is where past effort and existing organization will count. Bachmann is on a 10-day, 99-county bus tour. Such an ambitious schedule doesn’t leave much time at each stop, but it seems designed more to firm up support that she’s already worked hard to gain. Perry is on a 44-city tour of Iowa. He needs this as he hasn’t put in as much time here as Bachmann and Santorum. Both Paul and Santorum have events scheduled this week before taking a break for Christmas. Romney has said he will be back in Iowa, but it’s not clear when. Gingrich decided to take a break after the last debate. When asked about it he said he was pacing himself.
Like many Iowans I am still undecided, but with the above in mind here are my rankings for the candidates if the debate were held now.
After my last ranking two weeks ago I was sure that Romney would have fallen to third for this ranking given the trends at that time, but like we say about the weather in Iowa it doesn’t take long for things to change. Romney steadied himself and again came across as presidential in the last debate. He now has TV ads running in Iowa and is sending out mailers. I still think he needs to do more in terms of actually being here, but his small Iowa staff is certainly doing what it can. Romney’s problem is that he doesn’t want to raise expectations here and then not meet them. On the other hand, Romney needed to make sure that Gingrich did not run away with the caucuses, which could give Gingrich needed momentum for later contests. Now that the Gingrich surge seems to be fading Romney can again rely on the split among the various candidates as a way for him to do very well here without raising expectations.
To be blunt, Paul’s foreign policy and national security positions are considered too extreme for most of the GOP base. Many can overlook them when the focus is on fiscal issues, but Paul got a lot of air time in the last debate and both Santorum and Bachmann strongly criticized him. Even so, everyone seems to recognize that Paul has the best campaign organization in the state and that his supporters are the most loyal. At the very least, it’s clear he has a lot of support when he can get 1,000 to turn out to hear him at an event at Iowa State University or another 700 at an event at the University of Northern Iowa. Paul has spent a lot of time cultivating the youth vote, particularly college students, but that can be both a blessing and a curse. Although Paul’s supporters are the most organized and energized, the youth voters (roughly those 18-25 years old) tend to be the least likely to actually vote or attend a caucus. In addition, the colleges will be on break on January 3d. Assuming the students do not return to their college precincts caucus night they can certainly caucus in their home precincts, but even more effort is required to inform them of the locations and there will be less peer pressure to actually attend. Of course, out of state students would have to return to their college precincts to participate. Although I’m putting Paul in second for this ranking, I’ll be watching to see how much fallout there is from his last debate performance.
Gingrich is still leading in the polls, but the trend is sharply downward in Iowa. Gingrich managed to stay in the race on the strength of his debate performances after a terrible start to his campaign. After Cain faded and Gingrich began his surge he seemed to understand that he actually has to work to keep that support. He talked of opening several of campaign offices and doing more events, but it seems that Gingrich has fallen back to his old ways. Only one office was opened and he decided to take the weekend off following the last debate. As I expected, once Gingrich became the frontrunner many started reminding people of why he wasn’t considered a strong contender in the first place. Gingrich spoke of his having matured and become more relaxed. As much as the New Newt seemed a strong candidate, many were worried that the Old Newt would eventually emerge and his campaign would again implode. Those looking for evidence of the Old Newt can probably find it. One such sign is the lack of concern with improving the organization of his campaign. It seems Gingrich believes that because he has been surging in the polls that he doesn’t need a strong ground game. I’ve been telling reporters for months that it’s easy to tell a pollster on the phone that you support a particular candidate, but much harder to get that person to caucus for the candidate on January 3d. I do need to note that Gingrich has decided to engage in a series of tele-townhall conference calls. The intent of these calls is to give potential caucus-goers a chance to ask Gingrich their questions. Although I applaud the effort, I’m not sure that it will allow him to reach out to possible supporters in the numbers he needs. At the very least, it looks too much like he’s just phoning it in, so to speak.
4-6. Bachmann, Perry, and Santorum
I have to cheat here and group these three together. Current polling bunches these three in the high single- to low double-digit range, but well within the margins of error. Each of these candidates has strengths, but also weaknesses. Right now, they are largely competing against each other for some portion of the social conservative and Tea Party vote. Bachmann is coming off some strong debate performances, but she is still dogged by those fact-checking her every statement. She put a good organization together quickly for the Ames Straw Poll and can rely on that for continuing support. Her 99-county tour may help to firm up that support and maybe even gain a bit more. Perry has a good staff organization and has had the resources to compete and allow possible caucus-goers to give him a second look. He has had TV ads up for weeks. They didn’t seem to make much difference initially, but his numbers are creeping up. Given that he’s also on an extended tour of Iowa he may be able to capture more of the remaining undecided voters. The endorsements Santorum received in the last two weeks and his continued effort in Iowa may finally begin to pay dividends for him in terms of support. I see more enthusiasm among his supporters than those of any candidate other than Paul and that counts for a lot on caucus night. If trends continue, it could be very possible for one of these candidates to break into the top three.
Photo by Dave Davidson – Prezography.com
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