About 80 percent of what will drive votes in the first few months of 2012 lies in front of us, not behind us. The national polls that seem to come out every day are interesting but not relevant. These polls answer a question that will never be asked: If there were a national primary today, whom would you vote for? Well, there isn’t going to be a national primary, no one has to decide today, and most GOP voters are undecided.
Right now, there are two contests for the Republican nomination to run against President Obama. First, there is a race between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry to be the GOP frontrunner, and second, there is a race among everybody else to be the challenger to the frontrunner.
Republicans are hierarchical, and we like order. We almost always nominate the second-place finisher from the previous election or an early-consensus frontrunner. This suggests that Romney should be our frontrunner. But a lot of the criticism of him is true: He has issues with authenticity, his support is thin, and he has some nagging preexisting policy positions that will have to be managed, not solved. If you had to make a bet, though, you would bet on Romney.
Perry is a contender for frontrunner because he is the popular, successful, attractive governor of Texas, which is ground zero of the Republican universe in America today. He is an able campaigner, and he has a thick layer of Texas fundraising cream that is already in his bowl. But he has made some beginner mistakes and some bewildering mistakes. He has to study, have something original to say, be able to take a punch and counter-punch. To be president, you must be durable and likeable. Yet Perry has almost reached the stage where every mistake is a metaphor, so he has very little room for error. Even his wife is one mistake away from being a distraction. Soon, the other campaigns may be planting microphones in her path hoping that she will pick one up and talk.
The other candidates are subject to the natural rhythms of what I call the Cinderella cycle of a presidential primary campaign. At any given time, someone is holding the magic slipper, trying to make it fit – until it pops off and someone else gets to try. Herman Cain has it right now but is bound to lose it. The way the Cinderella cycle works, he will probably get another round with it before the voting starts.
Even though Cain won’t be the nominee, his candidacy tells us a lot about the psychology of GOP activists. Our team wants someone authentic, creative, fresh, bold and likeable. And we don’t have much tolerance for too many facts or too much information. In politics, a bumper sticker always beats an essay. Cain’s 9-9-9 is a bumper sticker; Romney’s economic plan is an essay. Perry’s rationale for giving the children of undocumented workers in-state college tuition rates is an essay. No hand-outs for illegal aliens is an effective bumper sticker.
The other assorted candidates are diving into the pile, trying to grab the slipper in hopes that some activists, contributors and media might believe it could fit. But, increasingly, time is the enemy of the second-tier candidates, who will be left counting on gaffes and scandals involving other candidates before they can be part of the race for GOP frontrunner or for most viable challenger.
Still, if I had to bet today, I would bet on Obama to win reelection. In American politics, what is supposed to happen tends to happen. Only once since World War II has a first-term president holding the White House for his party’s first term lost reelection. That was Jimmy Carter in 1976. And Carter had all the symptoms of a losing incumbent. He had a primary challenge from the ideological wing of the party (Ted Kennedy), he had a bad economy, and he wasn’t helped by the third-party candidate (John Anderson) on the ballot. Obama will probably only have the bad economy to contend with, and Republicans are more vulnerable to a third-party disruption than are Democrats. Also, take note: Obama’s fundraising has been very impressive. Given how diminished he is, the headwinds he faces from a bad economy, and what I think has been generally poor performance in office, he is building a huge pile of cash and, so far, Republicans are not.
My post today is probably the longest rambling the smart editors at The Post will let me get away with. I’m looking forward to seeing where this dialogue goes in the months ahead. A lot of fun, interesting things will happen, and I’m glad Carter and I will be living the campaign with you.