Make or break or take a break?

January 30, 2012

Tomorrow’s GOP primary in Florida, the fourth of the schedule, brings to a close a first phase which has, frankly, been absolutely bonkers.

The question is whether the quieter and less significant weeks between the 1st of February and Super Tuesday on the 6th of March will spell the certain end of the Gingrich campaign, or simply breathing space before another tumultuous period in Spring.

I didn’t realise until reading this post on Chris Cillizza’s The Fix (I am a Wannabe Yank, after all) but only three of the eight contests between Florida and Super Tuesday will result in delegates being allocated. And because of large Mormon populations or Mitt’s local roots, Romney is likely to win all of these three.

There’s also the question of Newt’s money and other resources running out, a point made by Cillizza too: Gingrich is substantially dependant on a millionaire Las Vegas casino owner (as classy a backer as it sounds, one would assume, as well as a risky one if the Florida result doesn’t meet expectations).

The problem with this argument, I think, is that it doesn’t account for the sheer speed with which Newt recently (if briefly) established himself as the front-runner, nor the depth and breadth of support he showed himself able to command. And whilst the Speaker’s surge is at an end for now, he has also managed to secure the backing of Tea Party darlings Palin, Perry and Cain.

And the basic calculus won’t shift: most Republicans do not love Romney, and one suspects that all Gingrich needs is another crowd-pleasing media moment in the last week of February or first week of March like the one in the run-up to South Carolina for things to be up in the air again. There is, for absolute certain, more than a smidgeon of wishful thinking at play here on my part too.


A week in the zoo

January 26, 2012

President Obama’s State of the Union speech (full text here, sample line: ‘So far, you haven’t acted. Well, tonight, I will.’ AND THE CROWD GOES WILD!!!) was, apparently, partisan; although I doubt any of the politicians and commentators making this complaint were really very surprised.

Because frankly who wouldn’t adopt a partisan tone when the men jostling to face him in November include current front-runner Newt Gingrich who judging by recent statements cares more about establishing a base on the moon than tackling Florida’s housing crisis.

In any case all the President is doing is – if recent research is to be believed – reflecting the fact that in a very basic physiological sense, Republicans and Democrats are different creatures.

The research in question is covered by The Economist in this entertaining piece. Dr Michael Dodd of the University of Nebraska probed the physical and emotional responses of self-identified right- and left-leaning Nebraskans when they were shown different vivid images (in two studies, one with undergraduates; as a footnote: anyone who follows popular science reporting will wonder, with me, how undergraduates find time to do any studying in amidst taking part in this kind of experiment on an apparently daily basis).

The short version of the findings is that Republicans obsessed about the nasty images and cared less about the nice stuff, and Democrats did exactly the opposite. And the more partisan, the more pronounced the effect.

We know from previous forays into blogging about US partisanship that party affiliation comes first: driving political views rather than the other way around. So, frankly, based on this new conclusive evidence, the President’s decision to thump his tub a little was the right one.

Obama: tried his best but failed, or probably evil?

January 24, 2012

I enjoyed this piece in the Washington Post today, which succinctly and accurately characterised the quite different strategies that Romney and Gingrich are adopting for attacking Obama, their choices based on whether they’re aiming at the Republican base (Newt) or the wider electorate (Mitt).

Romney is trying to reach a general-election audience, including many people who voted for Obama in 2008 and still like him personally. So he casts the president as an honest mistake, a low performer who simply needs to be replaced.

Gingrich, by contrast, is aiming at a Republican primary electorate that never liked Obama much to begin with. So he portrays the president as the representative of a whole poisoned way of thinking: an adversary who needs to be not just defeated, but repudiated.

These approaches also fit nicely with the respective candidates’ different styles: Romney appraising a failed job applicant, Gingrich crusading against a socialist evil. The obvious conclusion is that on the evidence of South Carolina the tougher Gingrich attack is the one which appeals the most to Republican primary voters, at the moment at least.

All hell breaks loose as Republican paradigm shifts

January 24, 2012

For every eager left-leaning Wannabe Yank, it couldn’t get much better than this. Three Republican primaries, three different victors. The one contender who could probably give Obama a serious run for his money walloped first by his hiring-and-firing past and, yesterday, by a vast income revealed against his will showing a tax rate roughly half that of the President.

Latest polls from Florida – the next GOP primary – show Gingrich’s surge continuing, which isn’t surprising really when you consider how thoroughly Newt won across almost all groups of voters in South Carolina. As John Heilemann writes in New York magazine:

…Gingrich beat Romney soundly across the board: 42–26 with men and 38–29 with women; by nine or more points in every age cohort; by double digits in every educational cohort except those voters with postgraduate study (which Romney won by a bare two points); among both married and unmarried voters; among the poor, the middle class, and the rich…

The list goes on (that’s not just a rhetorical device: I’ve chopped Heilemann’s paragraph in two!).

We shouldn’t assume that Florida will be as big a win as SC, not least because a large chunk of voters have already voted, when Romney was still the presumed won-already nominee.

But as Nate Silver writes on his consistently excellent FiveThirtyEight blog, the extent of the anti-Romney voting in South Carolina does suggest a genuine paradigm shift in what weighs most heavily in voters’ minds.

The theory is that the backing of party grandees and a well-organised campaign on the ground matters far less these days than personalities and ‘media moments’ (like the one Gingrich managed when he lashed out at the moderator in the last debate before the SC poll).

This is a win-win situation for Democrats. If – as unlikely as this seemed just a fortnight ago – the GOP chooses Gingrich (the bane of the Republican establishment from his time as Speaker of the House) then he will have a mountain to climb to beat Obama: current polls show the President with a lead of at least 10 per cent.

Irrespective of how quickly the party coalesces around a single candidate the race will go on, with Romney, Gingrich and Paul able and likely to continue, for different reasons. Further in-fighting, factionalism and bickering. Marvellous.

Obama’s path to re-election: do nothing?

January 19, 2012

Today is a pretty darn exciting one, so I thought I would counteract the slightly gloomy tone of my post earlier this week.

In it I blogged about how low President Obama’s start-of-election-year poll numbers are in historical terms. But there is reason to be a little optimistic. It seems from recent experience that maybe Team Obama’s best strategy for holding on to the White House is… to do nothing.

Yesterday saw two bits of good news. First, Barack started his attack – in the form of the first TV commercial of the Obama 2012 campaign – and second, more detail from the Washington Post-ABC News poll which suggests that voters still overwhelmingly blame Bush over Obama for the state of the economy (54 compared to 29 per cent).

But most hopeful – if not exactly most edifying – was the news that the President achieves most by doing nothing at all.

Last week the White House announced plans to merge a number of overlapping government agencies into one. The general thrust of the idea has received a very positive response, including from many Republicans, but that’s partly because no details for anyone to disagree with – a name, for example, for the new agency – have been put forward.

The clever bit is the way the President’s team asked for authority from Congress to quickly proceed with the plans in a streamlined way, thus basically ensuring that it’ll never go anywhere despite being A Good Idea.

This is a continuation of the strategy Obama began with his address to Congress last year about jobs and, whilst rather negative as a tactic, would seem to be a pretty smart move in light of the lingering bad reputation of the Bush years.

Why the Republican primaries really matter

January 17, 2012

The Republican Party primaries can sometimes seem of strictly limited interest, even to a Wannabe Yank, and following them closely by extension a niche pursuit one step away from being, say, a member of the Labour Party.

But if you need a reason to take the GOP’s internecine warfare seriously, then just check out the latest Washington Post-ABC News opinion poll, which suggests a very strong chance that one of these buggers will be the next president. Whilst Obama’s numbers are better than they have been, only one post-war incumbent – Nixon – has begun an election year with a sub-fifty approval rating, and perhaps even more worryingly Obama’s support amongst those all-important independent voters is also low.

So for my money, the GOP pre-election elections are worth watching closely, with the next this coming Saturday in South Carolina. The most recent poll still places Romney with a modest lead over Gingrich in second, and whilst these figures don’t take into account the departure of Huntsman or any impact from last night’s debate, the received wisdom (by which I mean ‘wisdom I have received’) is that whilst Romeny did not do well, he certainly didn’t do badly enough to seriously harm his chances when there are so many NonRoms left to split the vote against him.

And let’s not forget: whilst South Carolina might be ‘more Republican’ than New Hampshire and Iowa, and the first Southern primary (i.e. uncomfortable territory for Mitt) it’s also a much bigger state – geographically and in terms of population. Then we’re on, in short order, to Florida and Super Tuesday, with wide reach – advertising, web, social media – becoming ever more crucial, the kind of capacity that Team Romney has in spades (a point made in the middle of this lengthy ‘local perspective’ post on an SC news site).

Mitt Might Fail theories: the sensible and the stupid

January 13, 2012

This week, left-leaning pundits are still trying to convince themselves and everyone else that despite mounting evidence to the contrary, Mitt Romney may still lose. As far as I can tell there are three main theories, ranging from the short- to the longer-term focused and the more to less misguided.

First: not so much a theory as an obvious statement of political fact (one which Romney’s campaign can’t possibly have missed): South Carolina is Not New Hampshire. The corollary being that urbanite Mormons like Rom will do worse whilst red meat cowboys like Perry will do better.

It’s too early to tell exactly how tight it will be, but Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog has a useful analysis of the most recent polling data (and its reliability). An academic from South Carolina, writing in the Huffington Post, suggests that Romney’s team will need to play dirty to win in a state that likes and even expects rough campaigning, the implication presumably being that Romney doesn’t have the stomach for a nasty fight, and will do badly as a result.

Mitt might not win, and he certainly won’t win handsomely. The point is it doesn’t matter much: no candidate expects to win every single primary, and as I blogged the other day, Romney has very solid approval ratings amongst all Republicans, even the ‘very conservative’. Which brings us on to theory two.

Second: obscure and probably mistaken theories about the Republican Party delegate allocation process. Chatting to a friend yesterday reminded me why last minute drama at the party convention is such an appealing prospect: anyone interested in US elections wants to see the purest crystallisation of party politics, and a to-the-wire convention offers that.

It’s in the blood of the GOP, as well. The Republicans’ own founding father, Abraham Lincoln, was chosen as the party’s nominee only because of the shrewd manoeuvring at the convention in 1860. So you can understand why it’s an alluring fantasy receiving a fair amount of attention.

It probably won’t happen though. The key issue stoking the current ‘it won’t be decided until the convention’ position is the fact that the GOP has a more proportional system of allocating delegates to candidates than first-past-the-post (i.e. winner takes all). Chris Cillizza’s The Fix has an excellent breakdown of the theory…

By not allowing Romney to rack up big margins in early states, the argument goes, [the delegate allocation system] allows for a competitive delegate race in which second- and third-place finishers can keep it close. Keep in mind, Romney has only netted an eight-delegate lead with his two early victories.

…and the reasons it’s wrong. Many early primaries (Ohio, Michigan, Virginia) allocate the vast majority of their delegates on a district-by-district basis, using a winner takes all method, and states like Florida and – crucially – South Carolina that have already been ‘punished’ by the RNC for moving their primaries earlier are unlikely to be also forced to break with tradition and use a proportional approach. As Cillizza says: ‘A brokered convention might be a lot of fun in theory, but right now it’s just a theory’.

Third: Romney will win the nomination but lose the election because so many candidates have been intent on damaging his reputation in the process of trying to beat him. In particular (or at least most recently), the stench of easy-firing Wall Street capitalism could cling to Mitt as a result of his years at private equity firm Bain Capital and cause serious damage in this era of occupying things.

So for example you have the New York Times giving voice to gleeful Democrats, including senior Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod who dismisses the idea that by bringing these issues out into the open earlier, Romney is given more time to ready his defence in advance of the Barackattack.

And then there’s William Galston writing in The New Republic who suggests that if Romney can present a convincing counter narrative to combat this toughest challenge, he’ll be a formidable candidate (whether he can or not is another matter).

Time will tell, but it’s notable that conservatives are rushing to Romney’s defence. My own personal feeling is that things will soon go quiet as Gingrich and others feel pressure to shut the hell up in the interests of party unity. In the longer term, though, Bain could well be the gift that keeps giving for the campaign to re-elect the president.

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