1/30/2008

The Presidential Finals

Just as South Carolina did for the Democrats, Florida has winnowed the incredibly large GOP field of presidential hopefuls down to two candiates. More than two candidates are obviously still in the race, but it has now reached the point where almost everyone can agree that there are only two plausible nominees remaining on both sides, with the other candidates serving as role players.

The finalists are Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on the Democratic side, and John McCain and Mitt Romney on the Republican side. The role players are John Edwards and Mike Huckabee, neither of whom will be the nominee, but could still influence the race by drawing enough votes to swing future electoral outcomes or perhaps even serve as a powerbroker at the party conventions this summer. (Huckabee's populist message is probably siphoning off evangelical and economic votes from Romney, which would benefit McCain. Edwards is more of a free agent who splits the change vote and the White vote, thus helping and hurting Obama and Clinton at the same time. UPDATE: Edwards is apparently bowing out of the race.) Both races are strikingly similar in that the candidate with the inside track to the nomination is more closely tied to the establishment (Clinton, McCain) while their rivals are less polarizing outsiders who are new to presidential politics (Obama, Romney).

Mitt Romney would have loved to win Florida because even though he has won the same number of primaries that McCain has (three), they are not really "clean" victories in that he had some built-in advantage that either ensured his victory or dissuaded his rivals from making him have to fight for it. Michigan was essentially Romney's home state. Wyoming was not on anybody's radar. And Nevada had a high population of Mormons and was not seriously contested by anyone other than Ron Paul. Florida would have provided Romney with his first true victory on competitive turf.

Having said that, Romney has put together a series of consistently strong performances in the early states. His only true failure was in South Carolina, where he pulled his ads in order to salvage his campaign in Michigan. But in every other state, he either placed first or second. None of the other candidates (except McCain) has that kind of record, as Rudy Giuliani placed behind Ron Paul more than once, Fred Thompson could manage no better than third, and Mike Huckabee has followed up his Iowa victory (which is now a fading memory) with a series of third place finishes and a crushing second place showing in his must-win state of South Carolina.

Given this, Romney has certainly earned his spot in the finals. While I'd estimate that he has about a 30% chance of winning the nomination, he does have two tremendous advantages that McCain doesn't have: money and the conservative intelligentsia. People commonly make fun of John Edwards for being wealthy, but Mitt Romney is actually the wealthiest candidate of either party in the presidential race. He has already loaned his campaign millions of dollars and could easily dip into his checkbook to loan it millions more. This gives him a bit more freedom in terms of advertising as Super Tuesday approaches. Several Super Tuesday states have expensive media markets (New York and California, especially), so Romney's personal fortune allows him to hit more airwaves in more markets more easily.

As for the conservative punditry, they are still quite angry with John McCain. While they do respect his military service, his support for the mission on Iraq, and his consistency regarding reducing spending, the punditry (and a lot of the Republican base) has yet to forgive him for his previous positions on illegal immigration, campaign finance reform, and bipartisan overtures. Ironically, this weakness is also his strength in that the GOP consists of more than the ideologues who form the base, as the exit poll data remind us. (I predicted McCain's resurgence almost two months ago. Read The McCain McCalculus to see why I think McCain is the true consensus candidate in the Republican race despite his warts.)

Romney essentially becomes the not-McCain candidate, just like Barack Obama is seen as the not-Clinton candidate. The media may seem to have a soft spot for McCain, but conservative columnists, talk radio hosts, and conservatives from prominent think tanks now view Super Tuesday as their final chance to stop him. So I'd expect blistering commentary to emerge from these conservative circles. McCain has also made a few damning quotes, such as talking about how "he doesn't know much about the economy" and how "there will be more wars." Romney could try to exploit these quotes because the economy is a bigger issue on voters' minds right now than terrorism, and even Republicans are a bit weary of new wars, especially given their relationship with the economy.

If you replace McCain with Clinton and Romney with Obama, the same parallels emerge. Clinton represents the establishment and Obama represents the future. Clinton has many advantages over Obama in the Super Tuesday states because of her name recognition and the fact that her name is comparatively less sullied in those states because she has only been campaigning there from 30,000 feet. The punditry and media seem to favor Obama, but Clinton has the political toughness to win, even if it's ugly. Consider the victory lap she took after winning the Florida Democratic primary, which wasn't even awarding delegates because it was being punished for violating the campaign calendar set up by the Democratic Party. That may turn out to be a shrewd move later on once the convention starts. Obama may criticize her for celebrating what should be a Pyrrhic victory, but the fact remains that Clinton did not violate the letter of any law regarding campaigning in Florida, even if her celebration there may have violated its spirit.

When waves sweep over the nation, everyone is affected. When there are national catastrophes, everyone is affected. And when there is pessimism on a national scale, everyone is affected. For these reasons, I think it is more likely to see either McCain vs. Clinton or Romney vs. Obama in the general election. I think McCain vs. Obama or Romney vs. Clinton is less likely because those candidates represent two entirely different concepts (and I'm not talking about political party).

McCain vs. Clinton would pit the two experience and establishment candidates against each other. These candidates do not have the blessings of their bases and are less likely to win an electoral mandate in November. On the flip side, an electoral rout is also much less likely here because both candidates know how to fight and even though many voters may not approve of their approach to politics, they must accept the fact that they do have a track record of delivering results.

Romney vs. Obama would pit the two outsider and change candidates against each other. These candidates have a lot potential to bring new voters into the process and would be more likely to run a civil campaign. However, because both candidates are new, there's no telling how strong their overall electoral appeal is. So this race has more potential to get away from the candidate who is seen as riskier.

In the event that the general election comes down to McCain vs. Obama or Romney vs. Clinton, there is a much greater risk of a landslide because if experience is what matters to most voters, then the party who nominates the candidate lacking it would be out of touch with most voters. Similarly, if the nation is hungry for change, the party who chooses an establishment politician as its nominee will be setting themselves up for a huge disappointment. "Change" is not just a Democratic desire, nor is "experience" simply a Republican one. Some concepts transcend party lines and are important to everyone.

The smoke is finally beginning to clear.

6 comment(s):

Thomas said...

I just am not feeling Romney, Anthony. And I don't think prejudice will have much to do with Romney's ultimate loss. His personality type doesn't fit the GOP mold. He isn't charismatic like Reagan or Bush. He could never mix it up among the common folk.

The flip-flopping also hurt a lot. The most recent presidential election pitted Bush versus Kerry. The two greatest charges against Kerry were he was from Massachusetts and that he flip-flopped. Romney evoked this memory too much.

Romney had no compelling narrative. Reagan had the narrative of being the voice of the conservative movement for 16 years, leading his flock in the lonely wilderness from the time of "The Speech" in 1964 until he won in 1980. George W. Bush has the compelling story of overcoming alcoholism and making himself right with his family and God. Even that apostate John McCain had the heartbreaking story of not abandoning his fellow prisoners; he elected to stay in hell for 5 1/2 years. (I couldn't have lasted 5 1/2 hours.) What was Romney's story? He had a family that got along with each other? Heck, I have that.

Itamazesus said...

I agree with Thomas, and would add that Romney spent huge on TV in NH, Iowa, SC and Fla, with this result. Thus, the $$ edge is minimized through McCain's free national media and a long history in the spotlight.

When you stop and think about it, Fla has lots of conservative
Republicans, as does SC. If Romney can't bag these states with all his dough, just think about NY, NJ, Ill, and Ohio, where more moderate Reps vote.

And whereas we look at Romney as the conservative in this race, his Mass. history is quite the contrary on gays and abortion, thus leaving everyone wondering "Just what will this guy say to get elected?"

The latest is "Washington is broken and needs changing." If he wanted credibility he could add "and George Bush has been a disaster."

67chevy said...

winnowed? We're not using a thesaurus here now are we?

Schenck said...

First off, Gravel's still in it! Hah.

Anyways, I predict Obama v McCain. Old v new. I really don't think Clinton will pull it off at this point, and I think Obama will garner a couple extra crucial endorsements Friday and Saturday (Richardson? Edwards?) that will help him cover the enormous ground on Tuesday. I think Edwards supporters will split 1/4 for Clinton (those who are uncomfortable with a non-white president) to 3/4 for Obama (anyone but Clinton voters, change voters). Anyone who was for Edwards and is switching to Clinton based on policy is simply uneducated or a closet bigot. I don't see how a voter could go from the guy fighting for the little man, the blue collar workers, and the unions to supporting exactly the opposite... the status quo... Clinton. It would be nice if Gore came out and endorsed Obama, because then the race would be over. Gore is like the new Jesus to liberals, but he seems to be above politics at this point, so I'm guessing he won't endorse til we have a nominee.

Oh McCain, you old bastard. McCain's the only Repub who's got a chance to beat a Dem come November. Anyone But Clinton-ers will punish her by staying home or by voting for McCain. Obama will split the independent vote with him, although Obama has a better chance of winning, you know, cuz of the whole war thing (as long as he chooses an experienced VP). Obama could draw a handful of moderate Repubs for the same reason. I think true conservatives (like my dad) are disappointed with McCain. They call him a liberal "on everything but the war," but that doesn't mean that every single registered Republican won't come out and vote for McCain if Clinton is the nominee. I think if Romney wins (he won't, 30% chance is a little generous) he could lose to Hillary a little or lose to Obama a lot. He's just too damn awkward; he has zero charisma. He reminds me of when Gore was robotic (before he was Jesus).

I'll give Obama a 60% chance of taking the nomination, versus McCain's 75% chance. I like Obama's new line of attack comparing Clinton's and McCain's voting record. Interesting how days before SC, the Clinton campaign said Bill would continue to take a large role in the race, then one day after Hillary got ran over, they backpedaled and said he would be taking a smaller role. I think now is the time for the Obama campaign to finally contest the experience claim, as Hillary really is not more experienced than him (though this could backfire on the "change" platform). Tonight should be a GREAT debate, by the way. I feel like Obama will make pertinent policy attacks, while Clinton will pretend to be above the fray (opposite from last week). Then he'll get her angry, and she'll go off on a tangent and soil herself. ...What? Super Bowl?

Anthony Palmer said...

Thomas,

A Romney nomination would probably set the GOP up for a landslide loss in November because he has some of the same problems that Clinton does. Romney has a charisma deficit and a negative reputation as a panderer. Clinton panders too and has obvious problems connecting with voters. But if she had to face Romney, it's a wash.

I'll probably write a detailed post about Romney soon. I've written a lot about McCain, Obama, and Clinton, but not much about him. So in the essense of fairness...

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Itamazesus,

Have you seen Romney's "change begins with us" signs? They look like rip offs of Obama's "change we can believe in" signs. Even the font looks similar. He may talk about how "Washington is broken," but he seems to neglect who is controlling Washington and who has ruled Washington for most of the past 7 years. I'm just waiting for someone to call him out on this.

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Chevy,

Glad you learned a new word.

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Schenck,

I think Saddam Hussein has a better chance of being elected than Mike Gravel. I didn't even know people were still referring to him as a candidate even though he technically hasn't folded up his tent.

Regarding McCain, I think he's the most acceptable Republican to non-Republicans. Democrats obviously want to win in November, but if McCain won, there wouldn't be as much contempt for him among Dems. He could beat Clinton, but would struggle more against Obama, especially since they represent such totally different things. Here's where Obama's vigor could actually make McCain's age an issue. And Obama is a much better speaker than McCain.

Seems like Clinton is the biggest hurdle standing between Obama and the presidency. Perhaps her hardball tactics have served Obama well because they've toughened him up a bit. But the Democratic base is really frayed right now. So I wouldn't be surprised if Obama chose a female governor or senator as his running mate, such as Gov. Napolitano of Arizona, although I really think he'd need a statesman on the ticket to balance out his relative inexperience.

The general consensus seems to be that Romney is the weakest of the 4 main candidates remaining. Obama would probably beat him by at least 10 points.

Thomas said...

I can't believe nobody has called out Romney on his inconsistent "change" message either, Anthony. Who does he thinks should have been changed the last eight years or so? George W. Bush? Dick Cheney?

If Tom DeLay was still there, would Romney be sucking up to him too?