Thursday, June 30, 2011

Michele Bachmann's Odds on Intrade Rise, Establishment Candidates Fall

It has only been a few weeks since we last reviewed the odds on the Intrade markets, where investors can lay wagers on the 2012 Republican nomination. Intrade's page on the primary may be found here. Elephant Watcher offered a skeptical view of the predictive power of Intrade in an earlier post. But Intrade remains a useful tool, as it reflects the conventional wisdom of the Washington establishment.

Since the last time we looked at Intrade, little has changed for Mitt Romney. He's still in the lead, sitting at 35.6%, high above all competitors. Rick Perry has settled into a distant second at 15.9%, which is also about where he was last time.

The latest candidate to rise on Intrade--and it seems candidates take their turns doing so--is Michele Bachmann. She is buoyed by her recent bump in the polls, and stands at 15.1%. She's now in third place. Only Romney and Perry join her in the ranks of those getting double-digits.

The victims? Establishment favorites Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman. Intrade gives them 8.7% and 7.1%, respectively. This is quite a drop from their positions in May, where Pawlenty had 25% and Huntsman had 17%. Perry and Bachmann have both hurt Pawlenty, who is (correctly) perceived as a competitor in Iowa.

It's the Iowa calculation that has a heavy influence on the Intrade odds. Intrade now has a market for investors to bet on the winner of the Iowa Caucus. Intrade investors give Bachmann nearly a 50% chance to win that contest. Pawlenty is only at 7%. Romney and Perry are both given about 13%. Meanwhile, the New Hampshire market shows Romney winning handily at 65%.

Intrade investors appear to be quite responsive to early polling--but only where Bachmann's concerned. So far, there's only one poll showing Bachmann doing well in Iowa, and she's not even in first place. Poor Romney, who leads Bachmann by one point in that poll, is given only a 12.9% chance of winning Iowa on the Intrade market. The investors (rightly) sense that Bachmann's support is a sign of vulnerability for Romney in Iowa. Iowa's voters are looking for a reason to vote for someone besides Romney.

Meanwhile, Herman Cain is only given a 1.5% chance of winning Iowa, which explains why he's fallen so far in the overall nomination odds: down to 1.9%. Intrade has put its money on Bachmann (or Perry) winning the Tea Party's support.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Is Chris Christie Running for President? Part I

When one considers the various scenarios of how the 2012 Republican primary could turn out, there's one big unknown that looms over it all: Will Chris Christie enter the race? He has been asked the question countless times, and he has been consistent in denying that he intends to run. But he has made a careful point of not denying his intentions in what Elephant Watcher terms a "convincing manner." By contrast: Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, Mike Huckabee, and Donald Trump have all exited the race in the appropriate fashion, and have been placed into the "declined to run" category on the Campaign Status page.

To put it another way, Christie has only denied his intentions to run in the same way that Barack Obama denied he would run in 2008, and Rick Perry denied he would run in 2012. Perry changed his mind and is considering a run. Obama changed his mind and is currently president. But while Christie hasn't taken himself out of the race, that doesn't mean he will run. It only means he hasn't decided yet. So will Christie run?

Predicting whether a candidate will run can be a very tricky business. Sometimes the candidate himself doesn't know. Often the decision hinges on personal matters, such as whether the candidate's spouse or children are willing to support him. Earlier this year, Mitch Daniels was considered a strong candidate for president, but he declined to run. Daniels explained that he wanted to run, but his wife and daughters were against it. One might question the logic: If Daniels' wife was so afraid of publicity, why would she allow him to run for governor? Clearly, emotions play a role. Mike Huckabee, who was in an even stronger position to run than Daniels, announced that he would not run, either. He never gave a clear explanation for his decision. He just said that his "heart said 'no.'"

What about using Intrade, which bills itself as "The World's Leading Prediction Market"? On Intrade, investors can take bets on whether candidates will run. From the beginning, Elephant Watcher has cautioned readers that Intrade markets aren't a reliable predictor of election results, for a number of reasons. Intrade markets tend to react to events rather than predicting them.

Intrade investors are relatively certain that Christie won't run. Intrade gives Christie a 10% chance of entering the race. Intrade gave Christie a higher chance last year, before he started making repeated denials. Apparently Intrade investors take Christie at his word.

They also took Rick Perry at his word, until his word changed. Until mid-May, Intrade investors gave Perry a 10% chance of running, just like Christie. When Perry began suggesting he was reconsidering a run, his Intrade market skyrocketed. It now stands at around 75%. Again, that's a reaction rather than a prediction.

Intrade investors fared no better when it came to anticipating that a candidate wouldn't run. Consider the four candidates who were placed into the "declined to run" category. Intrade's predictions? Haley Barbour was given a 70% chance of running until the day he announced he wasn't. Mike Huckabee was given nearly a 60% chance of running until he made a similar announcement. (In January '11, Intrade gave Huckabee an 80% chance.) Donald Trump topped out at over 60% in mid-May, just before he bowed out of the race. As for Mitch Daniels, Intrade priced him at 70% until the day he announced his decision not to run.

We can't read Christie's mind, and neither can Intrade. Are there any factors that can at least assist us in making a prediction about whether Christie will run? We will examine this question in Part II.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Which Campaign Is the Most Disciplined?

Political campaigns have to deal with a lot of things outside of their control: Current events, attitudes of hostile media, actions of competitors, etc. One thing campaigns can control, in theory, is their candidate. Disciplined candidates stay "on message," avoiding gaffes, flip-flops, and unforced errors. If a candidate is both disciplined enough and skilled enough, he can talk about the subjects he wants to talk about--his areas of expertise--instead of what an interviewer or debate moderator wants to talk about.

Which of the Republican campaigns this year have shown the most discipline, and which have shown a lack of discipline?

High Discipline

Chris Christie is following a "late entrant" strategy, which requires him to stay out of the race until at least September. It also requires him to fly under the radar for the time being and avoid suspicion that he's planning a run. Thus far, Christie has issued simple denials in response to each of the many inquiries he's received about his presidential ambitions. So far, many people want him to run, but few think he actually will. President Obama's team recently ordered opposition on Christie because they believe he's likely to run, but they were embarrassed by a skeptical media when the story broke. Intrade investors have been convinced by Christie's denials, and they only give him a 10% chance of running. (Until May they gave Rick Perry the same probability.)

Mitt Romney, though his strategy for dealing with Romneycare may be lacking, has stuck to his position. Romney's reputation as the frontrunner has been bolstered by his lack of gaffes and his determination to stay on topic. He has branded himself the "economics candidate," and quickly returns the subject back to that area whenever he's asked about anything else. Romney offered a good example of his campaign discipline when he was interviewed recently by Piers Morgan on CNN: Asked about the Mormon church's view on homosexuality, Romney simply declined to engage, stating that he would not be a spokesman for his church during the campaign.

Moderate Discipline

Michele Bachmann is known for being gaffe-prone, but has not embarrassed herself in the short time she's been campaigning. Her debate performance on June 13th showed her discipline. The fact that she was disorganized enough to announce her candidacy while at the debate showed her lack of discipline. She has only begun to face media scrutiny.

Herman Cain has largely stayed out of trouble, especially considering his lack of political experience. But he's taken heat for some gaffes that demonstrated his lack of familiarity with the issues. It's likely Cain could be damaged even more if the media scrutinize his knowledge further. Only his campaign discipline has kept him alive.

Tim Pawlenty has avoided making enemies. He's also avoided gaffes, but not entirely. As we addressed in a previous post, his campaign still appears to be making up its mind about whether to go on the offensive or not.

Low Discipline

Newt Gingrich is perhaps the best example of a candidate who has been undone by a lack of discipline. He began his campaign with damaging gaffes on Meet The Press, and his staff was rocked by two rounds of mass resignations. While his debate answers on June 13th showed he has some depth, his mind also has a tendency to wander. See, for example, Gingrich's remark about how if the private sector had taken over from NASA years ago, we would today have a permanent base on the moon. It's entirely unclear what the focus of the Gingrich campaign is.

Sarah Palin is probably not running, so it may be unfair to include her on this list. However, if she were considering a run, her recent actions are baffling. By delaying her candidacy, she encouraged Bachmann to get into the race, which would only split the Palin vote. Palin's bus tour across the Northeast resulted in a disastrous gaffe about the history of Paul Revere, which she then attempted to defend. Then the bus tour reached an unceremonious end, which Palin blamed on jury duty.

Note: Jon Huntsman has not been included on this list as he has only just entered the race; Ron Paul and Rick Santorum are irrelevant.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Michele Bachmann Denies She's a 'Flake'

In a speech in Iowa today, Michele Bachmann officially announced that she's running for president. Bachmann already made that announcement during the June 13th debate. The confusion stems from poor timing on Bachmann's part; she needed to participate in the debate, but she had not planned for her campaign to begin yet. Thus, Bachmann officially entered the race twice.

During yesterday's interview with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, Wallace asked Bachmann an unusual question: "Are you a flake?" Wallace was essentially asking whether Bachmann, given her history of gaffes and her poor reputation among many in Washington, was actually a serious candidate. Bachmann was offended and said as much, but she remained calm and recited her résumé.

On its own, Wallace's question means little, but it typifies the attitude of the Washington establishment toward Bachmann: They believe she is sort of a joke. Bachmann likely felt Fox News was a safe place for an early interview. If Wallace's dismissive attitude is any indication, Bachmann will find no safe havens anywhere in the traditional news media. It's worth pointing out that Herman Cain, who has never held elective office, is treated with less disrespect than Bachmann.

It's not only journalists who have a dim view of Bachmann. The Republican establishment believes she cannot win a general election and that her nomination would be a supreme embarrassment to the Party. On the other hand, some of the establishment are Mitt Romney supporters who believe a win by Bachmann in Iowa would scare voters into supporting Romney in New Hampshire.

Even so, the higher Bachmann goes, the more pushback she will receive. Unlike Cain, Bachmann has not yet been subjected to much scrutiny. For the moment, Bachmann is enjoying a honeymoon period. She's new to the race and voters are interested in her, and her negative attributes have not yet been put on display. Earlier this year both Herman Cain and Donald Trump experienced similar honeymoons.

Bachmann has seen her poll numbers rise since the debate. The Des Moines Register just released its Iowa Caucus poll. As you can see from our Primaries page, where all Iowa Caucus polls are collected, few other polls have been taken of Iowa. The Des Moines Register is generally considered the best Iowa pollster; most pollsters are national, and few are set up to poll just for this contest. Bachmann did well in this poll, which did not include Sarah Palin or Rick Perry:

06/22 Des Moines Register (Iowa Caucus)
Romney 23
Bachmann 22
Cain 10
Gingrich 7
Paul 7
Pawlenty 6
Santorum 4
Huntsman 2

Note that a single poll means little, and that name recognition is a big factor at this point. Still, numbers like this will attract a lot of attention to the Bachmann campaign. Her honeymoon period is likely to end soon, and she will be subjected to a lot of flak from the media. Time will tell whether she can maintain her composure, as she has thus far.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Can Mitt Romney Set the Debate Schedule?

Mitt Romney recently announced that he would not attend the next primary debate, which is scheduled for July 10th. At the same time, Romney announced that he would be attending several other primary debates, which are scheduled for August, September, and October. Romney's campaign offered, as one reason for not attending, that the July debate sponsors had not yet secured a TV deal. Obviously few candidates have much incentive to attend debates that don't appear on television. But suppose Romney decided not to attend some of the televised debates? Can he leverage his supposed frontrunner status to set the debate schedule?

There are good reasons why a frontrunner might want to avoid debates. Frontrunners want, most of all, to maintain their lead. Debates present opportunities for change. A frontrunner may make a serious gaffe, or may be outshined by a competitor. By contrast, there are few chances for a frontrunner to really expand his lead. Romney in particular has reason to worry about debates, as they allow moderators (or other candidates) to challenge him on Romneycare. In addition, candidates perceived as frontrunners are often attacked by every other candidate at a debate--especially during the later debates.

All things considered, Romney has ample incentive to cull down the debate schedule. Could he get away with it? Would the media decide that a debate without the frontrunner wouldn't really "count"? And could Romney's absence lead other candidates to follow suit, skipping the debate to avoid looking like a second-tier candidate?

Precedent is mixed. Recall that Romney declined to attend the first primary debate on May 5th. The media largely downplayed the importance of the event. Newt Gingrich decided not to attend either, timing the beginning of his campaign for immediately after the debate. Of the purported first-tier candidates, only Tim Pawlenty appeared.

But there are good reasons why May 5th won't repeat itself. Recall that at the time, potential candidates like Mike Huckabee, Donald Trump, Mitch Daniels, and Sarah Palin had not yet made it clear that they weren't running. Also, Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman weren't in the race (for reasons that had nothing to do with that debate). Now the field is largely settled, with only Rick Perry and Chris Christie looming on the horizon. If Romney opts out and no one else does, it won't look like a "second-tier only" debate. It will just look like Romney's missing.

Despite its perceived unimportance, the May 5th debate had an impact on the race: It allowed Herman Cain to step forward as the chief Tea Party candidate. His poll numbers immediately shot up after the appearance. Indeed, the absence of other candidates only meant Cain got even more TV time. Bachmann, despite having planned to announce her candidacy later in the month, made sure to attend the June 13th debate to avoid giving Cain a second such opportunity. If Romney does attempt to skip televised debates, other candidates have every reason to show up anyway and trumpet their campaigns--and prevent other candidates from hogging airtime.

There's one other factor to consider: Just because Romney's not there doesn't mean other candidates can't attack him. If anything, they would be more comfortable criticizing him, since they know he can't defend himself. And he can be criticized for not showing up.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Is Tim Pawlenty's Campaign Schizophrenic?

Political debates are designed to allow candidates to discuss substantive issues. But people usually remember only a few moments of a debate, key answers or phrases that stood out from everything else. After the primary debate on June 13th, commentators became fixated on one thing Tim Pawlenty did not do: He did not challenge Mitt Romney on Romneycare when prompted to do so.

As we've discussed, there's nothing unusual about candidates refusing to attack each other during early debates. What made Pawlenty's pacifism stand out is the fact that he had criticized Romneycare the day before during a televised interview. Some observers reasoned, then, that Pawlenty was simply too intimidated to attack Romney face to face. This made Pawlenty look weak. Afterward, Pawlenty said in an interview that he had made a mistake by not taking Romney on more directly. Was Pawlenty being sheepish, or was something else going on?

One possibility is that there is a real indecision about strategy in the Pawlenty camp. In Pawlenty's Profile, you can see that his optimal strategy is to avoid making enemies, and let the other candidates self-destruct. On the Rankings page, you can see Pawlenty's likeliest scenario for victory is to be the last man standing: He lacks the ability to excite people, but he offends neither wing of the Party.

That strategy is passive. It relies on other candidates to beat each other up (or shoot themselves in the foot). If Pawlenty were to engage in direct combat with other candidates, he might alienate factions of the party. Then he would have difficulty being the consensus candidate. Pawlenty's strategy yielded some fruit over the past two months as various candidates either declined to run or harmed themselves. Pawlenty's odds of winning the nomination rose from 4% up to 15%.

But Pawlenty's campaign staff are likely to be looking at polls, and Pawlenty has not performed well in those. In the opinion of Elephant Watcher, Pawlenty will probably continue to have difficulty in the polls until much later this year, since even early primary voters won't be paying much attention to the race. If people aren't paying attention, it's hard for a little-known candidate to raise his profile, especially if he lacks charisma.

Pawlenty's advisors may well believe that Pawlenty must go on the offensive more, and become a more provocative candidate. They're probably pressuring him to go after the frontrunner, Romney. This could explain why sometimes he's willing to attack others (particularly in media like Twitter where people on his team may be writing under his name). The "Obamneycare" line that he used during the interview prior to the debate was almost certainly fed to Pawlenty by an advisor.

On the other hand, that kind of fiery rhetoric may not suit Pawlenty's personality. In addition, campaign advisors tend to not to agree with each other on everything. Like the electorate itself, they often break into factions. Some of Pawlenty's advisors tell him to attack, and others tell him to avoid fights. Still others tell him he should fight, but to save the effort for later in the campaign.

Whatever decision Pawlenty makes, it's important for a candidate to appear decisive and consistent. It's better to stick to a less-than-perfect strategy than to flounder about looking for a perfect one. Voters want to see a candidate who knows what he's doing.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The 2012 Republican Primary: Phase Two

Several weeks ago, we explained the different phases of the primary process. While political observers (including those who would follow a blog such as this) have been paying attention to the race, few others have. There is quite a disconnect between those who follow politics and those who don't. The country at large will not take note of the Republican primary until just before or after the Iowa Caucus in February 2012. Before then, most people will not even be familiar with the names of all the candidates (if even then).

During the 2008 primary the trend toward longer and longer political campaigns reached its limit: Candidates spent millions while most voters--even those in early primary states--hardly noticed. This time around, the candidates are being a bit more cautious.

We have, at last, reached the middle of the second phase of the primary season. During Phase One, most candidates had not yet declared. Phase Two began in late May and early June, as the field took shape. The entry of Jon Huntsman, Jr. likely marks the end of the beginning. From now on, campaign news should revolve around interviews, debates, and campaign events rather than official announcements of candidates getting in or out of the race.

Phase Three will begin in September, after Labor Day. By then, every candidate should be in the race, aside from those who are deliberately pursuing a "late entrant" strategy. During Phase Three, primary debates will take place once every couple weeks. And for the first time, people other than political junkies will actually pay attention to the race. The voters of early primary states will fully engage and investigate the candidates, though they probably won't make up their minds until November or December. Finally, Phase Four will begin at about the time of the Iowa Caucus.

For those who follow Republican primary news on a day-to-day basis, that sounds like a long way off, and it is. Because so much can happen between now and then, and because so few people will pay attention (let alone throw their support behind a candidate) until then, polls have limited use. They merely tell us about a candidate's starting point.

What can we watch for during the long summer of Phase Two? Though the field is largely settled, there are still some questions to be answered. Two "potentially running" candidates remain on the Elephant Watcher roster: Chris Christie and Sarah Palin. One other candidate, Rick Perry, remains in the undecided category. These are the candidates to watch over the next few months.

While Palin is unlikely to run given the fact that she made no effort to keep Michele Bachmann out, Palin is still technically in limbo. This summer, she could very well announce that she's not running. Or she could decide not to say anything. Were she to remain silent, however, there is a limit beyond which people will stop paying attention to her: After more debates take place without her in July and August. Afterward, Bachmann will completely eclipse her.

Perry is likely to make an announcement by the end of August. Iowa's Ames Straw Poll will take place in August, and while it is unscientific to say the least, it always gets headlines. Perry may jump into the race immediately after Ames, since he wouldn't have much time to prepare in advance of it, and to overshadow the headlines of the straw poll's winner.

As for Christie, his strategy involves a late entry, and he is unlikely to announce before September. However, Christie may do certain things to generate buzz in advance of that, especially if he senses Perry picking up too much steam. After all, both of them seek to fill the vacuum in the field. Christie could appear at events in Iowa or New Hampshire, or simply make remarks suggesting he's more open to a run than he was before. For example, he might say that he's dissatisfied with the field of candidates. If the current trend continues, he won't be the only one who feels that way.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Poll Shows Christie Beating Romney By Wide Margin

The conventional wisdom that Mitt Romney is a "clear frontrunner" has taken root among political pundits. But a new poll suggests that Republican voters simply prefer candidates who aren't in the race yet, and that Romney is quite vulnerable.

In the past, we have seen how poll results can be dramatically different based upon which candidates a pollster chooses to include. The latest polling experiment puts Romney in a head-to-head matchup against various candidates, including those who have not yet declared they're running. (No, Sarah Palin wasn't one of them.) The poll, conducted by IBOPE Zogby/Newsmax, pits Romney against Chris Christie and Rick Perry. Here's how they performed, among likely Republican primary voters:

Romney vs. Christie
Christie 62
Romney 19
Not sure 19

Romney vs. Perry
Perry 55
Romney 22
Not sure 23

A word of caution: Zogby's polling has a checkered history, to say the least. But given the sheer size of the lead, it can't all be explained by poor sampling. In particular, it's interesting to note how badly Romney is trailing Christie, even though Christie has repeatedly (but not convincingly) said he's not running. Perry is also doing very well, though Perry has been a lot more open about his presidential ambitions.

The poll further breaks down the dynamics among different groups: conservative, moderate, and liberal Republicans:

Romney vs. Christie
Conservatives: Christie 65, Romney 17
Moderates: Christie 58, Romney 28
Liberals: Romney 38, Christie 22

Romney vs. Perry
Conservatives: Perry 62, Romney 16
Moderates: Romney 46, Perry 37
Liberals: Romney 58, Perry 3

Romney is weakest among conservatives and strongest among liberals. Perry is extremely weak among liberals, but strong among conservatives. Christie performs the best among conservatives and moderates. Romney beats Christie among liberals, but only by 12 points.

The poll further reinforces the notion that Republicans are dissatisfied with the current field and its supposed frontrunner. It also shows that Christie is best able to unify the different segments of the Party. For this reason, Christie would be the favorite to win, were he to jump into the race. Elephant Watcher calculates that Christie currently has a 66% chance of winning the nomination.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Who Will Win the Iowa Caucus in 2012?

In our previous examination of the history of the Iowa Caucus, we saw that Iowa tends to choose candidates whom they view as electable. This runs against the conventional wisdom that Iowa favors socially conservative "wildcard" candidates. But what are the possible scenarios for 2012, and who would the winner of New Hampshire (i.e. Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman) want to win Iowa?

Listed roughly in order of their probability, the following are the basic Iowa scenarios, and a discussion of whether the New Hampshire winner (we'll assume Romney) would like them to occur:

Scenario #1: United Party. A new candidate enters the race who is able to unify and excite both the Tea Party and the Republican establishment.

Chris Christie is most likely to fill this role. This is the nightmare scenario for Romney, as Christie could go on to win New Hampshire (or do well there). The Republican establishment is only likely to support a highly electable candidate. If a candidate is both electable enough to gain the establishment's support while also being conservative enough to excite the Tea Party, then Romney is toast.

Scenario #2: Moderately Electable Tea Partier. A candidate who is popular with the Tea Party is able to become credible enough to be perceived as moderately electable. He peels off enough support from strategic voters in Iowa to win.

While Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain hope to fill this role, it's more likely to be a new candidate, such as Rick Perry. While Romney certainly fears a candidate who is both exciting and somewhat electable, all is not lost: Unlike the first scenario, Romney can still make the electability argument. A moderately electable candidate is better than an unelectable candidate, but will voters want to take any risk of President Obama winning? They may prefer a highly electable candidate (Romney) to a moderately electable one, even if Romney is less conservative.

Scenario #3: Consensus Candidate. A candidate who is inoffensive to both wings of the Party wins, despite not being able to generate excitement. It's a compromise.

This is Tim Pawlenty's scenario. Romney has much to fear from this one as well, since both candidates are perceived as highly electable. In addition, Pawlenty is perceived as more conservative. This leaves Romney with few arguments. Pawlenty is not exciting, but neither is Romney.

Scenario #4: Frontrunner Wins. Romney has the campaign infrastructure built up sufficiently to compete everywhere, and no one is able to knock him down.

Romney's dream scenario, of course, is to start with a win in Iowa. From there, he would easily win New Hampshire, and win the nomination without much of a fight. He attempted this in 2008, but Mike Huckabee beat him in Iowa--causing Romney to fall short in New Hampshire as well. If Romney's opposition is split enough, this scenario could take place.

Scenario #5: Tea Party Wildcard. The Tea Party is more influential than previously supposed, and voters vote with their hearts instead of their heads. Electability goes out the window, and Iowa chooses the most conservative candidate available.

Here is where Bachmann and Cain are more likely to fit in, as it would be difficult for them to persuade voters they're electable, given their job experience. Aside from winning Iowa himself, this is the scenario Romney most hopes for. He could make a strong case that the Iowa winner can't beat Obama. Thus the Republicans must either vote for Romney or let Obama win.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Who is Jon Huntsman? Another Candidate Enters the Race

To the delight of many establishment Republicans, Jon Huntsman, Jr. has finally announced that he is indeed running for president. Huntsman and Michele Bachmann are the only two candidates thus far who have jumped immediately into the race without first forming a presidential exploratory committee. The Campaign Status page has been updated once again. Unless Rick Perry tosses his hat into the ring soon, it may be a long time before the field changes again.

Polls suggest that Mitt Romney is the default choice of the establishment and moderate Republicans. But they have been seeking another candidate, one without Romney's baggage (Romneycare, flip-flops, lack of charisma). They may find Huntsman to be a suitable alternative. But Huntsman comes with baggage of his own, as he has been criticized for being too moderate/liberal on environmental issues and gay rights. Huntsman served under President Obama as the U.S. Ambassador to China, and he made public statements after the 2008 election attacking the Republican Party for being too far right. This came at the very moment the Tea Party moved the Republican Party to the right (and, in 2010, to victory).

Huntsman seems to be aware that his campaign strategy must be to destroy and replace Romney in New Hampshire. They will be engaged in a duel; only one of them may survive the New Hampshire primary. One is reminded of Winston Churchill's famous remark during the Second World War: "I have only one purpose, the destruction of Hitler, and my life is much simplified thereby." Hyperbole aside, that is the attitude Huntsman will need to adopt in order to win. Romney is the presumptive frontrunner, leads in all New Hampshire polls by a mile, and has plenty of money and campaign experience. Huntsman polls at nearly zero percent and is an unknown quantity to most voters.

If Huntsman is serious about becoming the Republican nominee, he must put aside his diplomatic tendencies and go fully on the offensive against Romney. Huntsman's conservative credentials may be in doubt, but he never created anything like Romneycare. It's obvious that Huntsman should relentlessly assail Romney's Achilles heel.

On the other hand, it's possible that Huntsman is not serious about winning. He may have calculated that he has little chance of defeating Romney. Then why run? There's long been speculation that Huntsman really wanted to run in 2016. If Huntsman believes in the conventional wisdom that Republicans prefer to nominate someone who has run before, then 2012 could serve as Huntsman's practice run. If this is the case, then expect Huntsman to leave his opponents (and Obama) in peace.

Elephant Watcher has added Huntsman to the roster of candidates and recalculated each candidate's odds of winning the nomination. Romney and Huntsman are to be locked in mortal combat in New Hampshire, and Romney is favored to win. Huntsman is thereby given a 2% chance of winning the nomination; Romney's chances drop by the same amount to 8%. If Huntsman is willing and able to draw blood against Romney in the debates to come, that balance of power won't be tilted so heavily in Romney's favor. In an unrelated adjustment, Michele Bachmann's odds have risen from 1% to 2% at the expense of Herman Cain.

News posts related to Huntsman will have the Huntsman "tag". For detailed assessment of Huntsman's strengths, weaknesses, and strategy, view his Profile. Elephant Watcher calculates Huntsman has a 2% chance of winning the nomination.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Newt Gingrich's Challenge: Win the Debates

Last month, we took a look at how well Tim Pawlenty is employing his campaign strategy so far. Today, we will examine Newt Gingrich. Each candidate's optimal strategy is outlined on the Profiles page. For an analysis of each candidate's position based on that strategy, check the Rankings page.

Even before he entered the race, Gingrich had a lot of obstacles in his path to winning the nomination. He is seen by many as a man of the past. His efforts to reinvent himself by embracing the climate change issue alienated many conservatives. His history of adultery alienated others. And there isn't an early primary state that's exactly tailor-made for him. In fact, Gingrich's campaign doesn't seem to be sure whether he should place all of his chips on Iowa or on New Hampshire.

After getting into the race, Gingrich suffered from gaffes during a major interview, attempted to backpedal, went on vacation, and lost nearly his entire campaign staff to a mass resignation. The conventional wisdom is that Gingrich's campaign is DOA: Dead On Arrival. This view is reflected by his odds on Intrade. It's also reflected in both state primary polling and national primary polling, where he trails candidates with equal or lesser name recognition.

What can Gingrich do? He needs to win the debates.

Gingrich's one advantage is that he is more comfortable and well-trained in a televised debate setting than any other candidate. He showed this during the June 13th debate, even though it took place just days after his campaign staff quit and he was written off in the media.

The good news is that there will be about a dozen more primary debates before the Iowa Caucus. The bad news is that even if Gingrich gave the best debate performance of all the candidates each time, it would still not be enough. There are simply too many headwinds against Gingrich, and too many candidates sharing the stage. Even if Gingrich gave the best answers, other candidates would probably give pretty good answers, too.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Gingrich needs to use the debates as an opportunity to go on the offensive. He must criticize his opponents, challenge them, and engage them in one-on-one confrontations during the debates. The debate formats usually aren't designed for this, especially in the early debates with many candidates, but debate moderators often allow it to take place anyway. They know it gets ratings.

Gingrich will need to put his faith entirely in his debating skills. The only way for him to win is for voters to think, "I like [Candidate X], but every time he got into an argument with Gingrich, Gingrich won."

It would be risky and a bit unorthodox. As we pointed out after the June 13th debate, early debates are civil, because there are risks associated with attacking other candidates. For Gingrich, however, the odds are stacked against him so heavily that it's more risky to take a traditional course. And there is no prize for second place. He must push all his chips into the middle of the table and hope for the best.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Has Michele Bachmann Been Underestimated?

One of the few stories that emerged from the June 13th primary debate in New Hampshire was the introduction of Michele Bachmann to the race. The story wasn't merely that Bachmann entered the race, but that she performed surprisingly well during the debate. There are some early indications that Bachmann's poll numbers may have leaped into the second-tier: still far behind Romney, but surprisingly high compared to other candidates.

Among the mainstream media, Bachmann is widely considered both an extremist and a gaffe-prone, unintelligent laughingstock. Among the Republican establishment, she is considered a loose cannon and completely unelectable. Meanwhile, the Tea Party holds Bachmann in high esteem, though some dedicated Sarah Palin fans view her as a threat to Palin's candidacy. The Tea Party scoffs at the opinions of the mainstream media and the Republican establishment. History shows, however, that the opinions of Democrats, Independents, and moderate Republicans do have considerable influence on the early primaries (including Iowa), where "electable" candidates almost always win.

Elephant Watcher's analysis of Bachmann shows that she suffers from low perceived electability. Moreover, she has been rated "low" in rhetorical ability, and Elephant Watcher's latest calculations show her with only a 1% chance of winning the nomination. But given Bachmann's reasonably strong performance in the June 13th debate, has Bachmann been underestimated?

Bachmann's campaign has two main tasks. First, she must unite the Tea Party wing by proving Herman Cain is less serious (i.e. informed, electable) than she, and bringing in Palin fans once they're willing to accept that Palin's not running. Second, Bachmann must expand her coalition beyond the Tea Party by improving her perceived electability. During the debate, she took steps toward both of these goals. Can she continue?

The road ahead is not as smooth as the first debate was. Bachmann greatly benefited from low expectations and easy questions from the debate moderator. She was also unchallenged by her competitors, since attacking other candidates during early debates is uncommon. Her candidacy has also been unchallenged by the mainstream media thus far. Though they've always despised her, they will not begin to dig into her past and begins serious attack until her poll numbers increase and she becomes a threat to win Iowa. In addition, Bachmann has not subjected herself to interviews by liberal journalists. Recall that Sarah Palin was extremely popular and appeared invincible--until she was interviewed. Bachmann may delay these interviews, but all Republican candidates eventually do them.

On that note, there is a possibility that Bachmann may improve her rhetorical skill rating on her Profile. During the debate, she appeared to at least have "moderate" rhetorical skill. However, rhetorical skill encompasses not only the ability to provide answers at a debate, but also "give and take" with a hostile audience, such as an interview with a liberal journalist. If Bachmann can emerge from such interviews relatively unscathed, her rating will increase.

Bachmann may have what it takes to defeat Herman Cain, but it is still early. New candidates get a bit of a honeymoon period. Afterward, voters start looking at their flaws. The next few months will be a critical period: It should become clear whether Cain or Bachmann is more likely to rally the Tea Party. And if Rick Perry enters the race, it will open up a new set of challenges for both of them.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Rick Perry's Intrade Odds Rise, Newt Gingrich Crashes

With the first major primary debate of the season behind us, it's time for another look at Intrade, the betting market where investors can lay wagers on the 2012 Republican nomination. Intrade's page on the primary may be found here.

Since the last time we looked at Intrade, Mitt Romney has solidified his position as the frontrunner. He is given 33.6%, which is almost 20 points higher than the next-highest candidate. Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman remain in the next tier, but they have fallen since last time, to 12.5% and 12.0%, respectively.

There is a newcomer who is quickly rising on Intrade: Rick Perry. Perry barely registered on Intrade just a few weeks ago. Now he's up to 15.0%, slightly ahead of Pawlenty and Huntsman. This is a reaction to the recent speculation about Perry entering the race. It's intensified, especially since some of the key staffers who left Newt Gingrich's campaign are former Perry aides. Intrade gives Perry almost an 80% chance of running for president. That number is unusually high for speculation about a new candidate. It's not inconceivable that someone connected to Perry's campaign is one of the investors, and is making some easy money based off what he knows his boss will do.

Gingrich's numbers crashed last time, but they managed to crash again in the wake of his mass campaign staff resignations. Gingrich is now down to 1.5%, which puts him out of the top-tier or second-tier, into the "miscellaneous" and "probably not running" category. Apparently his debate performance didn't help him much in the eyes of the Intrade investors.

The Tea Party crew--Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, and Herman Cain--are all in the single-digits and roughly split, with Bachmann slightly ahead. Intrade investors tend to follow the conventional wisdom of the Washington establishment, and they are skeptical of Tea Partiers' chances. The leading candidates (even including Perry) are in the traditional, "electable" mold.

Previously, we took a look at the past winners of Iowa and New Hampshire. They were almost always traditional, electable candidates, so Intrade investors may be on to something. The question is which electable candidate is likely to win the nomination. So far, Intrade is betting Romney, with Perry, Pawlenty, and Huntsman in a three-way tie for second. They seem to realize the potential for an anti-Romney (after all, Romney's at considerably less than 50%), but they don't know who it will turn out to be.

Friday, June 17, 2011

National Primary Polls Show Mitt Romney Leading, Tea Party Candidates Rising

In previous posts, we have seen why national primary polls need to be viewed with skepticism. With few people paying attention early on, name recognition becomes a bigger factor than it will be on voting day. National primary polls also fail to account for the impact that winning (or losing) early states has on the candidates' support.

But national primary polls can be useful in comparing apples to apples: If two candidates both have high name recognition, the one leading in the poll is probably in a stronger position. The same is true for comparing two candidates who lack name recognition. Also, if a candidate lacks name recognition but is still beating a well-known opponent, the well-known opponent is in trouble.

Today we will take a look at some recent national primary polls. Note that only one of these, taken by Rasmussen, was conducted after the June 13th debate:

06/14 Rasmussen -- Romney 33, Bachmann 19, Cain 10, Gingrich 9, Paul 7, Pawlenty 6
06/13 NBC/WSJ -- Romney 30, Palin 14, Cain 12, Perry 8, Paul 7, Gingrich 6
06/12 PPP (D) -- Romney 22, Cain 17, Palin 15, Gingrich 9, Pawlenty 9, Bachmann 8

A familiar difficulty in interpreting these polls is the fact that they're influenced by which candidates are included. For example, the Rasmussen poll excludes Sarah Palin, and the NBC/WSJ poll includes Rick Perry.

Comparing apples to apples, Mitt Romney is clearly in a stronger position than Sarah Palin or (especially) Newt Gingrich. All have high name recognition, but Romney leads. Among those with low name recognition, Herman Cain is leading Michele Bachmann, but not if Sarah Palin is excluded. Palin's harmful influence on the Bachmann campaign continues. The Rasmussen poll may also be indicating a bump for Bachmann post-debate, so it will be important to monitor these numbers as future polls are released.

The polls also show Tim Pawlenty struggling to keep up with Cain and Bachmann. Still, the more flamboyant and less electable candidates do tend to fade over time. Cain has taken damage from gaffes in interviews already, and Bachmann has not yet faced cross-examination by the hostile media.

The poll including Rick Perry shows a surprising amount of support, given how little coverage he's had, and Bachmann--who hardly ranks in that poll--may have somehow lost support to him. Given all the recent speculation, Perry may be included in more polls, and he will no doubt be watching them carefully.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Can Mitt Romney Really Get a Free Pass on Romneycare?

The conventional wisdom coming out of the first major primary debate is that Mitt Romney secured his position as the frontrunner. Romney was questioned about his Achilles' heel, Romneycare, and he emerged unscathed. Romney fired off a list of ways that Romneycare is dissimilar to Obamacare, and was not asked any follow-up questions by the moderator. The moderator then asked Tim Pawlenty about Pawlenty's recent assertions that Romneycare and Obamacare are alike (calling them "Obamneycare"). Instead of hitting Romney, Pawlenty backed away from his own remarks. The debate moved on, never to address the issue again.

As Elephant Watcher pointed out in Romney's Profile, Romney's main challenge will be dealing with Romneycare. Certainly Romney has some other weaknesses, such as his history of flip-flopping, being distrusted, and his Mormon faith. None of them compare to the problem of his instituting a policy so similar to the reviled Obama health care plan. After all, opposition to Obamacare was what united the Republican opposition leading up to the 2010 midterms and fueled the Tea Party. But at the debate, it appeared to be little more than a speed bump.

Nor was Romney criticized by the other candidates in any way. He is currently leading in all the state polls, but the rest of the field didn't lift a finger to challenge him. This leads one to ask the question: Are they really going to let Romney get away with this?

In a word, no. The first debates do not normally reflect that dynamics of a long presidential primary. Candidates are much less willing to attack each other. In the 2008 primary, for example, Barack Obama repeatedly refused to attack Hillary Clinton for several months--even though she was the undisputed frontrunner and 20+ points ahead of him in the polls. But as the date of the Iowa Caucus drew near, the criticism of Hillary intensified. In the end, Hillary lost Iowa. The Republican debates were not so different. They were very civil, and few candidates wished to speak ill of the others. At first. But it didn't last long. By the time South Carolina rolled around, Fred Thompson was practically accusing Mike Huckabee of being a Democrat.

There are a number of reasons why the candidates play nice in the beginning. No one wants to be known as the candidate who "went negative" first. Nor does anyone want to shoulder the risks of attacking the frontrunner while everyone else shares the benefit of the frontrunner being taken down. It's also important not to alienate the supporters of the frontrunner, who you'll eventually need in your coalition.

Long story short, the campaign is going to get rough several months down the road. Candidates will be more than willing to unleash their ammunition against Romney--especially if he still leads in the polls. Moderators of future debates will likely ask Romney about Romneycare again and again (unless Romney gets lucky). The issue will also be brought up because the constitutionality of Obamacare is being determined by appellate courts (and later, the Supreme Court). That will keep Obamacare--and therefore, Romneycare--in the headlines during the primary.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Can Rick Perry Steal Chris Christie's Thunder?

As we've observed many times before, Republicans are deeply dissatisfied with the state of the 2012 presidential primary field. There is a vacuum waiting to be filled: Voters want someone who can excite and unify both the Tea Party and establishment wings of the Party. Since no candidate already in the race fits the bill, Republicans have hopped from one potential candidate to the next. The past two months have witnessed speculation about a host of different individuals: Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman, Jr., Paul Ryan, and the list goes on.

Elephant Watcher's analysis of the field--backed up later by polling data--indicates that Christie is the candidate most likely to fill the void successfully. Given how closely the current state of the race resembles Christie's winning scenario, it's no surprise that Christie is projected to win the nomination.

But that doesn't mean other candidates might not attempt to enter the race and fill the void. A few weeks ago, we suggested that Perry was more likely than others to give it a shot. But as with Huntsman's careful deliberations, it's one thing to see an opening--and quite another to risk the humiliation of an unsuccessful run.

Perry will likely do a lot of investigating to determine whether he has a feasible candidacy. He'll make a lot of phone calls and exhaustively pore over obscure polling data where he's actually listed as an option. Unlike Christie, who occasionally posts good numbers despite having repeatedly denied his intention to run, Perry will find no signs of support in polls. He has little visibility outside of Texas, and voters are disinclined to support another Texas governor.

And yet, the void remains to be filled. Perry's low poll numbers are the result of his low profile. He has obstacles, but other candidates have them, too. If Perry is willing to throw the dice, he may find that voters are willing to overlook his weaknesses and view him as a stronger version of Pawlenty. Provided the Tea Party candidates (Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann) are unable to increase their perceived electability, a lot of the more strategic-minded conservatives could cast their lot with Perry. But voters will only give him a second look if he actually gets into the race.

If Perry wants to be president and has the courage to take a gamble, he will ignore the polls and jump into the race. There are no guarantees. But he must act quickly, and enter the race during the summer. By the time Christie is prepared to make a move in September, people won't be looking to Perry to fill the gap anymore.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Michele Bachmann Announces She's Running for President

At yesterday's primary debate in New Hampshire, Michele Bachmann announced that she had filed the paperwork necessary to become a presidential candidate. She still plans to make an official announcement, but given the fact that she essentially announced during the debate, her announcement speech will be superfluous. This shows poor organizational skills on the part of Bachmann's campaign: She could have gotten more media attention had she announced earlier.

Bachmann's poor timing was partly Sarah Palin's fault. Bachmann did not want to enter the race if Palin was, since they would simply split each other's vote and guarantee neither could win. Bachmann waited as long as possible, allowing Palin time to make up her mind. When it became clear Palin wasn't going to announce either way, Bachmann decided she had to enter the race anyway so she could attend the debate; Bachmann didn't want to give Herman Cain another opportunity to gather Tea Party support unopposed. This is precisely the sequence of events Elephant Watcher predicted a few weeks ago.

Bachmann will dedicate all of her attention to Iowa. If she loses there, her race is over. Bachmann will compete for the Tea Party vote, as her low perceived electability guarantees the establishment (and strategic voters) will not support her. As it becomes more clear that Palin will not run, Bachmann will compete against Cain.

As Bachmann demonstrated during yesterday's debate, she has the ability to sound like a reasonable, articulate candidate. She sounded more confident and informed than Cain did. However, Bachmann has not undertaken the gauntlet of TV interviews that Cain has. It remains to be seen whether Bachmann can emerge from hostile interviews unscathed. Her history suggests she will run into trouble, but sometimes candidates can become more skilled with practice.

There is still the Palin problem. Since Palin made no effort to attend the debates or prevent Bachmann from running, it becomes increasingly unlikely that Palin will run. But that doesn't mean Palin's fans will accept this fact right away. Palin supporters tend to be very loyal, and they won't jump into the Bachmann camp so easily. Bachmann is still in Palin's shadow, and Palin's fans may even begin to resent Bachmann for attempting to replace her.

If Bachmann is to succeed in Iowa, she'll need the full weight of the Tea Party behind her--including those who currently support either Palin or Cain. If Palin is willing to admit that she's not running, it will help Bachmann's coalition grow. Unfortunately for Bachmann, Palin follows Palin's schedule and no one else's.

As long as Bachmann avoids alienating Palin fans, she has plenty of opportunity to create a Tea Party coalition. Toward the end of this year, Tea Partiers in Iowa will make their final decision. Palin will have long since made the announcement she's not running (or it will simply be obviously too late). If Bachmann can prove she's the more serious candidate, she can defeat Cain and siphon his support. Barring a spectacular flame-out on Cain's part, she won't get all of his supporters on her side, but the Tea Party will coalesce around one or the other to maximize the chance of a Tea Party victory.

But it is not enough. Iowa winners need to prove they're electable. It's a long time between now and the Iowa Caucus. If Bachmann is to succeed, she must remain as disciplined and prepared during every public appearance as she was for the debate.

News posts related to Bachmann will have the Bachmann "tag". For detailed assessment of Bachmann's strengths, weaknesses, and strategy, view her Profile. Elephant Watcher calculates Bachmann has a 1% chance of winning the nomination.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Who Won the Republican Debate on June 13th?

In a primary debate, the candidates compete against each other--but they primarily compete against themselves. As we saw in the pre-debate post, each candidate had his own set of goals. Who achieved what he set out to do, and how did the performances measure up?

Newt Gingrich caught a lucky break: He was not asked about the mass exodus of his campaign staff. Instead, he was asked about his earlier criticisms of Paul Ryan's budget plan during a Meet The Press interview. Gingrich was able to adequately respond that his remarks were taken out of context. Gingrich gave a solid debate performance overall, even if no particular moments stood out. If he was still reeling from the defection of his staff, he did not let it show. Actually, Gingrich was quite comfortable on the stage.

Mitt Romney was asked about his recent defense of Romneycare. He would not divorce himself from Romneycare, but he was able to draw a number of specific distinctions between his plan and Obamacare, in rapid-fire fashion. Obviously he had practiced this response. Romney avoided the individual mandate issue entirely, but the average voter likely would have come away with the impression that the plans were different. Romney benefited again when the debate moderator invited Tim Pawlenty to criticize Romneycare and Pawlenty retreated from the opportunity. The question remains: Will Romney be forced to defend Romneycare at every debate, or will he be able to move on from it?

Tim Pawlenty was questioned about his recently-unveiled economic plan to cut taxes and create economic growth. Naturally, the liberal CNN debate moderator was skeptical. By contrast, the crowd of Republicans liked what they heard. Pawlenty actually received more applause from the audience than most. He stayed out of trouble--if anything, he was too cautious about criticizing the other contenders.

Ron Paul was true to form and spoke his mind. Unfortunately for Paul, his his fans--who normally manage to get seats in the audience at primary debates--seemed absent. He didn't get the laughter and applause he normally does. The other candidates wisely stayed out of his way.

Rick Santorum gave a decent performance, but remained a non-factor. He could not distinguish himself from the others.

The big event of the night was the Tea Party duel between Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain. As explained in the previous post, both of these candidates have the capacity to generate excitement among the Tea Party wing, but it's likely that the Tea Party will gravitate toward the one who appears more electable. In this case, it was essentially a draw--Bachmann had a slight edge, perhaps. Both Cain and Bachmann avoided making major gaffes. Cain appeared no more or less informed than the other candidates. In the minds of non-strategic voters, Cain has as much right to be considered as the rest--despite having never held elective office.

As for Bachmann, she gave a very disciplined, polished performance. She avoided giving voters a reason to think she is the extremist that the left claims she is. If anything, she was more sober and sedate than one would expect from the firebrand. Instead, she emphasized her economic conservatism and her work in Congress. Bachmann did create one awkward moment by announcing that she had filed paperwork to enter the race officially. (The Campaign Status page has been updated to reflect this.) She should have entered the race before the debate rather than during it. Her delay in entering the race has given Cain ample opportunity to steal from her base, and she will struggle to get back into the driver's seat. Luckily for Bachmann, the moderator did not ask her any questions about Sarah Palin.

So who did the best? Overall, Cain and Bachmann probably got biggest boost from the debate, for the reasons provided above. They needed to look like serious candidates, and they did. Romney succeeded in skating by the Romneycare issue; any time he can do this, it's a plus for him. The surprise winner of the debate was Gingrich, who did not look at all like a defeated candidate.

The candidates still show signs of being new to the game. Most of them will improve over the next few months; it usually takes a few debates before presidential contenders become comfortable with the format. And they will grow more willing to attack each other as the pressure mounts.

First Major Primary Debate Tonight in New Hampshire

CNN is hosting a primary debate in New Hampshire tonight; it will be broadcast on the network at 8:00pm Eastern. Seven candidates have accepted invitations to participate. They include all six of the candidates officially in the race (Cain, Gingrich, Paul, Pawlenty, Romney, and Santorum), plus Michele Bachmann. Unlike the May 5th debate hosted by Fox News, CNN did not require participants to create a presidential exploratory committee. No doubt CNN was eager to get Bachmann and Sarah Palin in on the action. However, Palin declined to attend, as did Jon Huntsman, who was also invited. Both are still considering whether they want to run for president. CNN raised the poll requirements slightly so as to exclude former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, who appeared at the Fox News debate. For more information on how debate invitations work, see our earlier post.

This will be the first true debate of the primary season, and the first debate appearance for Bachmann, Gingrich, and Romney. With seven candidates, it will be interesting to see if CNN favors the more well-known candidates, or if they divide the number of questions evenly. At the May 5th debate--which had only five participants--Fox News gave each candidate the same number of questions. During the 2008 primary season, there were often as many as ten Republicans at each debate, and only the top-tier candidates got a decent amount of attention. The pressure will be on CNN to give each candidate an equal chance: There are seven candidates, which is more than they would like, but the field is wide open.

The stakes are highest for Newt Gingrich, as his entire campaign strategy rests on his ability to out-debate opponents, and his campaign staff resigned en masse only a few days ago. At this point, the very survival of his candidacy is questionable.

The debate will also be very important for Bachmann and Herman Cain, who will vie for the hearts and minds of the Tea Party crowd. Cain got a lot of attention at the previous debate, but it was easy to stand out with so few other candidates. After Cain's recent gaffes, the CNN moderators will be eager to probe his knowledge and find a gap. Bachmann will try to steal some of Cain's enthusiasm, but she's known for making gaffes of her own. Whichever candidate can appear to be the more serious will emerge in a stronger position.

Another point of interest will be the battle between Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney. They may not be willing to attack each other openly so soon, but each will try to play the role of the "senior statesman" (or as it's frequently called today, "the adult in the room"). They are the two candidates with the most perceived electability. If Romney stumbles, some of his establishment support may find itself drifting toward the Pawlenty camp.

Rick Santorum is frequently overlooked. He will need to make every effort to get attention. If he doesn't get it at a debate, he won't get it elsewhere. Ron Paul, meanwhile, will likely use his debate platform however he sees fit and have some fun.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Can Michele Bachmann Win Iowa?

The idea that Iowa could play a "wildcard" role in the 2012 Republican primary has become more popular of late. It is increasingly common to hear pundits suggest that a fringe candidate could win Iowa and, potentially, the nomination. The Republican establishment is nervous about the influence of the Tea Party and social conservatives: During the 2010 midterms, Republicans lost some important races (e.g. in Nevada and Delaware) due to the nomination of unelectable Tea Party favorites. Their nightmare is that the same could happen in a presidential race. Some establishment Republicans have even suggested that New Hampshire should be given more priority, as it has (supposedly) more sober-minded voters.

Michele Bachmann, with her ties to Iowa, Tea Party credentials, and low perceived electability make her the subject of the establishment's fears. (In time, similar fears may arise concerning Herman Cain.)

But do Iowans actually have a history of voting for unelectable candidates? Let's consider the winners of the Iowa Caucus since the modern primary system was established in 1980. For the sake of comparison, we will also look at the winners of the New Hampshire primary. Incumbent presidents have been omitted from these lists, as they won almost automatically in each case.

1980 -- George Bush Sr.
1988 -- Bob Dole
1996 -- Bob Dole
2000 -- George Bush Jr.
2008 -- Mike Huckabee

As the list reveals, Iowa's adventurous spirit is highly exaggerated. Indeed, many Tea Partiers reviewing the list of winners would say that Iowa is a state full of "RINO"s. Only Huckabee might be seen as a sort of "insurgent" candidate, but even then it's a stretch. Huckabee was a governor for 10 years and was not known for his extreme positions. (In fact, Huckabee was mightily criticized by the Republican establishment for being too moderate on economic issues.) Nor was Huckabee viewed as unelectable. His executive experience and affable, articulate presentation most likely made him more electable than John McCain, who won the nomination that year.

Now let's consider the New Hampshire winners.

New Hampshire
1980 -- Ronald Reagan
1988 -- George Bush Sr.
1996 -- Pat Buchanan
2000 -- John McCain
2008 -- John McCain

Many Tea Partiers view New Hampshire as RINO territory. And several liberal-to-moderate Republicans did win the state. But Buchanan won there in 1996, and in 1980 Reagan--then seen by many Democrats as too extreme to win a general election--placed first.

Thus, the history of Iowa shows that its voters place a high premium on electability, and its winners are not always conservative. It is just as willing as New Hampshire to select a RINO, and perhaps moreso.

That doesn't mean a Tea Partier or a staunch conservative can never win in Iowa. But it does suggest that for Bachmann to stand a chance, she must first improve her perceived electability. Iowa does not have a history of taking risks.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Where is Jon Huntsman, Jr.?

One of the biggest disconnects between the way political pundits and Republican primary voters view the race involves Jon Huntsman, Jr. Huntsman recently returned from his post as U.S. Ambassador to China and began making moves toward a presidential run. After Mitch Daniels declined to run, it became the conventional wisdom among the Washington establishment that the three biggest players in the race were Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Huntsman. The odds on Intrade reflected this perception. All of this leaves the average Republican voter asking the question, "Where is he? Where's Huntsman?"

As you can see from the Campaign Status page, Huntsman has not yet formed an exploratory committee or announced a run for president. Until he does so, he will not even appear on the Elephant Watcher roster. Unlike Michele Bachmann, Huntsman decided he would not even appear at the June 13th primary debate, a debate which will effectively be the first of the season (many candidates bowed out of the previous one).

One of Huntsman's greatest weaknesses at the moment is his lack of name recognition. It's hard to ask a voter to support a candidate about whom they know little or nothing. Conventional wisdom says that Huntsman is one of the top three candidates in the race, yet it's unclear whether Huntsman will actually run. Perhaps he will, but if he had already decided he was going to run, he probably would have made plans to participate in the upcoming debate.

Otherwise, it's difficult to understand why a candidate with such a low profile would pass up a free, important opportunity to raise it. Though Elephant Watcher has not yet conducted a full analysis of Huntsman, it's readily apparent to all that he will be competing in New Hampshire against Romney for the "establishment candidate" position. If Huntsman appeared at the debate and did well, he could undermine Mitt Romney's campaign just as it's getting started. Or at least he could create the impression that Romney's not alone in New Hampshire. Recall that at the May 5th debate, Herman Cain alone represented the Tea Party, and he helped prevent Michele Bachmann from shoring up the Tea Party in Iowa. Huntsman could have worked toward the same goal at the upcoming debate.

Huntsman has also been very guarded in his interviews. He has assiduously avoided criticizing President Obama. When asked whether Obama is a good president, Huntsman replied, "History will show how effective he is." Of course, historians will not be the ones who decide whether Obama will get a second term; American voters will. One of the easiest ways for a candidate to get applause (and party credibility) during a primary is to attack the other party's candidate. Romney has done this, Huntsman has not. In fact, Huntsman has suggested that he need not attack Obama by name during the campaign. Either Huntsman is having trouble shedding the role of the diplomat, or he's hedging his bets.

Most likely, Huntsman is still looking for signs that his candidacy stands a chance against Romney. It's easy for a pundit to look at the field and say Huntsman has a chance, or to plunk down a few dollars in Huntsman stock on Intrade. There's little risk. For the candidate himself, there's plenty of risk. A presidential run involves an extraordinary amount of time, money, and effort. If a candidate does poorly, his reputation (and ego) take a big hit. In 2008, Rudy Giuliani failed in dramatic fashion, winning not a single state in the Republican primary. He still hasn't recovered.

Given the risk, Huntsman would probably like to see some evidence in the polls that he has support. He won't find it there. The trouble is that a candidate with low name recognition can't get good poll numbers unless he actually gets into the race. There are too many candidates. Even voters who like Huntsman will select someone else on a poll if they don't know for sure he's running. Pollsters may also decline to include Huntsman as a poll option until he does make his run official.

Primary debates form deadlines of sorts. They put definite dates into a long campaign season that the candidates otherwise calendar themselves. As Elephant Watcher anticipated, the June 13th deadline has spurred several candidates to make official announcements, and has even forced Bachmann to effectively get into the race. Huntsman has passed this time. The next primary debate is tentatively scheduled for mid-July. Huntsman will probably make his decision before then.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Why Did Newt Gingrich's Campaign Staff Resign?

It seems as if Newt Gingrich's campaign is cursed. Within a month of officially announcing his candidacy, Gingrich has suffered two meltdowns. The first occurred during his Meet The Press interview, just after he entered the race, when he committed serious gaffes. Though gaffes made early in a race have less of an impact, it was a bad way to reintroduce himself to the public after being out of office for so long.

The second meltdown occurred yesterday, when most of Gingrich's campaign staff--including high-ranking operatives and staff in each of the early primary states--resigned from the campaign en masse. They offered no explanation, though they did say that Gingrich told them he would remain in the race.

Some observers have noted that some of Gingrich's high-ranking campaign aides have ties to Texas governor Rick Perry, who is considering a run. Others have suggested aides may be irritated or baffled by Gingrich's campaign gaffes and his sudden, two-week luxury cruise in the Mediterranean.

A mass resignation such as this probably cannot be fully explained by either of those. While some campaign aides may have ties to Perry, it's unlikely they could convince everyone in the campaign to switch sides unless there was another compelling reason. Also, early mistakes (or early vacations) in a campaign are probably insufficient to provoke such widespread chaos. Instead, it's probable that there is much more to the story. For example, Gingrich may be involved in some catastrophic scandal (typically a sex scandal). Or he may be entertaining second thoughts about running, in which case he will drop out of the race before the upcoming debate.

It's not uncommon for top aides to be replaced during a campaign. Some candidates (like John Kerry in 2004) have replaced campaign staff several times and still won the nomination. But such a wide-scale resignation reinforces the notion that Gingrich lacks the discipline to run his campaign properly.

This couldn't have come at a worse time for Gingrich, whose first appearance at a primary debate will take place on June 13th. Gingrich's entire strategy relies on debate performances. It's obvious what Gingrich will be asked about now.

Elephant Watcher has calculated that Gingrich's chances of winning the nomination have eroded slightly from 3% down to 2%. Chris Christie is the beneficiary, as the 2012 Republican primary is becoming something of a comedy of errors. This is the first time that the odds have required recalculation from an event other than a candidate exiting or entering the field.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Feud Between Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann Is Dangerous Territory

The possibility of a rift between Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann is something we have discussed extensively. The two have essentially the same potential base of support, so a conflict was inevitable if one didn't drop out of the race quickly. The only question is whether the feud will simmer underneath the surface, or if it will become more public.

Earlier this week, the Bachmann campaign was proud to announce that they had hired Ed Rollins as her chief campaign manager. Rollins is considered by all to be a skilled political operator. He has worked on several "insurgent" campaigns like the one Bachmann plans; Rollins managed Huckabee's almost-successful run in 2008.

Rollins quickly proved himself a potential liability. During a radio interview, Rollins made several disparaging remarks about Sarah Palin. He criticized Palin for lacking substance and quitting her job as governor of Alaska. Obviously, Rollins was attempting to contrast Bachmann with Palin, to show that Bachmann is a more serious candidate than Palin. Rollins is no doubt aware that Bachmann lacks perceived electability, and that frequent comparisons between Bachmann and the also-unelectable Palin make matters worse.

Bachmann immediately received negative feedback as a result of the story, with Tea Partiers calling on Bachmann to fire Rollins. It should go without saying that Bachmann will not fire Rollins; her campaign needs every bit of firepower it can get, and she would look weak. Bachmann did release a written statement saying that she respects and admires Palin. It remains to be seen how quickly Palin fans will get over it and support Bachmann if Palin doesn't run.

Though it appears more and more likely that Palin will not run (Bachmann wouldn't bother running if Palin was going to), the Rollins debacle highlights a real challenge for Bachmann: Contrasting herself with Palin without alienating the Palin fans she needs. Bachmann's true opponent is Herman Cain, not Palin. If Palin runs, they will split each others' support and Bachmann has no real chance anyway. If Palin doesn't run, Bachmann will need to compete against Cain.

Directly criticizing Palin is suicide for Bachmann. If she is more substantive than Palin, the phrase "show, don't tell" comes to mind. Voters will decide for themselves (largely based on debates and interviews) whether Bachmann is indeed more intelligent than Palin. They won't make that determination based on a statement from Bachmann's campaign manager.

Supposing a feud between Palin and Bachmann continues, Palin supporters will easily find their way into the Cain camp. Indeed, Palin herself could end up endorsing Cain. After all, Palin has a long history of feuding with people who cross her, and she does not forgive easily.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

State Primary Polls After Huckageddon

As we've seen, the 2012 Republican primary field changed dramatically with Huckageddon, Mike Huckabee's departure from the race. Other candidates (Donald Trump and Mitch Daniels) also dropped out during May. We had been receiving a steady stream of polling data, but recently there have been few state primary polls released. This is likely because pollsters didn't want to waste their time polling people on candidates who might then drop out.

Post-Huckageddon, there have been only a few state primary polls. You can view all of the state primary polls for the early primary states on the Primaries page. How does the race stand in the polling now that Huckabee's gone? And are early polls--even state ones--useful?

Here are the three state polls that have been released since Huckageddon. Note that two of them are by Public Policy Polling (PPP), a Democratic pollster:

05/30 PPP (D) -- Romney 21, Palin 15, Cain 15, Gingrich 12

New Hampshire
05/22 CNN/WMUR -- Romney 32, Paul 9, Giuliani 6, Gingrich 6

South Carolina
06/05 PPP (D) -- Romney 27, Palin 18, Gingrich 12, Cain 12

Obviously these polls look excellent for Mitt Romney, who leads in each state by a considerable margin. They're good for Herman Cain as well, who is moving from obscurity into the field (though not the top). Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich also do surprisingly well, considering all the heat Gingrich has taken, and the fact that Palin appears unlikely to run.

If the polls could be taken at face value, Romney will easily win the nomination. Unfortunately for Romney, they can't be taken at face value. As with the polls that showed Donald Trump doing well earlier this year, early polls measure name recognition most of all. Indeed, the "internals" of the PPP polls show that when they hypothetically poll the race without Palin, Romney gets more of her voters than the other candidates. What kind of voter would have Palin as his first choice and Romney as second choice? Someone who merely picks a candidate whom he can identify.

But toward the end of this year, as the primaries draw near, candidates who have low name recognition will become known to the early primary voters. Candidates who relied on high name recognition will fade. This occurred in late 2007, when Rudy Giuliani (who was the Republican's frontrunner according to early polls) and Hillary Clinton (who led her Democratic opponents by 20+ points most of the year) declined dramatically.

The polls do have their uses, however. Comparing apples to apples works: You can compare the numbers of candidates who both have high name recognition. For example, we can see that Romney is ahead of Palin and Gingrich. It's not as if Romney is ahead of them because he has higher name recognition.

You can also see that Cain, who lacks name recognition, is doing better than the other low-recognition candidates (like Bachmann and Pawlenty). There are some caveats, of course: Cain only appears on polls done by one firm (PPP), and only one poll per state. Also, Cain has shown vulnerabilities that could sink his campaign. Moreover, candidates who rely on charisma and excitement tend to have artificially-boosted numbers. After an ecstatic period, primary voters often settle down to a more sober, strategic choice. In 2004 for example, Democrats often said they "dated Dean, but married Kerry." That is, they liked Howard Dean and supported him in early polls, but they ultimately went with John Kerry, whom they considered more electable.