Wednesday, June 1, 2011

2012 Republican Primary in Review: May 2011

Click here for the Elephant Watcher News archive for the month of May, 2011.

Considering how far away the early primaries are, the month of May '11 was fairly active. The race saw a transition from the first phase to second phase of the campaign, with many--but not all--potential candidates making their intentions official. The field started to take shape, but was still incomplete when June arrived.

A month is a long time in politics. As May began, the two men who dominated the headlines were Donald Trump and Osama bin Laden. Neither man appears very relevant in politics today. As the pundits eventually learned, Elephant Watcher's prediction was correct: Bin Laden's death had no lasting impact, and President Obama's bounce in the polls dissipated rapidly.

In early May, Republican leaders were concerned that Trump's eccentricity would turn the primary into a circus. They also agonized over the weakness of the field, with no one candidate capable of exciting or unifying the Party. Elephant Watcher was skeptical of Trump's chances, owing to Trump's low perceived conservatism and electability. Trump, it seems, came around to Elephant Watcher's point of view: Trump's high numbers in national primary polls were an illusion, so there was no point in his making a run for it. Trump exited the field on May 16th, and the Party breathed a sigh of relief.

However, Elephant Watcher concurred with the Party's concerns about a vacuum in the field, and held to the projection that Chris Christie had the best chance of winning the nomination by making a late entry.

Few candidates attended the primary debate on May 5th, but it provided a platform for Herman Cain, who boosted his visibility. Cain took advantage of the two Tea Party favorites being MIA for the month: Sarah Palin refused to make her intentions known, which also kept Michele Bachmann in limbo. With the two women out of the picture, the Tea Party began to gravitate toward Cain.

The other big story was the series of fortuitous events enhancing Tim Pawlenty's stature. Iowa favorite Mike Huckabee shook up the race by announcing on May 14th that he would not run. On May 22nd, Mitch Daniels followed suit. These departures created an opening in Iowa for Pawlenty as the "electable" alternative to Mitt Romney. Even better, after Newt Gingrich officially entered the race on May 11th, he shot himself in the foot during his first interview. Romney was the victim of similar self-sabotage during his botched attempt to explain Romneycare during a speech on May 12th.

Though Pawlenty's stock rose, he was not able to translate his strong campaign position into a loyal following. He remained low in the polls. Instead of rallying behind Pawlenty, Republicans looked toward candidates not yet in the race. Among the Washington establishment, most of the talk centered around Jon Huntsman, Jr. His stock rapidly increased on Intrade. However, Huntsman did not actually form an exploratory committee or make official plans to join the race--yet. While the establishment spoke of the race as having three "serious" candidates (Romney, Pawlenty, and Huntsman), Huntsman remained an unknown outside the Beltway.

By the end of the month, the vacuum in the field still existed. The consensus only grew that new players needed to join the game. Christie's chances of winning the nomination rose slightly from 60% to 65%.

Time is running out for the remaining candidates. They have only a few more months to convince the voters that the field is already acceptable. Otherwise, the Christie juggernaut may arrive and flatten them all.