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.