Saturday, August 20, 2011

Rick Perry's Two-Front War

As Rick Perry's campaign for the presidency begins, he will find himself and his record under increasing scrutiny. But does Perry have more to fear from Michele Bachmann or Mitt Romney? How should he position himself to maximize his chances of winning the Republican nomination? Is he more vulnerable to attacks from the right or from the left?

Perry's first test will be in Iowa, where he will do battle against Bachmann. If he knocks Bachmann out of the race, he will need to deal with Romney. If Chris Christie enters the race, the field is completely different; otherwise, Perry's opponents are Bachmann and Romney. The challenge for Perry is that Bachmann and Romney will be hitting him from two different angles.

Bachmann's strategy is to present herself as the one true conservative, the only person that the Tea Party can trust. This necessarily means Bachmann will attack Perry from the right, and argue that Perry is just another RINO: a "Republican In Name Only." Months ago, when Perry was barely on the radar screen, we explained the definition of a RINO. To many in the Tea Party, a RINO is "Anyone who is not Sarah Palin or Michele Bachmann." Though Perry is perceived as a very conservative candidate, he, like all other politicians, can be criticized for doing things that were not conservative.

It's unlikely that Bachmann will be able to convince many people that Perry is not a real conservative. However, she may be able to convince people that Perry is not as conservative as advertised. This is dangerous for Perry, because to win, Perry must be perceived as more conservative than Romney. Why? Because Romney is perceived as more electable than Perry. If Perry and Romney are similar in their conservative credentials, then Romney wins on electability. It is only by being sufficiently more reliably conservative than Romney that Perry can compensate for his lesser electability.

So while Perry is doing battle with Bachmann in Iowa, he may be tempted to make provocative remarks to prove he is a true Tea Partier. But in making provocative remarks, he may further reinforce the notion that he is not electable. This is also dangerous for Perry. When discussing who will win the Iowa Caucus, we learned that primary voters--even in Iowa--favor electability above all else. Perry's goal is the mirror of Romney's: Perry wants to be sufficiently similar in electability to Romney so that he wins on conservatism.

The dynamics of the primary can be seen in the Candidate Profiles, where each candidate's perceived electability and perceived conservatism are rated on a scale of 1-3. Romney's perceived electability is a 3; Perry's is a 2. Romney's perceived conservatism is a 2; Perry's is a 3. The two start off on roughly equal footing, though Romney arguably has the advantage because electability is more important to primary voters than conservatism.

Perry has to walk a fine line. While defeating Bachmann, he must avoid making provocative statements that hurt his perceived electability, but he must also defend himself from Bachmann's attacks, which could hurt his perceived conservatism. If Perry begins on roughly equal footing with Romney, he cannot afford to lose either perceived electability or conservatism.