Friday, September 30, 2011

Can Rick Perry Be Counted Out Already?

It has been just over a week since the Republican primary debate on September 22nd. Rick Perry, who was considered the frontrunner after entering the race in August, has lost a lot of ground. The establishment view is that Perry is not electable, and that he is terrible at debates. Since that third September debate, Rick Perry's Intrade odds have collapsed. Prior to his first debate, Intrade investors gave Perry a 40% chance of winning the Republican nomination--ten points more than Mitt Romney. Now they give him only a 21% chance. By contrast, Romney has received positive reviews. But is Perry really out of the race?

Elephant Watcher agrees that Perry's debate performances have lowered his odds of winning the nomination while raising Romney's odds. Prior to the debates, Elephant Watcher's calculation of the odds had 18% for Romney and 16% for Perry; it is now 22% for Romney and 12% for Perry.

But even if Perry does not win the nomination, it is unlikely that he will collapse completely. He may still have a significant impact on the race, especially in Iowa and South Carolina. Perry remains as a significant obstacle to any other potential Anti-Romney candidate. Rick Santorum and Herman Cain have both been touted by anti-Romney commentators as potential replacements. They will need to get past Perry first, and he will not make it easy.

Despite his disastrous debate performances, Perry is still famously skilled at the so-called "retail politics" that occurs in the early primary states: Face-to-face meetings with individuals and small groups. Perry is well-funded. At least for now, Perry rivals even Romney when it comes to his "political machine." Despite the new concerns about Perry's electability, he is still considered more electable than Cain or Michele Bachmann; Santorum remains an unknown.

It's also possible that Perry can rehabilitate his image in future debates. On the one hand, Perry's poor performances in all three debates indicate that he is simply bad at debating. This may not change. But that doesn't mean Perry cannot improve. His campaign almost certainly realizes that his future depends on improving in debates. That should force Perry to focus. Expectations for Perry are so low now that any improvement may be seen as a positive, even if Perry is not outstanding. If he fails to shoot himself in the foot at the next debate, his campaign will undoubtedly hail him as "the comeback kid" and attempt to push a "redemption" narrative in the media.

If another candidate wishes to replace Perry as the chief Anti-Romney figure, he must convincingly lead Perry in the polls for awhile. Only then will Perry's numbers crash and support coalesce around Perry's replacement.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Should Tim Pawlenty Regret Quitting Early?

In a word, yes.

Tim Pawlenty ended his campaign for president last month after placing third in the Ames straw poll. At the time, Elephant Watcher criticized Pawlenty's campaign for failing to understand what type of candidate Pawlenty was (or should have been): The last man standing, a consensus candidate who emerged after his rivals self-destructed.

Recent events have made it clear that Pawlenty missed a valuable opportunity. After Rick Perry crashed and burned in the debates, the search has been on for a suitable replacement. The Anti-Romney forces have been desperate to find someone capable of preventing Romney from winning. Bachmann, Cain, Gingrich, Huntsman, Paul, and now Perry are judged not up to the task. Chris Christie is formidable, but he may not run. Rick Santorum is, for now, not on the radar. Who's left?

If Pawlenty were still in the race, it's likely that attention would have shifted in his direction. He was considered more electable and more conservative than the alternatives who didn't quit. Despite being mocked for his low poll numbers, Pawlenty would now be considered prominent by comparison: Pawlenty always polled much better in Iowa than Santorum and Cain. Even the Ames straw poll, which led to Pawlenty's quitting early, had Pawlenty with a sizable lead over Santorum, Cain--and Romney.

Thus, Pawlenty would have been next in line to win Iowa. He needed Bachmann and Perry to crash, and they did. He would have faced Romney, who is only half-heartedly participating in Iowa. Pawlenty would have been the favorite to win Iowa, and maybe the nomination and the presidency.

Pawlenty's mistake should be a lesson for future candidates. The primary season is very long, and the dynamics of the race tend to change. To take advantage, a candidate must stay in the race. Perhaps in future primaries, candidates will be less willing to drop out--at least until the Iowa Caucus. It makes little sense to drop out in response to a third-place finish in the Ames straw poll.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Can Rick Santorum Become the Next Mike Huckabee?

Since Rick Perry entered the race, the Republican primary has often been described as a two-man race: Mitt Romney vs. Rick Perry. The catastrophic results of Rick Perry's debate performances have yet to be fully measured, but they change the character of the race. But the primary's bipolar nature likely remains (unless Chris Christie announces he's running for president).

From the start, it's been Romney vs. the Anti-Romney candidate. For awhile, Perry seemed to be the obvious Anti-Romney, and the national primary polls suggested he would be a strong Anti-Romney at that. If Perry's collapse is as severe as it seems, the race would be Romney vs. Anti-Romney, with no clear Anti-Romney in sight. Indeed, if no strong candidate could fill the Anti-Romney role, the race might become unipolar: A weak field with Romney a heavy favorite to win.

Primary races tend to abhor a vacuum, however. Rather than allowing the vote to be split evenly among similar candidates, primary voters in early states tend to coalesce. Thus, history suggests that someone will become the Anti-Romney, though the race still may not be that close. If Perry slides out of the Anti-Romney position, it's anyone's guess as to whom the replacement will be.

Aside from Romney, the one candidate who benefited from the most recent debates was Rick Santorum. He was perceived as strong in his attacks against Perry; Michele Bachmann faded. Could Santorum become the next Mike Huckabee, a candidate whose strong debate performances lifted him up from polling 0% to winning Iowa?

At first glance, it looks like Santorum is the only candidate who's conservative and has moderate perceived electability: Bachmann, Cain, and Paul are viewed as unelectable. There are concerns about Gingrich's electability and conservatism. Huntsman's not running in Iowa. Perry is crashing. That only leaves Romney and Santorum.

But there are two reasons to think Santorum will have great difficulty playing the Huckabee role. First, Santorum is no Mike Huckabee. Santorum lacks Huckabee's charm and rhetorical skill. While a genuine social conservative, Santorum is not poised to win Evangelicals like Huckabee, a preacher who was constantly asked to defend his Christian beliefs in the debates.

Second, Santorum faces more rivalry for the right wing in Iowa than Huckabee did. Huckabee's competition was unsuited to win Evangelicals: John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney. There was no equivalent of Rick Perry in 2008. Santorum would not only need to beat Romney, but also Perry, as well as Tea Party favorites Bachmann and Cain.

The possibility is there for Santorum, but it's a very difficult road. Santorum would need to prove he can do more than attack and act outraged. He would need many, many strong debate performances. And he has not yet been attacked by any other candidate.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Chris Christie Preparing to Announce Whether He Will Run for President?

In the wake of Rick Perry's disastrous performance in the September debates, there is renewed pressure on Chris Christie to enter the race. Republicans have long felt that there was a void in the field, an absence of a candidate who could unite the Tea Party and Republican establishment. Perry intended to fill that vacuum. But Rick Perry was badly hurt by the debates. Perry was supposed to save the Party from Michele Bachmann; now Republicans hope Christie will save the Party from Perry (and Mitt Romney).

It has now been reported by many media outlets--led by NewsMax--that Christie will announce whether he will run for president within the next several days. According to the reports, Christie has been secretly meeting with top Republican donors, whose money has remained on the sidelines thus far. Contrary to his public denials, Christie supposedly told the donors he has not yet made up his mind whether he will run.

Christie's aides have denied the reports. Intrade investors' speculations are increasing, however. On the Intrade market for the odds of Christie running for president, there has been a sharp spike since the reports. Intrade has been skeptical of Christie from the beginning: His odds of entering the race have consistently been below 5%. In the last 24 hours, they have jumped to over 20%.

But supposing the reports are true, what would it mean? It would not guarantee that Christie will actually enter the race. Rather, it would mean the following:

1. Christie will make a definitive announcement within the next several days.
2. Christie's denials up until this point have been meaningless.

While most have taken Christie's repeated denials of intention to run at face value, Elephant Watcher has cautioned that none of Christie's denials were made in a convincing manner, the formula by which candidates actually decline to run. Both Barack Obama and Rick Perry also emphatically denied any intention to run for president--before entering the race.

Christie's decision will have an extraordinary impact on the outcome of the Republican primary. Even if NewsMax's report is untrue, Christie is under immense pressure to run. The next few weeks are critical.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Rick Perry's Intrade Odds Crumble

In the wake of the third September primary debate last night, Rick Perry's odds on the Intrade market for the 2012 Republican nomination have taken a dive. This marks the third time that debates have resulted in Perry losing ground on Intrade. Meanwhile, for every point Perry has gone down, Mitt Romney has gone up.

Romney's Intrade odds have risen to 43.9%. Perry's numbers are down to 26.9%. This change represents a far more radical shift on the Intrade market than occurred after any of the other debates. Apparently the investors believe in the rule of "three strikes and you're out."

To put this into its proper context, Perry was leading Romney by about 10 points prior to the September debates, 40% to 30%. After the three debates, Romney leads Perry by 17 points. That's a 27-point shift. It's particularly remarkable considering Perry still leads in all of the national primary polls. That being said, there have unfortunately been very few polls (especially state polls) released this month. But it's clear where Intrade thinks this race is going, and the investors want to get ahead of the polls.

The rest of the candidates are in the single digits. Intrade has an especially dim view of Michele Bachmann these days: She's down to 1.8%. During the summer, when she was leading in Iowa polls, Bachmann had gotten as high as 18%. In other words, Bachmann has lost nine-tenths of her market value.

As for the state primary markets, Intrade has not changed much. The investors still believe Perry will win Iowa and South Carolina, while Romney will win New Hampshire. Judging by the overall odds, they simply believe Romney has the staying power needed to win the nomination. They haven't been impressed by Perry's debate performances. Unless the race is knocked off its present course, Romney will reclaim his status as frontrunner.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Who Won the Republican Debate on September 22nd?

Tonight's debate was Rick Perry's last chance to prove that he can get through a debate without taking damage. By the end of the debate, the verdict was somewhat clear. Perry did not make any major stumbles, but he was damaged more than he was helped by the debate. As a result, it seems likely that future debates will be more harmful to Perry than helpful. One more debate might not make much difference, but there are many more of them to come. Perry's support is bound to decline. Mitt Romney will be the chief beneficiary.

Perry was attacked for his stance on Social Security (which he backed away from), but particularly on illegal immigration. Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum both savaged Perry for supporting tuition discounts for illegal immigrants. Santorum also attacked Perry for refusing to support a fence on the U.S.-Mexican border. Perry responded well at first, but seemed to crater as the attacks continued.

Perry employed an interesting strategy: Going on the offensive against Romney. Time and again, Perry attacked Romney. He did this despite the fact that Perry is not attempting to run in Romney's stronghold of New Hampshire. Apparently Perry realized that the best way to bolster his own conservative credentials was to contrast himself with Romney's ostensibly more moderate positions.

When Romney and Perry debated, Romney generally did better. He did not crush Perry in their one-on-one interactions, however. Perry smartly put Romney on defense; Romney is better on the offense than defense. But Romney easily brushed aside Perry's attacks on Romneycare, and Romney counter-attacked fairly well.

Mitt Romney decided not to pick fights with Perry. Instead, he attacked Barack Obama. Romney did better in presenting himself as an aggressive conservative than in previous debates; he seems to be improving, despite the attacks from Perry.

Michele Bachmann again attacked Perry on the HPV vaccine, but she took few opportunities to attack Perry otherwise. Bachmann seems to have a real difficulty in staying focused. As with the debate on September 7th, Bachmann was inconsequential most of the time. Unlike Santorum, Bachmann didn't have a strategy.

The minor candidates needed to find a way to break through. Rick Santorum had the stand-out performance, especially when he went on the offensive against Perry. Santorum has polled nearly 0% thus far, and he's probably hoping to be the next Mike Huckabee, a candidate who came from nowhere due to good debate performances. Santorum should be helped by his debate performance tonight, but he will need to keep it up if he intends to dethrone Perry in Iowa.

In the final analysis, the debate primarily helped Santorum for what he did, and helped Romney by default. Romney debated well, but he took heat from Perry. That's unhelpful to Romney, but Perry was hurt more. Since Romney is primarily in competition with Perry for the "frontrunner" title, the debate was a net benefit to Romney.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Third September Primary Debate Tomorrow

Fox News will host a primary debate Thursday at 9:00pm Eastern. As with other recent debates, the eight Republican candidates in the race will appear. It has been reported that Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico, may also qualify for an invitation to the debate. Johnson participated in the debate on May 5th, but has not been invited back since, due to his low poll numbers. If Johnson is able to attend the debate, it will be a result of a quirk in the invitation standards. Elephant Watcher has previously written about the debate admission requirements and how they can lead to unintended invitations.

Johnson was never added to the Elephant Watcher roster of candidates; since Johnson is unlikely to be invited to future debates, and since he has so little support that he's rarely included as an option by pollsters, there is no reason to include him. Including Johnson, there will be nine candidates at the Fox debate. With numbers this large, and with the media perception that the race is essentially Rick Perry vs. Mitt Romney, the debate moderaters will be tempted to give unequal time. Thus far, they have addressed the issue by giving candidates an equal number of questions, but allowing candidates who are mentioned in other candidates' responses to have some rebuttal time. The assumption is that only important candidates (and perhaps only the frontrunner) will be directly attacked, thus giving important candidates extra time without any provable bias on the part of the debate moderators.

The debate tomorrow evening, the third for Rick Perry, will be a defining moment. Perry has attended two debates and has suffered in both of them. If Perry loses ground in yet another debate, there will be two important results. First, it will provide strong evidence that Perry is simply a very poor debater. If so, Perry will continue to lose ground at the many future debates, and grievous harm will be inflicted upon his campaign. Second, it will suggest to voters that Perry is a poor candidate. That perception, even without Perry having yet performed badly at future debates, will do immediate damage. In other words, tomorrow's debate will be Perry's last chance to prove he can escape from a debate unscathed.

For Mitt Romney, the debate will be an interesting test of whether debate moderators and other candidates will continue to attack him on Romneycare. So far, Romney has attended four debates, and Romneycare was brought up at all four--to little effect. If Romney is not asked about Romneycare, it may indicate the issue is losing steam. That would be a very good sign for Romney.

Finally, the debate will be worth watching to see if attacks against Perry's conservative credentials are repeated. In the first debate this month, Michele Bachmann inexplicably gave Perry a pass. But in the second debate, Bachmann joined with Rick Santorum and Ron Paul in attacking Perry's record (on the HPV vaccine and illegal immigration in particular). Will they recognize how effective their attacks were, and intensify them tomorrow? Probably. And this will form a pattern.

Meanwhile, Romney's best strategy will be to build himself up rather than attacking Perry's electability. Romney should stand back and appear presidential allowing Bachmann & Company to attack Perry's conservatism. Romney and his advisors have so far responded to poll numbers in robotic fashion, however, unthinkingly attacking Perry because he is ahead in national polls.

For the minor candidates (those not close to winning any early states, i.e. candidates other than Perry, Romney, or Bachmann), tomorrow will be one of a dwindling number of chances they have to break out of the pack.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

2008 vs. 2012 - Ron Paul

In previous posts, we compared the starting position of Mike Huckabee in 2008 compared to 2012 (before he announced he would not run in 2012) and a similar analysis of Mitt Romney in 2008 compared to 2012. Elephant Watcher would be remiss if the same treatment were not given to the other 2008 candidate reappearing for the 2012 race: Ron Paul.

The Elephant Watcher profile of Ron Paul reveals that he has many weaknesses. Paul is arguably the weakest candidate in the field; he is not given a high rank on any of the three candidate attributes (perceived conservatism, perceived electability, and rhetorical skill). Paul also lacks any geographical advantage that might help him win an early primary. Accordingly, Elephant Watcher has calculated that Ron Paul's odds of winning the Republican nomination are 0%.

The polls of early primary states demonstrate the extent of Paul's challenge: He has failed to place first or second in any poll in any state. He does, however, manage third place in some New Hampshire primary polls. Paul tends to poll well, considering his handicaps. However, his numbers never increase, and they reflect his enthusiastic--but static--base of libertarian support. Paul's numbers are healthy enough to ensure that he will be invited to primary debates for a long time to come, whether the debate sponsors like it or (more likely) not.

What about the 2008 vs. 2012 comparison? In some ways, Paul is better off now than he was four years ago. He has greater name recognition, and he has the benefit of experiencing a presidential primary. His support among libertarians has not diminished. Instead, he has been branded as the "official" libertarian. Gary Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico who was only invited to the first debate back in May, was quickly shuffled aside in favor of Paul. One of Paul's greatest weaknesses, his opposition to American intervention abroad, has been mitigated by the general unpopularity of the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. It is not shocking to hear a Republican candidate say the troops need to begin returning from Afghanistan.

By and large, Paul's weaknesses from 2008 remain. As Paul learned during the Republican primary debate on September 12th, conservative audiences still boo if you claim American foreign policy caused the 9/11 attacks. But Paul's more fundamental problem is that he doesn't care what Republicans think or feel. He has little strategy at all, though his occasional criticisms of Rick Perry appear to be prompted by campaign advisors. Otherwise, Paul's campaign actions are random. Paul's lack of strategy is likely a result of his understanding that he cannot win the nomination.

Since Paul is viewed as unelectable while simultaneously alienating most Republicans, he will always be limited to a small, core group. Many of the primaries will not award delegates on a winner-take-all basis, so Paul will be able to amass some number of delegates. If the primary goes all the way to the convention, one can count on Paul taking the opportunity to make noise. Like his campaign, the noise will have little impact.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

How Did the Republican Primary Become a Two-Man Race?

Up until a month or two ago, it was common to hear political pundits say that this was "the most open Republican field" they had ever seen. The consensus was that it's anyone's game, and that no one could tell who the nominee was going to be. Today, political observers are equally confident that the 2012 Republican primary is a two-man race between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. How did this happen, and why have other candidates failed to gain any traction?

To begin with, we should take a look at the list of candidates for the Republican nomination on the Campaign Status page. There are eight candidates officially in the race. A few months ago, there were several more on the table. State and national polls showed Mike Huckabee was in a strong position to win, but he declined to run. Establishment-friendly governors Mitch Daniels and Tim Pawlenty also exited the race or declined to run. Sarah Palin, who would make waves regardless of her ability to win, has apparently declined to run, though she has not made an official announcement as such. And of course, Chris Christie, who is a strong favorite to win the nomination, has not entered the race or made a convincing declaration he won't run.

If we put aside the seven candidates on the Campaign Status page who are not officially in the race, the answer becomes easier to see. Eight candidates are in the race, and only two of them have any real chance of winning the nomination. Why? Candidates are judged based on their perceived conservatism and perceived electability, which are ranked on the Candidate Profiles page. The following is the process of elimination:

There are no candidates currently in the race who possess both strong perceived conservatism and strong perceived electability. Therefore, the Republican Party's choice is to pick either a candidate with moderate perceived electability and strong perceived conservatism, or a candidate with strong perceived electability and moderate perceived conservatism. This eliminates four of the eight candidates: Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and Ron Paul are considered very unlikely to be able to win a general election; they have weak perceived electability. Newt Gingrich's conservatism and electability are both under question; he is moderate on both.

The remaining candidates are the electable ones (Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney) and the conservative ones (Rick Perry and Rick Santorum). Romney has far more name recognition than Huntsman. If a voter wants someone who can win, they have little reason to shift from Romney to Huntsman. The voter may prefer Huntsman's economic record, but unless Huntsman catches fire, there's no reason to make that jump. After all, a Romney voter wouldn't want to vote for Huntsman if it would split the vote and let Perry win. Voters of a type tend to coalesce around a candidate to prevent this from happening.

As for the "conservative" type, Perry has far more name recognition than Santorum. Arguably Santorum is more conservative than Perry, but so is Bachmann. Santorum is therefore stifled in Iowa by candidates who beat him on conservatism (Bachmann and perhaps Cain), electability (Romney and perhaps Perry), and name recognition (Bachmann, Perry, Romney, Gingrich, and Ron Paul). Again, voters of a type tend to coalesce, so if you're looking for a conservative you'll go with Perry, and purists will go with Bachmann.

This leaves the race with two candidates, Romney and Perry, who lead in either electability or conservatism without sacrificing too much of the other quality. History suggests the more electable candidate will win. Perry must work hard to bring up his perceived electability and avoid taking too much damage from "pure" conservatives like Bachmann.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Why Have Attacks Against Mitt Romney Been Ineffective?

Traditionally, whichever candidate leads in the national primary polls suffers attacks from the other candidates. After Mike Huckabee declined to join the race in May 2011, Mitt Romney jumped to the top of the national polls. He was knocked out of the first place position in August when Rick Perry entered the race and replaced him as the purported frontrunner. In the meantime, frontrunner Romney was attacked; now it's Perry's turn.

But there's been a difference in the effectiveness of the attacks against various candidates. In April, when Donald Trump was doing well in some national polls, he was quickly cut down by attacks against his authenticity. When Michele Bachmann entered the race and began doing well in Iowa, she was swiftly humbled by attacks against her electability. Bachmann's fall allowed her to be overtaken by Perry. Now Perry has been on the receiving end of attacks against his electability and conservatism. It's likely he'll fall from his comfortable frontrunner position in the polls.

Romney, too, suffered a fall in the polls. The shallow depth of Romney's support was seen when Perry was able to easily replace him as the leader in the polls. There's been a contrast, however. Prior to Perry's entry, Romney's poll numbers were not worn down by three months of attacks against him. Also, unlike other candidates who have gone down and stayed down, Romney is going back up. That's most clearly seen in Mitt Romney's Intrade odds, and it's likely to be seen in future polls.

Why the difference? Romney's main weakness has always been Romneycare. He erred in failing to repudiate it, and debate moderators have asked him about it in all four debates. The reason Romney has not been hurt more by Romneycare is that he is far better prepared to defend himself than other candidates are prepared to attack him. Romney's answers are well-rehearsed. His opponents' attacks are not. The exchanges on Romneycare have all followed some variation of the following pattern:

1. Debate moderator asks Romney about Romneycare.
2. Romney defends himself and reiterates his commitment to repealing Obamacare.
3. Opponent says that Obamacare was modeled on Romneycare.
4. Romney refutes this by listing differences between Romneycare and Obamacare.
5. Opponent stammers, "Come on, we know they're the same."

To defeat Romney, opponents need to have as substantive and well-rehearsed counter-points for step #5 as Romney has for steps #2 and #4. The same could be said for other attacks aimed against Romney, e.g. criticisms of his work for Bain Capital, where Romney either created jobs or fired people, depending upon the source.

Another reason Romney's position appears to be impregnable is the fact that he's running in New Hampshire, rather than Iowa. In Iowa, many candidates are staking the lives of their campaigns. Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, and (unwisely) Newt Gingrich all see themselves in a do-or-die situation in Iowa. Perry is competing there as if he needs to win, though he's likely to win South Carolina even if he loses Iowa. In New Hampshire, Romney is basically by himself. Only Huntsman is targeting New Hampshire, and he's hardly in the race.

Thus, the configuration of the early primaries has been to Romney's advantage: The other candidates have less incentive to attack him, as their top priority is defeating competitors in Iowa. Until the Iowa Caucus, Romney will not be the focus of their attacks. And that's a long time from now.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Mitt Romney's Intrade Lead Widens After Second Debate

The Intrade market on the 2012 Republican nomination has declared Mitt Romney the winner of his second debate with Rick Perry. Romney's lead has widened slightly to 39.7% over Perry's 36.0%. Prior to the second debate, Romney's lead was about one point. The rest of the field is far behind, at less than 6% each.

It's obvious that Intrade investors felt Romney had a stronger debate than Perry. There are going to be many more debates between now and the Iowa Caucus. That gives Perry time to improve, but if he's a poor debater, it also gives him a lot of opportunities to hurt himself.

What's particularly significant about Romney's lead on Intrade is the fact that Perry hasn't been repudiated in the national polls yet. In fact, there has been very little polling data released since the first debate. Normally, Intrade investors take national primary polls at something close to face value. But here, they put Romney in the lead despite his trailing Perry in all available polls by a significant margin.

Intrade investors tend to come from an "establishment" mindset, which may give them a bit of a natural bias toward Romney over Perry. Even so, the comparison should be made between the "before" and "after" picture. Before the debates, Perry had a significant lead on Intrade. After them, Romney has an edge.

Elephant Watcher agrees that the debates have hurt Perry, and there isn't much sign that Perry won't be hurt in future debates. Romney has shown a greater ability to avoid making mistakes. Thus, Elephant Watcher recalculated the odds of each candidate winning the Republican nomination and found that Romney's advantage over Perry has grown slightly. If Chris Christie decides not to run, Romney will have the highest chance of winning, and a decent lead over Perry.

When the next debate occurs, Perry will need to prove himself capable of getting through unscathed.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Who Won the Republican Debate on September 12th?

As the second Republican primary debate in less than a week, tonight's event served as a sort of re-match for Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. Who won this time, and were the other candidates, like Michele Bachmann, able to make any progress?

Perry and Romney were more evenly matched when they debated each other. Perry was more confident and sure-footed than his first debate performance, but Romney was also strong. Romney was more articulate and specific in his answers; Perry at least staunched the bleeding from the last debate. But Perry was harmed far more by his exchanges with other candidates.

As Elephant Watcher anticipated, Perry's first big test was how to deal with the fallout from his "Social Security is a Ponzi scheme" remarks. Perry explained that he felt Social Security as it is currently designed will ultimately fail, and that something needs to be done to fix it. This is the response he should have given last time. Perry toned down the overheated rhetoric of the previous debate. He was clearly on the defensive, but he was much more able in this debate.

Romney chose to go on the offensive against Perry. He asked Perry about the assertions in his book that Social Security is unconstitutional and should be transferred from the federal to state government. Perry was unfazed and gave as good as he got. Romney erred in attacking Perry so directly; it made him look negative.

Romney was asked about Romneycare, just as he has in all his previous debates. Debate moderators do not seem to tire of asking him about it. Romney gave a strong response, contrasting Romneycare with Obamacare. Perry and Michele Bachmann criticized him, but they were no better prepared than before, and Romney won the issue.

During the September 7th debate, Bachmann declined to attack Perry. This time, she went on the offensive. She offered a sharp critique of Perry's attempt to require girls to take a vaccine for a cancer-causing STD. Perry attempted to explain that the program allowed parents to "opt out," but he did not get the point across. Bachmann, along with Rick Santorum denounced him for trying to "force girls to take an injection." Perry was shaken.

Bachmann and Santorum also joined forces to attack Perry on immigration policy. They accused him of supporting illegal immigrants by providing subsidies for their college education. Perry was booed by an otherwise friendly audience.

Newt Gingrich once again won great applause by saying that Barack Obama scares Americans far more than Perry or Romney. But Gingrich again failed to explain why he should be president instead of the other candidates. He really needed to go on the offensive, despite the risks, because he needs to bring the "major" candidates down to his level. Gingrich arguably had the best answers of any candidate, but if he's not considered in the running, it won't do him any good.

Jon Huntsman gave a stronger debate performance than in the two previous debates. He gave a clear argument for why he should be chosen over Perry and Romney: Utah--when he served as governor--had the highest job growth rate of any state in the country. But like the other "minor" candidates, Huntsman needs to find a way to get himself into the top tier before anyone will pay attention.

What was the overall impact of the debate? While Perry healed some of the damage he inflicted upon himself regarding Social Security, new wounds were opened by Bachmann and Santorum's attacks against his conservative credentials. If they can keep up the attacks, Perry will need to fight a war on two fronts. As Perry lost, Romney gained by default--and by a disciplined debate performance. Bachmann has a long way to go toward bringing down Perry in Iowa, but she may realize that she scored some points by attacking him. Perry needs to be concerned going forward, as the debates have not been good to him.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Another Primary Debate Tomorrow on CNN

As we've entered Phase Three of the Republican primary, debates are becoming much more frequent. It's been less than a week since the last one, but another primary debate will take place tomorrow at 8:00pm Eastern on CNN. There will be many more debates to follow, but this one will be critical.

Prior to the debate on September 7th, Rick Perry was the leader in all national primary polls and widely considered the frontrunner. But Perry was badly damaged by a poor debate performance. In particular, Perry made a major gaffe about Social Security. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney did well at the debate. In response, Perry lost his lead over Romney on the Intrade markets.

Any one bad debate performance or major gaffe may be written off as an isolated incident--especially if the gaffe is made by an otherwise popular candidate. But if the mistake is repeated, it can inflict enduring damage. Tomorrow's debate is important because it presents Perry the opportunity to put in another bad performance. If Perry shoots himself in the foot again, and if Romney does well again, the balance of power in the campaign will shift in Romney's favor. If that happens, Perry will not be out of the race, but he will have a lot of catching up to do.

The debate moderators will likely ask Perry about his Social Security gaffe. He has two options. Perry can stick to his reputation as a "tough talk" candidate by doubling down, perhaps elaborating on why Social Security is a Ponzi scheme and a failure. Or he can "walk back" his comments by saying that he was never in favor of abolishing Social Security, only fixing it. Regardless of the option Perry chooses, he will be damaged further. But Perry's goal must be to prevent further damage, so he should take the second option. It will be an important test for Perry.

For Romney, the path is much easier. Since he has not made any serious gaffes of his own, he only needs to avoid making any gaffes. As with the previous debate, his best strategy is to avoid going on the offensive against Perry. He should not accuse Perry of being unelectable, even though Romney's whole strategy is to make Perry look unelectable. The electability argument is one that a voter must put together himself. It's just too self-serving to make the argument on one's own behalf.

Tomorrow's debate will also be important for Michele Bachmann. She became irrelevant in the last debate, which presented the Republican primary as a two-man race between Perry and Romney. Bachmann should play the only card she has to play: Attack Perry as a "RINO." Bachmann's only chance of winning Iowa is to show that she's the only true conservative in the race, and that Perry is a phony, unworthy of the Tea Party mantle.

The remaining five candidates at the debate--which features the same roster as the one on September 7th--face the same challenge as last time. They must find a way to make themselves relevant and get some attention directed their way. But they also need to distinguish themselves from the leading contenders; otherwise, there is no reason to vote for them. Last time, Newt Gingrich got plenty of applause, but he didn't offer a compelling explanation for why he should be the nominee instead of Romney or Perry. With each debate, the five "minor" candidates increasingly run the risk of being characterized as just that.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Intrade Odds: Mitt Romney Retakes the Lead

After Rick Perry entered the race and jumped to a big lead in all the national primary polls, Intrade odds put Rick Perry in first. But in the wake of Perry's first debate appearance, the Intrade market on the 2012 Republican nomination has shifted considerably.

At Perry's height, he was at roughly 39%, with Romney down to 30%, and everyone else in single-digits. As is usually the case, the Intrade market reflected the latest national primary polls, and the conventional wisdom that the primary was a two-man race with Perry in front. Since the debate, Mitt Romney has retaken the lead. It is interesting to see how the market has changed, even though no new polls have been conducted to show Romney in the lead (yet). Instead, Intrade's reaction was based entirely upon its verdict of who won the debate.

Intrade has Romney in the lead--albeit a very small lead--at 37.7%. Perry is on his heels at 36.4%. It's essentially a coin-flip between the two men. Elephant Watcher is now curious to see how Intrade will react to the next primary debate, to be held in a few days.

All of the other candidates are still in single-digits: Jon Huntsman, despite his poor poll numbers, is at 6.1%. Sarah Palin, not in the race, has teased her way to 5.4%. The biggest change is Michele Bachmann, who had been something of a third wheel by virtue of her strong poll numbers in Iowa. Bachmann has collapsed completely, down to 2.9%. Perry's candidacy, perhaps combined with Bachmann's irrelevance in the September 7th debate, has mortally wounded Bachmann in Intrade's eyes.

Do the Intrade markets on the early primaries reflect these changes? Yes. Before, Bachmann and Perry were approximately tied in the Iowa Caucus market. Now Perry dominates her, 52.0% to 20.0%. And without Iowa, Bachmann is nothing. Intrade's South Carolina market has Perry at 65.0% and Bachmann at merely 4.0%.

That explains Bachmann's fall, but what about Romney's tie with Perry in the odds of winning the nomination? The New Hampshire market has Romney with a huge lead, 60.0% to Perry's 24.5%. Thus, Intrade investors expect Perry to win Iowa and South Carolina, Romney to win New Hampshire, and a completely hazy future following those contests.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Was It a Mistake for Rick Perry to Call Social Security a Ponzi Scheme?

According to Elephant Watcher's on-the-spot analysis of who won the Republican primary debate, Rick Perry hurt himself with his attacks against Social Security, while Mitt Romney benefited by taking a more moderate stance. Why?

During the debate, Perry repeatedly and emphatically called Social Security as it currently operates "a Ponzi scheme" and the idea that younger people will have benefits to collect a "monstrous lie." When asked about his rhetoric by one of the debate moderators, Perry responded that Americans would respond positively to strong rhetoric about the issue.

Romney's approach was different. He claimed that in order to win, the Republican Party needed a candidate who was focused on saving Social Security, rather than abolishing it. Romney criticized Perry's earlier writings that Social Security is a "failure," reasoning that it couldn't be a failure if millions of Americans relied on the benefits.

It should be noted that Perry never actually said that he wanted to "abolish" Social Security. He was not specific in what he would do, however, and his condemnation of the "Ponzi scheme" created the impression that Perry would do away with the system entirely. After all, no one ever "saves" or "fixes" a Ponzi scheme; such schemes are outlawed. Those who watched the debate, or post-debate coverage, or future attack ads will think Perry wants to go even further than his rhetoric.

As we've discussed over the past few months, Perry's chief liability is his lack of perceived electability. Republicans want someone who is very likely to defeat Barack Obama. Historically, primary voters (including Iowans) favor candidates who seem electable. Perry's main competitor for the moment is Romney, who is perceived as highly electable. It therefore follows that Perry's strategy must be to boost his own perceived electability, or at least not diminish it.

Perry could improve his image simply by appearing presidential and reasonable. He can badly damage his image by losing control and giving into the temptation of extreme rhetoric. Each gaffe Perry makes directly helps Romney.

But were Perry's attacks on Social Security really a gaffe? Yes. While voters have concerns about Social Security, they are not interested in any major overhauls to the system. Instead, they want to be reassured that the system will continue providing the same kind of benefits that it has in the past. They do not want to be threatened with change, since they know it would be for the worse: No one ever talks about saving Social Security by increasing benefits. Older, retired voters are particularly unreceptive to the idea of change. They want something they can rely upon, and they fear the risks inherent to any new system.

Younger voters are unreceptive to attacks on Social Security as well. While they have more doubts about Social Security still operating thirty, forty, or fifty years from now, they are too unengaged to have strong opinions about how the system should be improved. Most young voters are either Democrats, non-voters, or unfamiliar with the workings of Social Security. They give it little thought. Thus, it is very unlikely that Perry will make gains among young voters by suggesting major changes to Social Security. Any gains Perry does make among the young will be overwhelmed by the loss of many more older voters.

Perry was more disciplined during the opening stages of the September 7th debate, but he proved that a few unguarded moments can undo everything for a candidate already struggling with his electability factor.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Who Won the Republican Debate on September 7th?

Perhaps the first "true" debate of the primary season was held tonight, with all of the candidates participating (barring a late entry by Chris Christie or Sarah Palin). Who used the debate most effectively, and who found himself damaged by it?

The main event, of course, was Rick Perry's initiation into the race. Since Perry was in the lead of all national primary polls going into the event, expectations were high. It's difficult to stand out when there are seven other candidates sharing the stage. Perry's performance was mixed. He appeared disciplined and presidential most of the time. Despite it being his first debate, he seemed fairly comfortable and affable. He was not as smooth as Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney, but he was not awkward, either. But he spent most of the debate on the defensive due to the attacks against him--sometimes by the candidates, and sometimes by the moderators.

Perry waded into treacherous waters on the issue of Social Security, which he repeatedly and emphatically called a "Ponzi scheme" as it currently operates. Instead of attacking a system so many voters rely on, he should have said that he would focus on fixing it. That's essentially what Romney did, getting the better of the argument. Perry's remarks may well come back to haunt him, and it was the one moment during the debate when Perry appeared too hot-tempered to be electable.

Oddly, Michele Bachmann did not go on the attack against Perry as she had against Tim Pawlenty in last month's debate. She missed the opportunity to cast doubt on Perry's conservatism. The debate moderators seemed to give Bachmann fewer questions, but her choice to give Perry a pass was inexplicable.

Romney decided to engage with Perry when prompted, but did not go out of his way to attack. Instead, he wisely focused on attacking Obama. Nevertheless, the debate opened with an extended duel between Romney and Perry. It was a draw. Perry and Romney were both well-prepared and anticipated each other's talking points. Later, Romney appeared magnanimous when he was asked about Perry's unpopular vaccine program; instead of attacking Perry, Romney suggested that Perry's heart was in the right place but probably would have done things differently given a second chance.

Once again, Romney was questioned about his healthcare reform in Massachusetts, commonly known as "Romneycare." This time the questioning was even more extensive, particularly on the individual mandate, which requires individuals to purchase healthcare. Romney defended himself well, arguing that in Massachusetts there was a problem with "free riders," but that he would repeal Obamacare. The other candidates engaged Romney, but they did not seem to have specific, prepared avenues of attack.

The remaining candidates struggled to make themselves relevant in what is more and more a two-man race. An interesting moment occurred when Gingrich said he would not allow the liberal media to manipulate Republicans into attacking each other; he encouraged the audience by saying everyone on the stage would be united in preventing Barack Obama from getting a second term. It was the biggest applause line of the night.

Ron Paul took the opportunity to occasionally attack Perry. The first time it occurred, Perry struck back, which was unwise, as it gave Paul time to reply. Later, the candidates ignored Paul and allowed him to marginalize himself.

Jon Huntsman was not a potent force in the debate, but he was much stronger than during his first appearance in August. He even took a few opportunities to attack Romney, his competitor in New Hampshire. But if voters do not view Huntsman as a real contender to win, few will notice, as he is too understated to grab attention.

Herman Cain was also more polished than before, but he had few opportunities to make an impact. Rick Santorum was in the same position.

Who was helped by the debate? Mitt Romney will likely be viewed as a more electable, presidential-seeming candidate than Rick Perry. Perry defended himself well during most of the debate, but the exchange on Social Security and Perry's hesitant, halting answers toward the end of the debate could lower his stock. Bachmann's apparent irrelevance likely made her another candidate harmed by the debate.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Primary Debate Tomorrow on MSNBC

A primary debate, hosted by NBC and Politico, will be held tomorrow evening. The eight Republican presidential candidates officially in the race are scheduled to attend. This will be the first debate appearance for Rick Perry, and the first debate that Tim Pawlenty will not attend (because he quit the race last month).

Perry will be the center of attention. Despite the fact that Perry leads the national primary polls, many Republican primary voters will be seeing the man for the first time at this debate. The pressure will be on Perry to prove he has the intelligence and presidential demeanor necessary to be an electable candidate.

There's some speculation that Perry may opt out of the debate at the last moment, due to the problem with wildfires in Texas, where Perry still serves as governor. If Perry chose not to attend, he would be badly damaged. Not only would he be viewed as a coward, but it would set a dangerous precedent. Perry will continue to serve as governor of Texas all through the primary season and the general election, should he become the Republican nominee. If Perry were to stop campaigning each time something occurs in Texas, he could be viewed as an unreliable candidate.

Assuming Perry attends--and perhaps even if he does not--it will be important to see how the other candidates interact with Perry. Michele Bachmann must attack Perry in order to gain ground against him in Iowa, which is a do-or-die contest for her. Perry will be forced to handle Bachmann. He must parry her attacks without appearing too condescending. He must also avoid counter-attacking in such a way that he appears too negative, as Tim Pawlenty learned during the August debate.

Mitt Romney must decide whether or not to attack Perry. As we argued a few days ago, it's not in Romney's best interest to be the deliverer of the "Perry is a RINO" message, since he would appear hypocritical and invite counter-attacks from Perry. But Romney's advisors may be feeling too much pressure from the national polls where Perry leads Romney.

As always, it will also be important to see how Romney handles any attacks against Romneycare, which continues to be his chief liability. He has managed to glide past the issue several times before, but the fact that it can be brought back again and again is evidence that Romney's best strategy would have been to disavow Romneycare and admit it was a mistake.

The other candidates in the race will have a major challenge: They must find a way to break out of the mold of the three-way race developing among Bachmann, Perry, and Romney. To become relevant, they need to build themselves up, but fewer people will be paying attention. They may decide to dogpile on Perry, which is a traditional development when one candidate leads in all the national polls.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The 2012 Republican Primary: Phase Three

To assist us in examining the Republican primary, Elephant Watcher has broken the primary process down into four different phases. Back in May, we wrote about Phase One, the period in which candidates were only just beginning to enter the race. During the summer, we wrote about Phase Two, when the field took shape and candidates started hammering out their initial strategies.

Now Phase Three is about to begin. This period, lasting roughly from September through December, is critical. For the first time, voters in the early primary states (particularly Iowa and New Hampshire) will start paying close attention to the race. Up until this point, only a small number of politically-minded individuals were watching the race. Now everything the candidates do and say will be seen by the people who will vote in February's primaries. As for the rest of the country, they will remain tuned out for the rest of the calendar year.

During Phase Three, the campaign is much more intense. There are three debates scheduled for this month. That's more debates than were held during the previous three months combined. The field is also more well-defined. If Chris Christie and Sarah Palin decline to enter the race, this will be the first month that began with all of the candidates already in the race.

Aside from potential late-entrants like Christie, Phase Three is when the race is less about adding candidates and more about eliminating candidates. Tim Pawlenty decided to quit last month due to his performance in the Ames straw poll, and he may be the only candidate who officially quits for some time. After all, what could happen during the months of September or October that convinces a candidate to quit? But just because a candidate is officially in the race doesn't mean he's truly considered a contender. During the next few months, the polls and political commentators will determine how many candidates are really in the race.

During 2008, the Republicans had many high-profile candidates vying for the nomination. That's unusual. In 2000, for example, the Republican primary was widely considered a two-man race between George W. Bush and John McCain. The Democratic primary was also considered a two-man race (between Al Gore and Bill Bradley). There were others running, but all of the attention focused on the men who had a real chance of winning the nomination.

It's likely that a similar process will occur during Phase Three. If Rick Perry maintains a decent lead over Michele Bachmann in Iowa, Bachmann's supporters may shift over to Perry by the end of this calendar year. By that point, the media will characterize the primary as a two-man race between Perry and Mitt Romney. The other six candidates will be deemed irrelevant, all before the first vote is cast in Iowa. But even supposing Bachmann remains competitive in Iowa, the media may view the race as a three-man contest--which still eliminates a majority of the contestants.

The challenge for the competitors who aren't Romney, Perry, or Bachmann is to use the debates to make sure voters still view them as viable. Only a standout performance like Mike Huckabee's in 2008 will be enough. The good news is that the voters will be watching.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Should Mitt Romney Attack Rick Perry Now?

The next Republican primary debate is scheduled for this Wednesday. The debate is significant because it will be the first attended by Rick Perry. Voters in early primary states will begin to pay more attention, and they're eager to learn more about Perry, who leads in the polls.

We've written about why Perry will be attacked by Michele Bachmann and Mitt Romney over the course of the primary. Bachmann has already begun to attack Perry for not being a genuine conservative. During the upcoming debate, it's very likely that Bachmann will attack Perry. After all, Perry is ahead in the Iowa Caucus polls. But should Romney attack Perry during the debate? How much effort should Romney expend on attacking Perry at this point in the campaign?

Romney's advisors, if they are unwise, will tell Romney that he must assault Perry. They will argue that because Rick Perry leads in national polls, Romney must attack the new frontrunner. If Romney's advisors are more clever, they will counsel Romney to remain above the fray, avoiding attacks against Perry for now. Why?

The fundamental structure of the race between Perry and Romney is that Perry is viewed as a more genuine conservative, and Romney is viewed as more electable. Both genuine conservatism and electability are important to primary voters. It's unclear which candidate will win if they remain in their current state. If the perception of Perry as a genuine conservative weakens, he will approach Romney on that variable--that is, they will be seen as somewhat more equally genuine in their conservatism. If they are tied on that factor, then Romney wins due to superior electability. Thus, Romney would like people to scrutinize Perry's record. He would like voters to harbor doubts about whether Perry is as conservative as claimed.

But Romney is not the best person to make such attacks. Since Romney still has the stigma of being a flip-flopper and an opportunist, he will be viewed as a hypocrite if he questions whether Perry is a genuine conservative. Bachmann, on the other hand, will not. Bachmann and Sarah Palin are basically the only two people on the planet who are not accused of meeting the definition of a RINO. Bachmann's conservative credentials are beyond doubt.

The conclusion is that Romney should allow Bachmann to do the work for him. She is in a better position to accuse Perry of being a RINO. It's also useful for Romney to avoid being the guy who "goes negative." When you attack another candidate--even successfully--you still lose some points, and you make enemies of people you'll need later on down the road. Going negative also makes a candidate look petty and unpresidential. Additionally, Perry would have more difficulty counter-attacking Bachmann, since Perry might reveal some disdain toward women. Perry probably doesn't take Bachmann very seriously, and if he is condescending toward her, it could make him look like a misogynist.

Would a "pacifist" strategy make Romney appear weak, as Tim Pawlenty was accused of being? Unlikely. Pawlenty was harmed by the fact that he had been attacking Romney when Romney wasn't there, but wouldn't attack Romney to his face. Romney has, so far, avoided making any real attacks against Perry. Romney should defend himself, but he will not appear weak by declining to initiate attacks against Perry.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

2012 Republican Primary in Review: August 2011

The Elephant Watcher news archive for the month of August, 2011.

The race for the Republican nomination for president underwent some significant changes during the month of August: Rick Perry jumped into the race, Tim Pawlenty quit, and the national poll numbers moved heavily in favor of Perry.

The primary awoke from the July campaign "dead zone" on August 11th, when the field assembled for its first debate since mid-June. Mitt Romney was able to play the role of the front-runner, remaining above the fray as he had been during the preceding months. Meanwhile, Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann firmly planted themselves in the fray by attacking each other.

On August 13th, the Ames straw poll was conducted. Bachmann barely defeated Ron Paul, denying Paul a rare chance to get in the headlines. Pawlenty's third-place finish convinced him to quit the race, the first official candidate to do so this season.

That same day, hoping to steal headlines, Perry announced his entry. Almost immediately, Perry leaped to the top of the polls, knocking Romney out of the top spot nationally. In Iowa, Perry took a small lead; in South Carolina, he took a large lead. But in Romney's stronghold of New Hampshire, Perry could make little headway.

Political observers reacted to these developments by characterizing the primary as a two-man race between Perry and Romney. Perry's ill-considered gaffes reinforced the existing concern about his electability. The Republican establishment proved receptive to Perry's economic record of job creation in Texas, but the electability issue prevented them from throwing their support behind him. Meanwhile, Romney's support proved soft.

Toward the end of August, there was increased chatter--particularly among the Republican establishment--about the need for an additional candidate. Chris Christie made no indication that he was going to enter the race. The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party was heartened by Perry's entry, but Perry did not prove himself capable of uniting the whole of the Party. Christie remained the favorite to win the nomination, though his odds dipped somewhat. Elephant Watcher calculates that Christie has a 57% chance of winning the nomination.