Saturday, October 1, 2011

2012 Republican Primary in Review: September 2011

Each month, Elephant Watcher recaps the activity that occurred in the Republican primary during the previous month. Follow these links to read earlier recaps: May, June, July, August.

September marked the beginning of Phase Three of the Republican primary. From this point forward, the candidates had a real chance to speak with the voters in early primary states, who had just begun to pay attention. Primary debates, which had taken place only intermittently during the earlier phases of the campaign, dominated the timeline. There were three debates scheduled in September, and the candidates would be put to the test.

Rick Perry started the month in a fairly strong position. He was the frontrunner in all of the national primary polls. In reality, Perry's status as the frontrunner was exaggerated: While easily leading South Carolina polls, he only had a tenuous lead in Iowa, and he was dominated by Mitt Romney in New Hampshire. Nevertheless, the Perry-as-frontrunner meme took hold. Only half a month after entering the race, Perry was considered by most observers to be well ahead of Romney.

It didn't take long for Perry to get himself into trouble. During the Republican debate on September 7th, he had harsh words for Social Security. Romney performed better, and Intrade investors put the two candidates at parity. Meanwhile, Michele Bachmann seemed to vanish.

Less than a week later, at the Republican debate on September 12th, Perry stumbled again. He took heat from minor candidates, including Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann, for not being conservative enough. Perry found it difficult to parry these attacks. Romney seemed presidential by comparison.

In response to Perry's weak performances at the first two debates, the media narrative placed Perry and Romney in roughly equivalent positions, calling it a "two-man race." But it was clear that the momentum was with Romney, who fared better in each debate.

At the Republican debate on September 22nd, Perry suffered his third strike. Not only was he repeatedly attacked by Santorum and counter-attacked by Romney at every turn, Perry had difficulty speaking coherently. The cumulative effect of Perry's three weak debate performances was disastrous.

Although there were few polls being conducted (especially in early primary states), Perry's supporters sensed trouble and began looking elsewhere. Bachmann was unable to take advantage in Iowa as she, too, seemed to be wasting away into irrelevance. By comparison, Herman Cain and Santorum looked appealing to those looking for a new Anti-Romney.

As Perry crashed and burned, speculation about the possibility of Chris Christie announcing he will run for president reached a fever pitch. Although Christie had previously denied that he would run (with each denial made in an unconvincing manner), new reports repeatedly indicated that Christie was reconsidering. The Anti-Romney forces, especially those among the Republican establishment, begged Christie to enter the race. As the month closed, all eyes were on Christie. His decision promised to produce a seismic shift in the race. Elephant Watcher calculates that Christie's odds of winning the Republican nomination are 57%.