Wednesday, February 1, 2012

2012 Republican Primary in Review: January 2012

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, October, November, December.

January 2012 was the month of the early primary states. By tying for first in Iowa, easily winning New Hampshire, and decisively defeating his remaining opponents in Florida, Mitt Romney secured his position as the prohibitive favorite to win the nomination.

As January began, the situation in Iowa was unclear. Romney, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum all had reasons to be optimistic. Newt Gingrich, who had been leading in Iowa only a few weeks earlier, had been devastated by his rivals' negative ads. With no opportunities to debate, Gingrich could not respond. At last, Santorum was given the chance to be the Evangelical Anti-Romney in Iowa. His surge began at the last possible moment; it was spotted by Rick Perry and Paul, who quickly responded with the first attacks ever made against Santorum.

It was a race against time for Santorum, and he lost. Romney managed to squeak out a win in Iowa on January 3rd, beating Santorum by 8 votes. Santorum's spike in the polls was impressive, but so was Romney's ability to make a last-minute play for the state--one he had largely written off since his defeat there in 2008. A recount later found that Santorum had actually won the state by a handful of votes, but he was unable to get the kind of big win that he needed to propel him above Gingrich elsewhere in the country. Santorum was an Iowa-only candidate. Michele Bachmann fared even worse, and she quit the race.

Romney was expected to win the New Hampshire Primary, where he had dominated the polls all year. On January 7th, the candidates finally returned to the debate stage, but they didn't take the opportunity to attack Romney. He easily won the debate; on January 10th he won New Hampshire just as easily. Santorum and Gingrich tied each other for a distant fourth.

Romney's wins in Iowa and New Hampshire gave him a huge bounce in the polls--even in South Carolina, by far the most anti-Romney of the early states. The media began to speculate that Romney might simply win every contest. Seeing no path forward, Jon Huntsman dropped out of the race.

Gingrich and Perry shifted entirely to the offensive against Romney. Their main line of attack was to condemn Romney's success at Bain Capital, a private equity firm. Although they seemed to be scoring points at first, the attacks backfired: They sounded like anti-capitalist critics from the left, and were forced to retreat.

On January 16th, the first of two pre-South Carolina debates took place. Gingrich was given a prime opportunity to attack the liberal media after one liberal moderator all but accused him of being a racist. In attacking the media, Gingrich looked like a genuine Tea Party conservative--enabling voters to overlook his impure record. But that wasn't all: Gingrich was well ahead of Santorum in the polls, and Perry dropped out of the race to endorse Gingrich. It was clear that if anyone would be the alternative to Romney, Gingrich was it. The Anti-Romney vote coalesced, and Gingrich began to surge in the polls.

On January 19th, Gingrich was able to launch a broadside against the liberal media at another debate, when he was asked about his ex-wife's accusations. As with Herman Cain's sex scandal a few months earlier, it took some time before the issue would sink in and drive women voters away from Gingrich. Meanwhile, Romney--who had been able to defeat the Bain criticism--was badly damaged because he refused to release his tax returns. When questioned about it during the debates, he was evasive and defensive. South Carolina's voters began to question Romney's electability: Was he hiding something that would sink him in the general election?

Gingrich won a landslide victory in South Carolina on January 21st. In response, the media narrative shifted dramatically. Romney was no longer the inevitable Republican nominee. Gingrich had the momentum, it seemed. After being left for dead a second time in the campaign, Gingrich had made a comeback. He retook the lead in the Florida polls, a state Romney badly needed to win.

But the situation was not nearly as dire for Romney as it appeared. Despite having been at a severe disadvantage in South Carolina, Romney had nearly doubled his share of the vote there, compared to his run in 2008. And the damage to his electability argument was very superficial: All he had to do was release his tax returns, which he did the following week. As it turned out, there were no skeletons in his closet. Romney had merely been stubborn in failing to release them earlier.

But the Romney campaign knew they had to turn things around. They pulled out all the stops, pouring millions of dollars into negative ads against Gingrich in Florida. As in Iowa, the attacks had a big impact. But Gingrich's real vulnerability lay in the very thing he claimed to be his greatest strength--his debating ability. As Elephant Watcher predicted, Gingrich was not able to debate very well when actually challenged by his opponents. On January 23rd, Gingrich's performance was lackluster. On January 26th, it was disastrous. Romney won the debate by repeatedly hammering Gingrich, who was unable to respond.

In the days following the debates, Romney soared in the Florida polls. Voters' concerns about Romney's electability and toughness were dispelled. By contrast, Gingrich's campaign was left in ruins. Gingrich began to lash out, complaining about the negative ads while taking an increasingly negative tone in interviews. For weeks, Gingrich had claimed that he was the most electable candidate because he was the best man to face Barack Obama in a debate. But after losing two debates, Gingrich found himself making all kinds of excuses for why he was unable to debate properly. All the while, Florida was drenched in attack ads.

On January 31st, Floridians cast their votes in the primary. Romney won an overwhelming victory. Gingrich vowed to fight on, but the situation seemed hopeless. Florida had been very receptive to Gingrich in the past, and was his best hope for building momentum going into a longer race. Romney, having proven he could destroy Gingrich on neutral ground, looked to be in total control.