Friday, May 4, 2012

Decisive Moments of the Campaign, Part I

As we continue our restrospective of the 2012 Republican primary, we would like to put a spotlight on several key moments of the campaign. An event may be considered "decisive" if, having gone differently, it likely would have altered the final outcome of the primary--or at least significantly changed the trajectory of the campaign. The events described will be listed roughly in chronological order. Since events further down the road have less potential to cause change (due to delegates being "locked in," etc.), they may be considered somewhat in order of their decisiveness, as well.

Candidates Choose Not to Run (May 14th - October 4th). Each presidential primary campaign is unique because the dynamic of the playing field is determined by who is playing. Generally speaking, if a politician is capable of winning the presidential nomination--and particularly if he's likely to win--he will run. For various reasons, a number of serious potential competitors opted not to run this season. In the case of three men--Mike Huckabee, Mitch Daniels, and Chris Christie--their absence was decisive. Any of the three had a real chance to defeat Mitt Romney. At least one of them, Chris Christie (arguments can be made for all three), was more likely than not going to defeat Romney. If that weren't enough, if any of the three had entered the race, the shape of the race would have been dramatically different, even if Romney ultimately won.

Tim Pawlenty Quits Early (August 14th). According to the Elephant Watcher calculation of the odds, only one candidate who entered the race ever had higher odds of winning the nomination than Romney. That candidate was Tim Pawlenty, who ended up quitting much sooner than anyone else. Pawlenty quit because his campaign was spending itself into debt while failing to get good poll numbers or win the Ames straw poll. Unlike Romney, who had learned from his 2008 run, Pawlenty's campaign was in a hurry, and it acted as though voters were making up their minds during the summer of 2011. They were not. What if Pawlenty had taken a more steady approach? In hindsight, we can see that Pawlenty probably would have beaten Romney. Though he lacked any exciting qualities, Pawlenty had a solidly conservative record and was at least as electable as Romney. In the end, he would have been acceptable to both wings of the Republican Party. When we consider how well Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum did in spite of all their failings, it's pretty clear that someone like Pawlenty, who lacked their weaknesses, would have won.

Mitt Romney Beats Rick Perry in the Debates (September 7th - September 22nd). Though a lot of media attention was devoted to Rick Perry's later "oops" gaffe, Perry had already been defeated during the more decisive September debates. Romney's campaign always considered Perry to be the biggest threat. Perry was the only candidate capable of running a first-class, professional campaign. Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, Jon Huntsman, Ron Paul, and Rick Santorum were all running long-shot vanity campaigns. By September, Pawlenty was already out. That left Perry, who owned a Texas-sized chunk of the Republican establishment and donor networks, second only to Romney. During the September debates, Perry was aggressive. He sought out one-on-one battles with Romney and occasionally scored points against him. But Romney consistently out-classed Perry, who had a tendency to make at least one memorable gaffe per debate. Perry also seemed to get worse over time. The third strike, the debate on September 22nd, knocked Perry out. Before the September debates, Perry had a solid lead over Romney in the polls. After them, Romney held the lead.

Rick Perry Says "Oops" (November 9th). Though Romney maintained a lead over Perry from the end of September onward, Perry's catastrophic "oops" gaffe at the November 9th debate still had an important impact on the race. By November, Perry was in a weakened position. However, there was a possibility that he could recover at some point. He might not have been able to win, but he could have played a role as one of the--if not the chief--Anti-Romney candidates. Only voters in the early states paid attention to the September/October debates. Recall that Gingrich was able to bounce back and win South Carolina after early defeats. Santorum, too, experienced a resurgence in February 2012. Supposing Perry had not made his "oops" gaffe, which became the most famous primary debate gaffe in political history, he might have been able to muddy the waters in Iowa, South Carolina, or beyond. Gingrich and Santorum both needed Perry out of the way in order to make their big gains. Without the "oops," Santorum may have been forced to drop out after losing Iowa.

In Part II, we will explore the remaining moments which we consider to have been decisive in the 2012 Republican presidential primary.