Branch Rickey, the legendary General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball franchise, famously said that “luck is the residue of design.”
To some degree, MItt Romney’s astonishing run of good fortune over the course of the last three or four months is just as Rickey described it. Romney’s hard work, careful positioning, effective campaign organisation and relentless fund-raising caused the GOP presidential campaign to break in his direction.
Supporters of the former Massachusetts governor announced today that they had raised $12 million for a Romney “Super PAC.” This news soon will be followed by the news that the Romney for President campaign raised at least $15 million in the second quarter of this year. Mr. Romney has yet to put any of his personal money into his campaign. Should he choose to do so, he could add as much as $50 million to the campaign’s bankroll.
Republican candidates who might have challenged Romney for “traditional” GOP support cowered when faced with Romney’s highly disciplined fund-raising operation. And one by one, they decided not to run for the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.
First, Haley Barbour dropped out, saying that he wasn’t “100% committed” to running the race. Then GOP front-runner Mike Huckabee dropped out, saying that he didn’t have the necessary “fire in the belly.” Then Mitch Daniels came and went, citing family opposition. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie said, over and over again, that it was “too soon” for him to run. The only candidate who stepped up and put himself on the line was the Romney-like Jon Huntsman, a fellow Mormon, a former governor (of Utah) and the US Ambassador to China under President Obama.
All of these people (with the exception of Amb. Huntsman, obviously) might have run had Mr. Romney not so aggressively staked out his claim. But what they found when they did their due diligence was that Mr. Romney had not only built up a formidable financial advantage, he had also built himself a firewall in New Hampshire.
Throughout the first half of this year, poll after poll in the Granite State (home to the nation’s first primary) showed Romney with a huge lead among likely New Hampshire GOP primary voters. With Iowa likely to give its blessing to a “social conservative” candidate, New Hampshire was the only early state that could serve as a launching pad for more “traditional” GOP candidates.
When candidates like Governors Barbour, Daniels and Christie looked at Romney’s lead in New Hampshire, they couldn’t see a way to get around it or through it. And when Mike Huckabee looked at New Hampshire, he knew that from that primary date forward, he would be outspent by Romney every step of the way. The combination of these two factors — Romney’s huge fund-raising advantage and his apparently solid New Hampshire base — chased a lot of political talent out of the race.
In so doing, it brought to the fore less formidable, less experienced candidates. Rep. Michele Bachmann has recently emerged as the darling of Iowa and she has hired on professional managers and consultants who have national campaign experience. But she herself is a rookie in a pro’s game. Her inexperience already shows and the game only gets harder, rougher and more intense.
Texas Governor Rick Perry has also emerged as a potential Romney-beater. But his candidacy remains an idea not a reality, and he too (like Bachmann) is unvetted by the press and untested on the national stage.
There are many analysts (ourselves included) who think that Perry would be well-advised to skip Iowa and New Hampshire altogether and begin his campaign in South Carolina. He could start there as a “regional” (meaning Southern) “favourite son” and work his way outward, avoiding the embarrassment of finishing behind Bachmann in Iowa and behind Romney in New Hampshire (which would all but end the Perry campaign). But his campaign advisors are saying that if he runs, he will run in Iowa and New Hampshire. Good luck with that.
Everything that could go right for Romney has gone right since the beginning of this year. His strongest challengers declined to challenge. Weaker challengers (at least on paper) have emerged as his principal opponents. The question that sort of hangs over the race now is: how much longer can this run of good news (for Romney) last? When and where does the tide turn?
The answer, of course, is that no one knows. But the one thing that everyone knows in modern American politics is that only a few incumbent presidents have marched uninterrupted to their party’s nominations. Those who seek the “out” party’s nomination (or face a serious challenge that springs from the “in” party’s discontents) always experience unexpected setbacks and reversals. It was true of Sen. Ed Muskie in 1972, of Gerald Ford in 1976, of Ronald Reagan in 1980, of Jimmy Carter in 1980, of Walter Mondale in 1984, of George HW Bush in 1988, of Bill Clinton in 1992, of Robert Dole in 1996, of George W. Bush in 2000, and of Hillary Clinton in 2008. Setbacks are the rule, not the exception to the rule.
The one thing the Romney campaign cannot withstand is the loss of New Hampshire. Romney can lose Iowa and live to fight another day. He can lose South Carolina and live to fight another day. But he cannot lose New Hampshire. His campaign will almost certainly collapse if he does.
Romney is vulnerable on three counts (known in the trade as the “3 Rs”): region (he’s from the Northeast in a party that nominates Sun-belters and Midwesterners), religion (he’s Mormon in an evangelical Christian party) and “Romneycare” (the Massachusetts healthcare reform legislation that was the forerunner to “Obamacare”). In virtually every other way, he’s an acceptable nominee and his views on issues don’t vary all that much from standard-issue GOP conservatism.
So if a reversal is coming, it will occur because of some combination of the “3 Rs” or because he commits so many unforced political errors that he self-destructs. Judging from his campaign’s discipline to date, self-destruction doesn’t seem in the cards. So look for his opponents to attack on Romneycare, Northeastern “liberalism” and Mormonism (a religious attack has to be done artfully and in code).
Right now, Romney’s argument that he is the only GOP candidate in the field who has a realistic chance of defeating President Obama is resonating with voters across the early caucus and primary states. “Electability” used to be the rallying cry of doomed campaigns. Today, it’s a central, almost defining issue.If enough primary voters and caucus attenders think that Mitt Romney represents the GOP’s best hope of defeating President Obama, he will be the nominee.
That’s what Romney is selling. So far, it’s working like a charm.
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