The Elephant Race Trundles On

So, 2 states down, 48 to go. That will no doubt be a disappointment to James Fenton of the Evening Standard, whose recent article of January 6 (“While Republicans flounder, the mood is turning ugly”) called for Republicans to unite ‘sooner rather than later…to call the fight off before the party hurts itself.’ What a misguided sentiment, calling apparently for a coronation rather than a competition. Thankfully the founders of the United States preferred democracy to Fenton’s suggested model and that is exactly what is going to play out across all 50 states in the coming months.

Last night’s New Hampshire Primary saw the unsurprising victory of local candidate Mitt Romney, winning with 39% of the vote, 1 % short of the magic number required before Sir Christopher Meyer promised to eat one of famous red socks. Romney’s ability to win in New Hampshire was never really in doubt; what was going to be telling was the gap between first and second and who it was that would win silver in New Hampshire. After Iowa, there was speculation that Rick Santorum would continue to surprise. Not so much. With just 9% of the vote, the former senator from Pennsylvania must be disappointed that the momentum he so required has thus far failed to materialise in a development that could prove fatal as the race heads south to the Carolinas and to Florida.

Santorum is, however, far from being the biggest loser of the night, although that honour is perhaps shared. John Huntsman bet the farm on winning New Hampshire and didn’t, coming in a distant third with 17%. Likewise Newt Gingrich needed to impress and didn’t, also taking just 9%. One wonders how Gingrich’s renowned ego will handle the fact that 91% of Republicans voted for someone else? How he must lament not running in 1996.

It was no great surprise that Rick Perry failed to improve on his shockingly low Iowa result of just 1%, which remained constant. Of course it could have been worse, his vote could have collapsed altogether. Perry is gambling on a huge showing in South Carolina, where, if truth be told, his campaign was always going to begin, but surely, even in their worst nightmares, his campaign staff can’t have imagined gaining just 1% in the opening two elections?

And finally, before I am accused of ignoring him altogether, we come to Ron Paul; Third in Iowa, second in New Hampshire. That is quite an achievement and as usual it is being quite overlooked. Why is this? I think frankly that the media recognises that he cannot possibly win. Paul is that classic character that appears in the American political arena every now and then; someone who is more interested in speaking his mind than in necessarily winning an election. As was said of Barry Goldwater, he is more interested in being right than in being president. Now, before anyone jumps up and down, I’m not comparing the politics of the two men, merely their refreshing capacity to declare boldly their opinions and to stand by them, something that is all too rare in political life.

Clearly Ron Paul’s message is striking a cord with a solid core of Republican voters and the Party should take heed. It is my view that they will ignore it in the hope that it will go away, or come home to the roost when it realises that the alternative is guaranteeing four more years of Barack Obama in the White House. This is a dangerous gambit that risks either an independent run by Ron Paul (which he has discounted, but never say never in politics) or the disillusionment of 20% of Republican voters who could simply stay at home in November. A Republican victory against the incumbent was going to be a challenge and they cannot simply dismiss a fifth of their potential electorate if they wish to win.

The reaction to Paul  is predicated on the basis that if Romney is to face a serious Republican candidate it is not going to be Ron Paul, but rather SOMEONE ELSE. I stress this, because at present it is impossible to determine who, if anyone, this will be. The results from last night indicate a major problem for the Republican Party: 61% of New Hampshire Republican Primary goers voted for someone other than Mitt Romney. If one discounts the Paul vote as one of protest, that still leaves 38% of Republicans backing candidates other than Romney, virtually the same number as support him. What does this demonstrate? Simply that the anti-Romney vote is currently being distributed around too many candidates. It is a sad thing for any candidate to have to consider dropping out after only two votes, but the alternative is to limp on to further ignominy. Democracy is a great concept, but ego threatens to lead to an unintended coronation. Santorum appears to be a spent force; as is Huntsman. Both they and Perry must surpass expectations in South Carolina and Florida if they are to have any chance of halting Romney. If these three fail to do so they should contemplate the painful option of dropping out and endorsing whoever remains, perhaps Newt Gingrich, as an alternative to Romany. To do otherwise is to continue to split the anti-Romney vote and thereby guarantee the nomination of a mediocre candidate who fails to engender excitement among his own party and who will fail to be an adequate challenger for the presidency in November.

Live Free or Die: New Hampshire Primary Day

Well here we are folks, it’s the first primary in the 2012 presidential election. In many ways, it should all begin here; after all, as John Huntsman reminded us recently, ‘they pick corn in Iowa and presidents in New Hampshire.’ Cute line and only offensive to the 122,000 Republicans that may have voted for him out of 3,400,000 Iowans. Cute and sometimes true. This year things may get interesting. The press are trotting out a nice line to the effect that no Republican has won Iowa and New Hampshire and that at present, Mitt Romney is on course to do just that. Let me stress the last two words; ‘just that.’ Recall his winning margin of 8 votes in Iowa? When LBJ won an election in Texas by a similarly close margin he was tagged ‘Landslide Lyndon’ for the rest of his career (or ‘Lyin’ Lyndon in less polite society). Such is the onus on the front runner, to stay running and to stay at the front.

The problem for Mitt Romney (who appears to have been running for president since, well, forever), is that his fellow Republicans don’t appear to be convinced in any way shape or form by his candidacy. He ‘won’ the Iowa Caucus by 8 votes, and in the process gained the same amount of electors as second place Rick Santorum, who spent far less in the state and who may well have been denied victory by the stone age voting system employed in the state. (Did anyone tell them it’s now the 21st century?)

As a virtual favourite son Romney was 20 points ahead in the New Hampshire polls and a sure thing to win, thereby becoming, as the press have mentioned, the first Republican to win Iowa and New Hampshire. His capacity to win both states is something of a geographical fluke in reality; having thrown money around like it was going out of fashion in Iowa and relying on his local status for victory in New Hampshire. Truth be told, you don’t get many Republicans in Massachusetts.

One of the tricks in an election is to peak on Election Day, as George W. Bush arguable did on Election Day 2004. It really doesn’t matter how popular you are the following day, just as long as more people vote for you on Election Day than anyone else. Romney may well win tonight, indeed, he probably will, but the margin of victory will be telling. Until last week he was 20 points ahead and cruising. Then came Iowa and since then his numbers began to slide and slide and slide. Romney therefore faces the problem of being more popular two weeks prior to the big day than on the day itself, which raises the challenge of what George Herbert Walker Bush called, the Big Mo, or in language adults would use, Momentum.

In coming in 8 votes clear in Iowa and with his numbers cratering in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney is singularly failing to develop any momentum to carry him into the far from welcoming southern states of South Carolina and Florida. Perception is everything in politics, and the perception/truth of the matter, is that currently, anywhere between 70-75% of Republican voters are voting for someone else. Out of a weak field of candidates, Mitt Romney is constantly the least bad candidate, a point beautifully captured in the season premier of Saturday Night Live.

In many ways Romney and Obama have a similar situation; both are lucky in terms of their opponents.

If the Republican right could coalesce around an agreed upon candidate (as high ranking members of the party are meeting to arrange) then Romney’s candidacy could be doomed. However, if the 75% of Republicans who won’t vote for Romney continue to split their preference between the likes of Gingrich, Paul, Perry, huntsman and Santorum, then Romney can keep on making gaffes about (“I like firing people”) all day long, before losing in the general election to an even luckier candidate, President Barack Obama.

Today, then, is all about the final number. It would appear impossible for Romney not to win the vote tonight. It is, however, entirely possible, that just like Iowa, he could win the battle of the vote and lose the war of perception

Reflecting on New Hampshire Debate

After a series of interminable debate amongst the Republican Party presidential candidates, life was finally breathed into the contest this morning in New Hampshire in the NBC/Facebook debate. Coming less than 24 hours after the previous such event (yes, really) this clash of contestants threatened to be a weary affair with all concerned having debated so soon beforehand. Instead, the opposite occurred with all parties running on adrenaline or coffee to ensure a lively and memorable debate.

One constant through all of the debates has been Mitt Romeny’s capacity to appear serene and above it all. He knows he’s got the nomination in the bag and is determined not to blow it by getting down in the mud with his challenges. He’s content to let them scramble around looking to win cheap debating points, whist he lords it up above them all as the Nominee in Waiting.

This was replicated again, as the other candidates (Gingrich, Paul, Santorum etc) were left to win debating points, which to their credit they did when presented with the opportunity. Governor Perry won the prize for Most Engaging speaker with a good line in self-depreciating humour that won a lot of laughs. Only when the polling is over will we know if the laughs were with him or at him.

Newt Gingrich (Mr Speaker) was happy to remain the Teacher In Chief, filling his answers with facts and history and dropping Ronald Reagan’s name whenever possible, even when it was to defend Trickle Down economics. Ron Paul (Dr Paul) remained as committed as ever to Libertarian principles and the defence of liberty even whilst Rick Santorum mocked his inability to get anything done or to work with anyone. When Santorum was able to get a word in edgeways he appeared to be balanced and rationale, though he did little to overcome his comments on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell on Fox News recently.

The biggest loser today may have been Huntsman who did little to distinguish himself. It was always going to be difficult for someone who was an Obama appointee to seek the nomination this year, and Huntsman has repeatedly done nothing to make his job any easier.

What emerged from this debate is that the candidates believe Obama to be a socialist with a secular view of the nation who is weak in the Middle East and a threat to national security. Not mush we don’t already know, but the extent to which these views are being so openly espoused makes for fascinating viewing. What it says about the Republican’s understanding of socialism, however, is another matter.

The latest polling out of New Hampshire does not make for comfortable reading for Romney who has now dropped steadily to 35%, down from the low forties whilst Paul and Hunstman are gaining ground, though remain far behind on 20% and 11% respectively. Texan governor Rick Perry, who many expected to thrown in the towel last week after his poor showing in the Iowa caucuses remains on 1%. His only hope remains what it always was, a string showing in the South Carolina Primary on January 31. Without it, he will be forced to withdraw, though he will doubtless not be alone in that prospect by the end of the month. Romney may have done enough to secure a points victory today, but once more, the true victor was probably Barack Obama.

 

Republican Turmoil Following Florida Straw Poll

Across the United States, party members are turning out for non-binding but nevertheless influential ‘straw polls,’ designed to provide an indication of voting intent and overall levels of support for the various candidates seeking to challenge President Obama for the White House next year.

So far the only pattern that has emerged is one of chaos, with no single individual emerging to dominate the crowd, ensuring that Republican divisions continue unabated.

Reputations are being made, lost and recast on a weekly basis, as the would-be candidates crisscross America searching for the magic moment that will propel them to the nomination in 2012. Thus far voters have singularly failed to coalesce around any single candidate.

Last night’s big winner was Herman Cain, the Godfather Pizza king, in an indication of how bizarre this race threatens to become. He romped home with 37% of the vote, leaving second placed Rick Perry feeling stuffed crust with just 15%. Moderate Mormon, Mitt Romney managed a mere 14%, despite having been in the race as long as anyone can recall….

The biggest loser however appears to have been Michelle Bachmann who managed a pitiful 1.5%. That’s not a typo. The woman portrayed as the next Sarah Palin failed to register in a state that will be central to any Republican efforts to secure the White House. 

This is, of course, all window dressing until the voting begins in the new year, but such events have a big impact on the direction of funding at this stage.  Money follows success so failure at this stages is a harbinger of hard times ahead financially. It will be fascinating to see who is left standing when the polls open in Iowa and New Hampshire next year, and whether the lack of a leading candidate draws other candidates into the race…