A Cranky Reader and I Discuss the 2012 GOP Primary

by John Sides on January 23, 2012 · 14 comments

in Campaigns and elections

Cranky Reader: Sides, you’re not just a moron, but a coward.

Me: Say what?

CR: You’ve been hyping the “inevitability of Romney” since, oh, 2008.  Now the South Carolina primary has made you look like an idiot.  And 24 hours later you still haven’t blogged about it.  Coward.

Me: Oh, I see.

CR: Admit you were wrong.  Admit that this political science theory you’ve been slobbering over is wrong.  You know, from The Party Decides?  The one that says that party leaders strongly influence nominations and that the endorsements of these leaders is a key indicator of who’ll get the nomination?  Romney has garnered lots of endorsements.  Gingrich hasn’t.  In fact, lots of party leaders hate him.  So you were wrong.

Me: Why should I admit that I was wrong or that theory is wrong?  The primary isn’t over yet.

CR: Yeah, but that Gallup graph you posted last week?  Now look at it.  In fact, Gallup’s homepage says Romney’s nationwide margin over Gingrich is even closer today: 5 points.

Me: True enough.

CR: So admit you were wrong.

Me: Look at it this way.  If I had told you months ago that Mitt Romney would lose Iowa and South Carolina but win the New Hampshire primary, what would you have said?

CR: Well, at that time I would have said that was a pretty obvious prediction.  But did you make that prediction?  Where’s the link?

Me: I didn’t make that prediction.  I’m just pointing out that, in some sense, there is maybe a bit less drama here than meets the eye.  Lots of eventual nominees lose some primaries or caucuses.

CR: Fair point, but don’t be so blase.  Nate Silver pointed out something highly unusual: Gingrich came from really far back to beat Romney.

Me: That is unusual. No argument there.

CR: Here’s a theory: Republican voters just can’t stand Romney.

Me: That’s not right.  I’ve been arguing that votes against Romney do not equate “deep dissatisfaction for Romney.”  Romney is generally viewed favorably, even by supporters of his opponents!   But of course that doesn’t make him everyone’s first choice, nor does it mean that they like everything about him.  Definitely read Noam Scheiber’s new piece at The New Republic.  He was the one who originally said “deep dissatisfaction.”  In this piece he says “deep ambivalence.”  He’s ostensibly disagreeing with me, but I don’t actually disagree that a substantial number of Republican voters are ambivalent about Romney.  But deep ambivalence is different than deep dissatisfaction.

CR: Please don’t distract from your idiocy by initiating some tedious debate with another blogger.

Me: Fine.  Here’s the deal.  Some voters support Romney.  Some never will.  But the rest have both pro and con views about Romney, which means they haven’t committed to supporting him or opposing him.  And that’s true for most of the other candidates too.

CR: Go on.

Me: When people’s attitudes aren’t yet crystallized, they are more susceptible to the effects of new information.  And let’s face it, the salient information about Romney between the NH and SC primaries wasn’t helpful to him: there was more about Bain, and the “not much” he earned in speaking fees, and his 15% tax rate, and so on.  Meanwhile, Gingrich scored some points by lecturing the moderator in a couple debates and was able to generate a fresh round of positive coverage.

CR: So what you’re saying is that the balance of information—favorable or unfavorable—is what’s driving this?  What about the notion that voters are just refusing to go along with what the media is telling them?  Like, they won’t just vote for whoever the media wants to anoint.

Me: I wasn’t aware that the media was trying to anoint Romney when they were writing a jillion stories about Bain Capital.  But more important, I just don’t think voters make decisions by saying, “I’m not going to let The Media push me around!”  I think that voters who could be tempted to vote for someone other than Romney—and a more conservative state like South Carolina would naturally have a large number of these voters—ended up seeing a lot of negative news about him at the same time as they saw positive news about Gingrich.  Jon Bernstein put it this way:

And with all of those unenthusiastic voters out there, it’s not all that surprising that we can see a lot of undecided voters swing one way or another in reaction to campaign events.

CR: That’s a plausible theory of voter behavior.  So make a prediction about Florida.

Me: I’m not going to make a specific prediction about Florida this far out and without any polling data.  But I would expect that Gingrich won’t be able to ride high for too long.  News coverage tends to be cyclical, and it won’t be long before Gingrich comes in for renewed criticism from somewhere.  Meanwhile, it seems unlikely that Romney’s news coverage could be as bad as it’s been of late, especially once the coverage of the South Carolina outcome is over.  And, as Matt Dickinson points out, Romney is actually a good candidate.  And he’s got money to spend.  So that leads me to think it will be a tight race in FL.

CR: “Tight race.”  What a brilliant insight. Seven years in grad school clearly served you well.

Me: Sorry, that’s all I’ve got.

CR: Here’s a bigger question.  I don’t understand why there’s even an opportunity for Gingrich.  Why isn’t the influence of the party leaders and their endorsements enough to give Romney the nomination?  Nate Silver suggests that this political science theory is the “More of the Same” approach but maybe “This Time Is Different.”

Me: That’s a great question.  First, let’s be clear: party leaders can influence the selection of a nominee, but this doesn’t mean that the nominee runs the table and wins every primary or caucus.  And here’s another caveat: newfound cleavages within the party can make it difficult for leaders to coordinate on a candidate.  Perhaps that is true of the GOP right now—especially with no clear party leader and some ongoing conflict between more moderate and more conservative factions within the party.  Both factors may help explain why the pace of endorsements is slow this year.

CR: Anything else?

Me: Seth Masket suggests that the many debates could be a factor, and obviously party leaders don’t control those.  He also mentions the super-PACs, which may allow candidates to stay in the race longer than they could otherwise.  I’d suggest that maybe elements of the conservative wing of the party—such as the Tea Party or media personalities like Rush Limbaugh—- now constitute a power base that can compete with other party leaders who might prefer a more “moderate” candidate.  See Henry’s post for more on this.  [Update: Also Andrew Sullivan.]

CR: I think This Time Is Different.

Me: Maybe it will be, but for the moment I’m betting on “More of the Same.” If I’m wrong, I’ll admit that I’m an idiot.

CR: I can’t wait.

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