A Cranky Reader and I Discuss the 2012 GOP Primary

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.

14 Responses to A Cranky Reader and I Discuss the 2012 GOP Primary

  1. Andrew Gelman January 23, 2012 at 10:07 am #


    Well put. I’d also add that much of our intuition comes from general elections, but primaries are different. Despite all the noise and fuss, Gingrich, Romney, Perry, etc., don’t differ much at all on the issues. Put that together with the instability arising from multiple candidates and strategic voting (not wanting to waste one’s vote on someone who doesn’t have a chance), along with the short window of intense campaigning and media attention as each state comes up, and the result is that primaries are inherently unpredictable.

  2. LFC January 23, 2012 at 11:05 am #

    John Sides:
    “And, as Matt Dickinson points out, Romney is actually a good candidate.”

    From the second paragraph of the linked Matt Dickinson post:
    “What the first three contests have confirmed is what I’ve been telling you all along: Mitt Romney is a weak candidate – one who has never demonstrated in five years of running for president that he could broaden his support beyond the country club/Wall St. set.”

    Maybe I didn’t read down far enough in Dickinson’s post, but it doesn’t sound like he is saying Romney is “actually a good candidate.”

    • John Sides January 23, 2012 at 11:34 am #

      LFC: You didn’t read far enough down. The fact that Romney is “weak” — i.e., has not yet won the broad support of the party — doesn’t mean that he’s not a “good” candidate in the sense of raising money, talking to an audience, debating, etc. The latter is what might help him overcome the former.

  3. LFC January 23, 2012 at 11:13 am #

    A. Gelman: “Gingrich, Romney, Perry, etc., don’t differ much at all on the issues.”

    Worth pointing out perhaps that someone who has not watched the debates closely or read the position papers (as I haven’t) couldn’t say whether Romney and Gingrich differ much on the issues, because the media coverage has had little or nothing to do with the issues. The only thing I could tell you is that Gingrich’s position on immigration is a bit different — slightly more accommodating to undocumented immigrants who have long been here — than Romney’s. For the rest, it’s all been ‘character,’ who’s a ‘real conservative,’ who did or didn’t pay what tax rate, etc. I’m sure Romney and Gingrich would both be terrible presidents but I can’t tell at this point who would be worse or more dangerous — my instinct says Gingrich would be worse, but I can’t really back that up.

  4. Hans Noel January 23, 2012 at 11:41 am #

    An added thought: The trouble with “this time it’s different” is that, even if the basic mechanisms are the same, sometimes it’s different. In a probabilistic world, one case is just one case, and should be treated as such.

    Of course, the argument in The Party Decides is based on a short period of history. So our confidence in our understanding shouldn’t be that solid to begin with. But it’s also based on more than just election returns. Looking at the 2012 contest, you see a lot of what we saw in earlier contests. The party was trying (and in this case, really struggling) to find a candidate that could please everyone, even before Iowa. They threw their lot behind Romney — but with less enthusiasm than they often do. When Gingrich surged the first time, a lot of party leaders quickly came out for Romney. If they lose (and I don’t think they will), that’s not proof that they don’t generally control their nomination. It’s evidence that even though they have a lot of influence, sometimes they lose. I think we’d need several contests to go to a Gingrich (or to a Carter) before we’d conclude that everything had changed.

  5. LFC January 23, 2012 at 12:01 pm #

    On whether Romney is a “good” candidate in terms of fundraising, speaking, etc. I personally don’t think he’s an esp. good speechmaker. His post-NH primary speech was quite perfunctory and mechanical, imo — talking just about the delivery.

    Btw, some here may be interested, if they didn’t see it, in T. Noah’s “Strange Death of the Republican Moderate,” NYT Book Review, 1/6/12. link

  6. John Coleman January 23, 2012 at 1:03 pm #

    Consistent with John’s “If I had told you months ago that Mitt Romney would lose Iowa and South Carolina…,” Gingrich led Romney by at least 10 points in the SC Real Clear Politics average from November 29 through January 4. Newt then quickly dropped about 15 points and Romney rose about 10. Hard to say for sure, but presumably this was driven by a concern that Gingrich didn’t handle the Iowa campaign well and that Romney now seemed more electable. My guess is that over the last week, with Gingrich generally doing well and Romney struggling a bit, many of those South Carolinians who dumped Newt came back to him. What would be interesting to know is whether he picked up any new support or was primarily reclaiming those who jumped ship after January 4. His RCP average peaked at 41, about what he got in SC. Ditto Romney, it may be that he lost those he had quickly won post-Iowa and went back to the ~25% he had held in SC nearly all year.

  7. Matt Dickinson January 23, 2012 at 8:26 pm #

    John S. is correct regarding my not always artfully worded post as it pertains to Romney’s candidate qualifications. Regarding John C.’s comment, my sense is that early polling in primary states often reflects a sense of “who is winning the media narrative”, as opposed to “whom am I going to support.” I suspect we are seeing this now in Florida – early polls are responding more to the S.C.-driven media stories than to actual voter intentions. Presumably as we get closer to Jan. 31 the polls will move closer to the “natural” state dictated by voter demographics, ideology, candidate issue spacing and all the other factors we think drive elections.

    • Andrew Gelman January 23, 2012 at 10:44 pm #


      You write, “Presumably as we get closer to Jan. 31 the polls will move closer to the ‘natural’ state dictated by voter demographics, ideology, candidate issue spacing and all the other factors we think drive elections.” But see my comment #1 above. I don’t think that such a natural state is so clearly defined in a primary election. We have to be careful about transferring our understanding of the predictability of general elections.

      • Matt Dickinson January 24, 2012 at 12:21 am #

        Andrew – Yes, that’s exactly right, and it’s a point I’ve made repeatedly at the PresidentialPower site – the nominating process is inherently more fluid and less predictable than is the general election. But this doesn’t mean we are completely clueless regarding what drives the final outcome. In fact we have relatively well developed ideas regarding what the key variables are, even if we can’t always predict how they will interact over the long term. But in the short run – even in the nominating phase of the process – we aren’t entirely clueless.

        • Andrew Gelman January 24, 2012 at 12:45 am #


  8. Larry Bartels January 24, 2012 at 1:52 am #

    I’m with Matt. Here’s my quadrennial self-interested plug for an analysis in the same spirit as Andrew’s all-time favorite article on campaigns–but published five years earlier–documenting the increasing impact of “fundamentals” on prospective voters’ preferences over the course of a primary campaign: http://press.princeton.edu/titles/4229.html (see especially Figures 5.2 and 5.3 and Tables A.15 through A.18). Yes, messier and less predictable; but as the race proceeds, “the public comes increasingly to evaluate candidates on their political merits, in accordance with longstanding political predispositions.”

  9. Jack Bartholomew Nimble January 24, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

    If Cranky Reader is not your brother in law, you are far too indulgent and generous with your time.

  10. Andrew January 24, 2012 at 9:40 pm #


    Well done! I’m betting on “more of the same” as well. This was an entertaining read.