By Elvin Lim
The Republican party has traditionally been a more ordered, hierarchical organization, one in which the norm of waiting for one’s turn has been entrenched through the decades. When there is no consensus on the available candidates in the field, the runner-up to the last nomination contest becomes, by default, the front-runner. Today, Palin, Pawlenty, Thune, Huckabee, Gingerich, and Santorum are all names being mentioned. Yet no name stands out the way Mitt Romney‘s does.
This weekend, Romney topped a straw poll of New Hampshire Republican Party Committee members for the party’s nomination. He was the runner-up in 2008’s straw poll in New Hampshire, and won 32 percent of the actual primary vote, just behind John McCain’s 37 percent. Now, the poll may not tell us much; New Hampshire is a Romney stronghold because he is from neighboring Massachusetts and owns a home in the state. But history and the Republican primary calendar appear to be moving in Romney’s favor.
This is because by the time the South begins to vote to give victories to Romney’s rivals, he would have had three chances to set up a delegate-grabbing momentum. Romney is the front-runner to beat in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary on or around February 14, 2012. On February 18, he is likely to win again in the Nevada caucuses because of his Mormon base there. On February 28, Michigan, where Romney was born and remains a favorite son, holds its primary. As we know of the law of momentum in primary contests, the early bird catches the nomination. Fortune’s arrows are certainly unpredictable, but she has bequeathed to Romney three shots toward the Republican nomination in the first two weeks of the primary cycle in 2012.
The Tea Party movement is inadvertently helping Romney out too. While everyone else is actively courting the Tea Party, Romney isn’t (and some say, he couldn’t even if he tried, because of his hand in healthcare reform as Governor of Massachusetts). This sets Romney apart to win the more moderate Republicans voting in states like New Hampshire, which happens to have a semi-open primary, which means Independents who are not registered with either party can vote in the Republican primary. Romney’s less than cozy relationship with the Tea Party may actually help him because while Palin and Huckabee et al split the Tea Party vote, Romney would be on his way to a delegate lead.
Republican donors appear to be concurring. Almost every economic index other than unemployment is likely to favor an Obama re-election in 2012, so the Republican party could do well to put someone with Romney’s credentials as a former businessman and CEO at the top of their ticket. With 9/11 a decade behind us (the only reason why Rudy Giuliani was the front-runner at this time in the 2008 cycle), American politics will likely regress to the mean so that 2012, like 2010, will be about the economy. Accordingly, Romney’s PAC (Free and Strong America) has raised more money than that of any other contender, including Sarah Palin, whose PAC raised $5.4 million in 2010, compared to Romney’s $8.8 million. Palin gets the crowds out, but Romney gets their checkbooks out. Big difference; and we aren’t even yet talking about Romney’s personal wealth.
Obama’s approval numbers have gone up for now. But one thing he has always been weak on – and watch him try to address this weakness on Tuesday’s State of the Union address – is that likeable as he appears to be, he is also perceived to be an unrepentant, red-inked, tax-and-spend budget dove. Wall Street doesn’t trust him, but they sure like Mitt Romney. The Republican establishment understands that what matters for the selection of their nominee is not ideological purity, but someone best positioned to take on Obama’s Achilles’ heel. Unless conditions on the ground change, the money is on Romney.
Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.