Continuing my look at the 2012 GOP nomination process, whom will be left standing to face president Obama in the general election after the nomination process is less important than what they have in their arsenal and what they will be faced with to do political battle. I’m not going to lie to you, it’s not as rosy as 2010. However, there is one secret weapon that might still help.
The immediate situation
There's a lot of in-fighting going on in the GOP primaries now that the first one, Iowa, is out of the way. It is only going to get worse. More attention is likely to be placed on Mitt Romney as the victor and the clear front-runner in New Hampshire. He's escaped much of the negative campaigning so far as the Not Romney candidates continued to battle for the same piece of turf as each other for much of the way. Ron Paul for example went after Newt Gingrich in Iowa as he surged past him in the Not Romney role. Mitt Romney needed merely with his relatively large war chest, to join in that effort.
While no one really foresaw a Rick Santorum charge up the middle at the last minute, he was spared the onslaught. Whether he is spared going forward is not (yet) the point. The lesson to be taken away by the candidates from the Iowa efforts is that negative campaigning is still singularly effective. Positive debates, negative attacks, particularly through their proxies, seem to be the best combination approach. So expect it to get ugly, but with a smiling face the further along this thing goes. Don't expect the Not Romney space to have a thinned herd occupying it.
The difference going forward is that they may all have a little more focus on the front-runner than previously. Whether that is enough to sway the race going forward is yet to be seen. But given how fluid the lead changes have been already, there are still a few paths to an eventual Not Romney candidate. For example, the cost effective way to use their combined and less prolific budgets versus Romney, would be for candidates to stake out their battlegrounds and individually focus on winning states and displacing Romney delegates. In deciding to not abandon the race, Rick Perry has sort of done that, by announcing he'll skip the New Hampshire fight and go straight to South Carolina instead. The problem is, he'll be picking off Gingrich votes, not Romney votes and Mitt Romney will face diluted opposition in that state as well. Who knows, he may even win it as a result. A smarter move would have been to concede South Carolina to Gingrich and gone all out in Florida. Gingrich has said he’s all in for South Carolina as well. That potential death match will drain both candidates and leave Romney uncontested in Florida. As a result, Mitt Romney looks more like the eventual nominee today than he did yesterday when Perry was mulling quitting and certainly far more than if Perry had picked any other state than South Carolina to draw his line in the sand.
The GOP end state situation
The real question is what does the nomination fight look like when it's all over and the last man standing has to go head-to-head with president Obama? There are a few assumptions that need to be made to address that. Firstly, regardless of whether it is a short race or a long race, it looks like it will get a lot more caustic very quickly. Things will be said about each candidate that the eventual nominee will be faced with in the general election contest. The candidates are writing the commercials for Team Obama. Remember the Hillary Clinton ad about Barack Obama not being ready for the 3 a.m. call? There was no doubt that the GOP could play off that if they had wanted to do so. Don’t think that president Obama’s team will be as non-confrontational as John McCain was in 2008. They will use every anti-Romney, anti-Santorum, anti-Gingrich, anti-Paul opportunity they are presented with.
That leads to the next post-primary consideration, spending. President Obama has been fund-raising and volunteer-raising since last summer. Team Obama are also plotting their re-election strategy versus the eventual nominee. With more money, more volunteers and more time to plan, there is a distinct and significant advantage for the incumbent. In Obama’s case this advantage is very significant, especially financially. The longer and more expensive the primary, the more weakened the eventual winner might be.
Then again, the long hard battle in the primaries actually helped then candidate Obama build his infrastructure and his volunteer army. That was especially true across 50 states (or 57 in Obama’s case). The same can be said for the GOP primaries. A protracted battle means boots on the ground will be needed everywhere, not just a handful of pre-Super-Tuesday states. In that regard a protracted battle may help. Another way it might help I which I discussed previously is having the name of the eventual nominee in the press for 6 months in early 2012. That makes the nominee a more known commodity prior to the August convention. It may also allow more opportunity for a less press-filtered narrative to develop about the candidate, although I have to say, the press narratives about the candidates so far have been remarkably unremarkable – standard issue and conforming to the main themes.
However, Team Obama will still have a money advantage and a lot of time to plan. With a protracted battle the eventual GOP winner will have far less time to strategize on how to win the general election. The race is going to be a very tight one on a state by state basis. While the White House has outlined a number of possible paths to the nomination, the counter-planning and possible offensive tactics will need to be crystallized very quickly in order to counter the eventual Democratic strategy and inevitable feints to various options.
If I’m painting a bleak picture, wait - it gets worse before it gets better. The right is saddled with a mainstream media which will be intent on ensuring an Obama re-election. Journalists are significantly more liberal than they are conservative. They have a reputation to defend that they weren’t glaringly wrong in not-so-tacitly backing Obama in 2008. That means his election cannot be repudiated. That in turn means that they must run down whomever it is that Obama will face. It means they must paint Obama in glowing terms as well. The liberal media will ultimately want no candidate to survive the primaries intact and unbloodied. They will torch anyone doing well and then if anyone emerges unscathed, they will start the meme that they are damaged goods anyway. They will also try not to paint them as an underdog. America loves underdogs. They will play up Obama’s toughness and the slightly improving economy and eschew all negatives for as long as they possibly can.
What does the GOP have going for its nominee? The media has tried to make a big deal about the GOP turnout in Iowa. It was not huge like it was for Obama in 2008. They figure, or at least say, that it means that the GOP base is not energized. I think that’s a misreading of the situation. Conservatives are not enthused about their choices this time around, granted. But there is a difference between enthusiasm and energy. While there may be an eventual nominee the Republican base isn’t thrilled with, regardless of who it is, that doesn’t mean they are still not energized about beating Obama. Similarly, independents may not be thrilled about the GOP nominee either but they have certainly drifted a long way away from the president. There are plenty of people who may not go all out in support of a nominee but on election day will ultimately turn up to vote against the president.
I mentioned that the GOP has a secret weapon. The Obama campaign will try to point out the negatives about their opponent because they won’t have a vast reserve of positives about Obama’s accomplishments to campaign on. Health care was a dud, Dodd-Frank was not only foolish but something the general public doesn’t care about. Iran could be a real mess. Obama has Bin Laden and Ghaddafi to his ‘credit’. He also has an out of control oil spill he ignored for weeks if not months. He has a massive debt burden he’s saddled the country with. So the GOP planners know Obama has to come after Romney /Gingrich/Santorum /Perry.
Knowing that is an asset. The GOP can do two things to disrupt that narrative – they can point out the shortcomings of Obama and contrast that with a What If we had elected this guy – what would things look like now. The GOP can go negative and look positive at the same time.
Secondly, there’s political jiu-jitsu to consider. The president will be focusing on drawing some contrasts between himself and his opponent. That actually works in the favor of the GOP. We don’t want to replace Obama with someone who is like Obama. We want contrast – his record has been awful. Knowing that the contrast will be drawn gives us an inside advantage in preparing for it and being able to control the conversation. In that regard positive campaigning in the primaries would go a long way towards defining each candidate before Obama gets a chance to try to skew the image of the Republican candidate. That’s not likely to happen. But if Obama tries to make the campaign not be about himself, at least the GOP should know it’s coming and be able to plan accordingly. Beyond the primary the road is going to get much tougher for the GOP, a prolonged primary is helpful in preparation for that eventual battle. You don’t spar for 3 minutes for a heavyweight prize fight. You do it day in, day out for a long time to get ready. This is no different.