So you think Mitt’s got it sewed up? Get ready for GOP seams to rip

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Mitt Romney. Photo by Matthew Reichbach, Creative Commons

At the indispensable Library Chronicles, Jeffrey often says the current race for the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nomination is basically a sham. He thinks all the maneuvering among the candidates, all the media hoopla over the televised debates, and all the changing poll numbers are just bread and circuses, not a true contest among rivals. Last month Jeffrey wrote that the process is all “just a goofy farce to keep us mildly entertained until [former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney] gets nominated. It always was.”

Is the political run-up to the GOP primary elections goofy? Sure it is. Farcical? Often. Mildly entertaining? You betcha.

However, Jeffrey overreaches when he claims Romney has always been the inevitable GOP nominee. I take issue with his argument, not because I disagree with his prediction of the outcome (although I do), but because I think his political analysis is pat and dismissive.

Perhaps Jeffrey’s reflexive cynicism clouds his judgment about the fluidity and instability of “the process” he criticizes. He may want to review some of our online discussions four years ago, when he and I last handicapped a race for president. (At the time, I believe Jeffrey favored either NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee as the likely GOP nominee. Along with many others, he discounted then-Sen. Barack Obama’s chances to win the presidency.)  I would’ve thought that the surprising 2008 presidential race was a sufficient refutation of the notion that the “process” is purely an entertainment designed to obscure a  fait accompli. But apparently not. Huge political surprises happen and are likely to happen again this year.

Granted, conventional wisdom holds that Romney has the money and organization to outlast, if not dominate, his rivals. He also benefits from being a smart, poised candidate who is not prone to gaffes.

But there’s another side to the Romney bargain. Simply put, Republican voters don’t love him. They’re suspicious of his moderate background and history of flip-flops on key issues. Since the summer, opinion polls have shown Republicans engaged in a political version of speed dating. They’ve briefly swooned over several “non-Romney” candidates such as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachman, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain. Each of these contenders led Romney in the polls, and then each of them fell as quickly as they rose. But that was their own doing. Romney merely benefited from their unforced errors. It wasn’t as if voters held them up to Romney and found them lacking. You’ll notice that as soon as one candidate’s boomlet ended, another began. It’s a revealing dynamic, because Romney has only managed to maintain his support in polls during his competitors’ rises and falls. He hasn’t consolidated and grown his support by collecting say, disenchanted Perry or Cain voters. In short, there’s a huge swath of voters who want someone (anyone?) other than Romney.

Shockingly, the latest boomlet in non-Romney support is around former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Much like McCain in 2007, Newt Gingrich’s campaign imploded almost as soon as it began. His staff left him during the summer (defecting mostly to Perry). And he was stuck with little money or organization. Yet now he’s leading the field by double digits.

When I noticed Gingrich creeping up in the polls in early November, I asked a GOP political analyst what accounted for his stealthy ascent. The analyst replied: “His debate performances!”

Indeed. The televised debates, for all their flaws, allow the electorate an important opportunity to see candidates think and react under pressure. It’s one of the very few times in an overlong campaign season when unscripted moments can occur. Debates are a revealing and valuable element in the “process” that Jeffrey criticizes, and they can greatly influence voters’ impressions of the candidates. (More explanation on this point in posts to come.)

For example, remember Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty? His presidential hopes evaporated during a debate. Pawlenty was challenged to stand behind his “Obamneycare” criticism of the health care initiative Romney signed as governor of Massachusetts. Instead of owning it, he blinked; and that was that.

Perry’s horrifying brain-freeze in the Nov. 9 debate is still the story of the campaign season (at least until Gingrich parlays his comeback into an Iowa caucus victory). It was one of the most uncomfortable moments in recent political history. Perry had made mistakes in earlier debates, but this was by far the most spectacular and damaging.

Many sharp observers of politics didn’t expect Perry’s sudden flameout. (First Draft’s Adrastos being a notable exception.) Among the true believers was Gov. Bobby Jindal and Jindal’s former chief of staff, Timmy Teepell, both of whom placed early bets on Perry. Their calculations about the Texan’s prospects were likely similar to The Hayride’s MacAoidh, whowrote this analysis back in June (my emphasis):

[If] Perry gets in, the 2012 GOP campaign fairly quickly becomes a Perry-Romney race unless something unusual happens. And Perry beats Romney, because Romney won’t disavow Romneycare and the Republican electorate wants nothing to do with government-run health care. Romneycare imposes a ceiling on his appeal which is too low for him to compete in a two- or three-man race or to drive some of the less-well-known candidates out of the field.

Perry doesn’t have a ceiling, unless he gets in and promptly face-plants – and nobody expects that would happen.

Unfortunately for MacAoidh’s candidate, “something unusual” did happen, and Perry’s face-plant was one for the ages. Nonetheless, MacAoidh’s observation about Romney being quite vulnerable as the race narrows was accurate, in my view.

Debate performances entirely account for the two biggest stories of the campaign season so far: Perry’s shocking fall, and Gingrich’s shocking rise. Both are mind-bending twists that few predicted. Yet, they are also results of the “process” that Jeffrey dismisses. He sees these debate-based dramas as a mere farcical prelude to an eventual Romney nomination. I view them more as a preview of “surprisingly unusual” turns in the presidential race to come.

Sure, Romney might get nominated. But I’d rate his current chances at little less than a coin flip. He’s not a true frontrunner, he’s just a solid “default” candidate blessed with a freakish array of flawed opponents. Do we really think the Tea Party is going to unite in the GOP primaries around Romney – a former moderate known for policy flip-flops? Very doubtful. In tough economic times, will conservatives express their frustration by voting for a candidate merely because he makes fewer errors during TV debates than his competitors? No way. The GOP electorate is practically begging for a competent alternative to Romney. That’s the meta-dynamic revealed in all these dramas. Perhaps Gingrich, the current Romney ”alternative,” can take advantage of this dynamic. (Of course, that would surprise me too.)

But even if the campaign season eventuates in an Obama vs. Romney match-up, neither side will be thrilled with their nominee. So then we’ll likely see an ambitious independent (read: wealthy businessman) enter the race to jostle things up further, as Ross Perot did back in 1992.

The wrong way to look at this campaign season, though, is to view it as having been a done deal all along. It’s not. To a fascinating degree, we’ve already seen how the debates have made the race fluid and unpredictable. And I see little evidence this trend is about to stop now.

My recommendation: bet on the unusual.

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