When it comes to razzle dazzle, showmanship, excitement and insanity, US presidential races rarely disappoint. And perhaps the most amusing political spectacle of all is the kind of free-for-all that we’ve seen in the republican nomination contest thus far.
As RCP’s nationwide polling average shows us, since March 2010, there have been at least four national frontrunners: former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, Texas Governor Rick Perry, businessman and pizza executive Herman Cain (who has since pulled out of the race following allegations of an illicit affair) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Other candidates, including Texas Congressman Ron Paul and Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann have made it over the 10% mark in polling at one point or another, while somewhat more marginal candidates like former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum have polled strongly in early states like Iowa and New Hampshire.
Another way of looking at the race so far is the search by republican voters for a “Not Romney” candidate – a viable conservative alternative to Mitt Romney, who has held positions in the past that are in direct contradiction with core GOP principles: support for universal healthcare (‘Romneycare‘ in Massachusetts was a direct inspiration for President Obama’s healthcare plan), past support for abortion rights, support for greater gun control, past support for a wide range of LGBT issues, past support for a stimulus plan in the midst of the 2008 economic crisis, and a wide range of other issues that have bred mistrust in the conservative community and claims that Romney is a ‘flip flopper’ of the same breed as Massachusetts Senator John Kerry when he ran for president in 2004. In addition, Romney’s Mormon faith is said by many to be a factor in his lack of strong conservative support, especially among evangelicals.
Yet one by one, Romney’s challengers have fallen by the wayside. Michele Bachmann, after winning the Iowa Straw Poll in August of 2011, embarrassed herself by seeming to criticise the principle of vaccination itself. Rick Perry, seen as a rock-solid conservative with extensive governing experience in a large state, embarrassed himself in a series of abysmal debate performances, including his famous ‘oops’ moment. Herman Cain, on top of not being particularly bright or intellectually curious, turned out to be a major philanderer who had trouble keeping it in his pants. And Newt Gingrich, while still polling strongly, has fallen in recent polls, especially in early states, amid accusations of making millions of dollars from lobbying and general doubts about his ability to govern.
But here we are, less than one week from the first nominating contest of the presidential season – the January 3 Iowa Caucus, followed a week later by the New Hampshire primary and then a panoply of subsequent primaries and caucuses leading up to the August 2012 republican convention in Tampa, Florida, that will pick President Obama’s main adversary in November.
And amidst all of the to-ing and fro-ing, no clear, credible alternative to Mitt Romney remains. Newt Gingrich is still doing very well in nationwide polling, but has slumped in Iowa and New Hampshire. In those same two states, libertarian republican congressman Ron Paul is now polling a strong second behind Mitt Romney – but he has a series of nutty positions that include abolishing half of the federal government and returning to the gold standard which make him unelectable. He’s also 76 and has a pretty serious racist past. Rick Perry is dead in the water. Michele Bachmann’s campaign also seems in serious trouble.
The only other rivals to Mitt Romney with any life in them are Rick Santorum, the ultraconservative former senator from Pennsylvania who once compared gay sex to “man on dog” relations - he’s now polling a strong third in Iowa – and moderate former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, who was formerly President Obama’s Ambassador to China, who’s doing fairly well in New Hampshire. But neither has wide enough support from the republican base to win the nomination.
Barring some kind of Newt Gingrich resurgency, or something truly unpredictable – like a Huntsman or Santorum surge, or a new breath of life into the Perry campaign – Mitt Romney has the nomination. And if he can somehow win both Iowa and New Hampshire, he can wrap up the nomination fight quickly and pivot to the general, where he’s polling quite well against a very, very weak President Obama.
I never thought I’d say this six months ago, but it looks like 2012 will be a lot more like 2008 than we thought – a moderate establishment candidate (McCain in 08, Romney this time around) with little trust from conservatives, running a solid campaign that pulverises all opponents soon after the primaries actually begin. That’s not good for President Obama, but it’s great for the republicans, because they can stop beating each other up and start campaigning against the incumbent.