Yesterday, I mentioned that some pundits on the right have been comparing the current GOP nominating contest to the 2008 primary fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. The longer than usual contest in 2008 – recall that Clinton did not concede until after all the primaries! – turned out to actually help Obama: He had an organization in all 50 states, he had introduced himself to voters, and, importantly, as the first African-American candidate with a real chance at winning, he made his a familiar face.
It is important to consider how campaigns really work. A few crazy people like me watch all the debates, read all the news stories, know the candidates’ biographies and stances on the issues, but most people don’t pay that kind of attention to a primary race. Most people watch local news on television, not cable news. Most people read local newspapers, not the Washington Post or the New York Times. Most people have lives and, consequently, better things to do with their time than follow all the ups-and-downs of a primary contest. To be sure, party activists and those who are most likely to vote, may pay attention throughout the contest and they exercise a disproportionate influence on primary elections to be sure. Primaries are about the base. But, those who are not so politically attuned, those who consider themselves Independents (even if they lean consistently one way or the other, they decline to identify with either party), and those who are just too busy to pay attention until November, they do not watch the race or the candidates so closely.
That changes when a given state’s primary approaches. The candidates begin running ads on local television and, perhaps more importantly in more rural areas, on local radio. If a candidate comes to the state to campaign, the local news will lead with that story – unless, there is some kind of tragic car accident or freak weather storm, stories which always lead the local news. There may even be a high profile event like a debate that attracts all the candidates. This difference between the inattentive national audience and the closer scrutiny of a primary electorate as a state’s contest approaches explains why, in 2008, Rudy Giuliani was leading in all the national polls but only secured a single delegate in the actual contests: Everyone knew Giuliani from his leadership in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and liked what they saw, but once the GOP primary electorate got a closer look at his positions on issues, he couldn’t buy a delegate.
So, at this stage of the race with 811 delegates having been chosen (117 of whom have not been assigned to any candidate so far), out of the total of 2,286 delegates to the GOP convention in Tampa, only a little more than a third of the country has experienced the kind of intense focus on the campaign that a primary contest brings to their state. Among that third, many of the states that have voted so far are considered toss-ups for November, states that might have voted for a Republican in one recent election and a Democrat in another: Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida, Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, and Ohio. And this presents a real problem for Mr. Romney. His national favorability ratings have been plummeting: Since January 15, of eighteen polls listed at TMP’s poll tracker, only one of those eighteen yields a net favorable rating for Romney. Before January 15, some showed his favorable ratings higher than his unfavorable ratings, and other not, but it was a mixed bag. But, as his favorable ratings have tanked, it is likely to conclude that those numbers have shifted mostly in states that have held contest and been paying attention. I have not found any polling data that teases out the differences between states that have, and have not, voted, but I would be curious to know if my hunch is confirmed: Are his declining national numbers even worse in these swing states or, put differently, has the fact that almost two-thirds of the country has not had the kind of local exposure to the primary contest yet buoyed his favorable ratings?
This could spell real trouble for the Republicans and explain why the “Establishment” has not been putting more pressure on Santorum and Gingrich to get out of the race and clear the way for Romney. They may see in the polls what I think is there to be seen: The more people know about Romney, the less they like him. And, this puts the GOP in a real jam. Given the sense that this primary fight is a real battle for the soul of the GOP, with the fire-breathing conservatives jumping from Bachmann to Cain to Gingrich to Santorum, all in an effort to keep the nod from falling into the relatively moderate hands of Romney, if I were a mainstream, moderate Republican, the fact that Romney is such a weak candidate might incline me to hope Santorum wins. Let the fire-breathers have another 1964 moment and learn their lesson. Of course, the problem is not only that this would virtually guarantee Obama’s re-election, but if Santorum or Gingrich were at the top of the ballot, the GOP might lose a lot of down-ballot races too, and every member of the House is standing for re-election and many Senate races look to be close. Romney may not help those down-ballot races, but he might not hurt them either. Still, barring unforeseen events, by September look for GOP House and Senate candidates in swing states to be declining joint appearances with their party’s nominee and look for Obama to be holding hands with Democratic candidates. In close races, such differences between the two parties’ strategies matter.