While the adjournment date and the Iowa caucuses date are both fast approaching (and the way things are going, might be very close to the same day), I thought I might step back and offer a few observations on the presidential nominating dynamic.
This, after all, has been the strangest battle for a major party presidential nomination that I have ever seen. (The closest in terms of oddity was the 1976 “gang of 13” fight for the Democratic nomination, including the likes of Milton Shapp, Robert Byrd, Lloyd Bentsen, George Wallace, Jerry Brown, Scoop Jackson and Mo Udall, and won by one of the least likely, Jimmy Carter.)
One of the most striking features of the pre-primary stage of the past six months or so has been the primacy of debates. We have had multiple debates for nominations in past elections, but because they tend to have a slew of candidates dividing the time on the stage, they have been modest factors in the nomination process (barring a major flameout or mistake).
But this time, debates have been key. Strong performances have provided robust lifts to some candidates at different stages along the way, starting with Rep. Michele Bachmann’s (R-Minn.) ability to command the stage in the first debate and continuing through the Herman Cain surge and former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (Ga.) rise.
Nothing else explains Gingrich’s ability to come back from the dead after a disastrous opening, including financial problems, insulting House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), staff departures, the Tiffany’s flap and the luxury cruise.
At the same time, weak debate performances have taken the air out of several candidacies, including former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s disastrous first performance against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Bachmann’s utter inability to repeat her initial performance in subsequent debates and Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s sag through a series of extraordinarily weak showings.
To be sure, debates are not everything — Cain’s meltdown was a combination of the scandal dominoes falling and his stunning inability to know even the basics about Libya in a video editorial board meeting.
But the importance of debates this time, going well beyond the actual number of viewers to the buzz afterward generated through social media, has undercut the primacy of money and organization, making it possible for poorly funded and poorly organized candidates, including Gingrich, to rise at a time when, in past years, they would have been forced out of the race.
This year’s GOP battle started as Mitt Romney versus Not Mitt Romney. Romney was a clear frontrunner from the start, with the heir apparent designation that has in the past meant so much to Republicans, money, experience in running a full-fledged presidential nomination campaign and a top-flight team of people.
It has been striking that he has struggled to gain the kind of traction a front-runner would normally command, and especially striking that he has failed to do so despite superior performances in debate after debate. But as Romney shows, doing well in debates is not the only factor — whether Republican primary and caucus voters like and trust you is another.
The good news for Romney is that not very many of those voters actively despise him, but those who prefer him represent at best a quarter of the likely GOP voters, and that support may be declining toward a fifth.
Ominously for the former Massachusetts governor, when other candidates drop back or drop out, none of their supporters seem to be shifting to him — he clearly is not even the second choice of the vast majority of those who will choose a Republican nominee. And if the number of viable Not Mitt Romney candidates declines to one or two, he will struggle to win pluralities, much less majorities, in caucuses and primaries.
Nearly all the contests for the first three months of the nomination battle lack a winner-take-all formula for delegates, meaning that if Romney (or any other candidate) can’t knock his or her opponents out of the box by mid-February, the odds of an early resolution of the nomination move down, and the odds of a Romney nomination take a hit.
The good news for Romney is that the rest of the field has been exceptionally weak, and Gingrich’s sudden rise will not necessarily be sustained.
But even if it is — and he is showing this week a rare, impressive self-discipline, with only four weeks to go until Iowa — and even if Romney finds that he finishes third or worse in Iowa, struggles to build any momentum in the next week heading to New Hampshire, falters in South Carolina and can’t capture any magic in Florida, in subsequent weeks his organization and pre-planning may be a huge plus for him.
Winning delegates still means getting on the ballot in all the states and qualifying to accrue delegates before deadlines that in some cases have already lapsed or are looming.
For Gingrich, this means scrambling now to get a real organization in place, including an army of campaign lawyers and operatives to get the tedious work done, or he may lose a large number of potential delegates regardless of his performance.
So here are a few questions to keep in mind over the coming weeks:
— What if Newt stumbles or self-destructs? Does Perry manage to re-emerge, despite not even knowing the voting age or date of Election Day? Does former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) finally get to play the role of Not Mitt Romney?
— Can Jon Huntsman somehow get his mojo in New Hampshire? If not, can he take enough votes from independents and moderate Republicans to deny Romney a clear victory when he most needs it?
— What if Ron Paul wins Iowa? Will he continue to be brushed aside like a fly on one’s lapel by the GOP establishment? Will he start to think about running an independent campaign for the presidency?
— Is there a real chance that no one emerges as the clear-cut nominee by April, giving us the first GOP convention since 1948 to go to a second ballot? At what point will establishment figures such as Haley Barbour decide that, faced with electoral liabilities in Romney, Perry and Gingrich, it is better to let that happen and hope that a Jeb Bush or Mitch Daniels can emerge to end their nightmare?
All questions to take your mind off the next few weeks of tax breaks and cuts expiring, a continuing resolution unresolved, a “doc fix” about to explode and other headaches on the Hill.
Norman Ornstein is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.