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.