With the Iowa caucuses a week away, uneasiness pervades GOP circles in Washington and around the country.
Part of the reason – but only part – stems from continuing disquiet about the field of candidates.
“Mitt or Newt,” I was asked at a holiday party of longtime conservatives and activists last night. No matter how I replied everyone groaned. It turned out that in the minds of this group of political veterans there was no right answer.
Anxiety about whether former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has the temperament for the job – including whether he has the organizational skill to run a national scale political organization – wasn’t helped by the Christmas Eve announcement that he had missed Virginia’s primary filing deadline. Meanwhile, comments that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has failed to articulate a story – a narrative of the nation’s past and present and the choices and prospects for its future – brought vigorous nods.
How about the rest of the field? None figured as serious contenders in the minds of these pros. Ron Paul was dismissed as the next Huckabee, possible winner of Iowa but nothing else. Santorum? “Looks beaten,” one said. Huntsman, Bachmann, and Perry were all judged deservedly out of the running.
Last night’s gathering was of Washington insiders, but the attitudes and anxieties were the same I have been hearing around the nation. No one feels settled about the field. There were even press reports last week of major donors exploring whether it was too late for a new candidate to jump in.
But more than a lack of confidence in the choices explains these holiday blues. There is also the math of getting from here (national crisis under this president) to there (a GOP president ready to mount a rescue).
Here are some sobering electoral numbers.
In our five presidential elections beginning with Bill Clinton’s 1992 defeat of George H.W. Bush, the Democrats have won eighteen states and the District of Columbia every time. That is 242 electoral votes of 270 needed to win. The GOP starts with only 176 secure electoral-college ballots in 21 states. The decision will turn on the remaining eleven states: Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Iowa, Missouri, New Hampshire, Ohio, Florida, Virginia, and West Virginia. It is a gift to the GOP to call Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada toss ups. They have very strong Democratic tendencies. And last week, a widely noted poll came out showing that attitudes of Virginia voters towards the president are much more favorable than anyone guessed. Win those four states – Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada and Virginia — and Mr. Obama snags a second term.
If that doesn’t dampen your holiday cheer, consider this tidbit. You may have heard it. There is a good chance the primaries will not produce a candidate.
Throughout the primary-dominated period in presidential nominating that began in the late 1960s, national political conventions have been largely media affairs. Expertly staged for television, each party’s once-in-four-years meetings have become marathon infomercials. They just sell candidates and platforms rather than Cuisinarts, costume jewelry, and knives.
But don’t count on this being the case at the GOP’s Tampa convocation in August. For unlike years past, many state delegations will not be selected on a winner-take-all basis. The reason? Last year the party adopted the following rule: “Any presidential primary, caucus, convention, or other meeting held for the purpose of selecting delegates to the national convention… shall provide for the allocation of delegates on a proportional basis.”
The mechanics of how the apportionment will work remain a bit fuzzy, as is the exact list of states the may be exempted from the rule. I am guessing that state parties retain a say in the manner by which the resolution is put into effect (congressional district take all, for example, versus proportion of votes cast statewide). And states that hold their primaries after April 1st apparently may opt for winner take all. But whatever the details, here is the underlying fact: with two candidates (Gingrich and Romney) appearing to each have a secure thirty percent of GOP voters behind them and the rest of the field splitting the remaining third (all of whom are sticking with their candidates, at least for the moment), it is easy to envision a similar division among the delegates in Tampa.
In other words, forget about the informercial. We’re talking a WWF-style smackdown and who knows how that might play with the public.
Happy New Year.