Bill Whalen

Debate Thoughts

Nine days before Santa goes down the chimney, the Republican presidential debates are going on hiatus.

But not until after one last scrum – two hours of head butting in Des Moines, broadcast nationally by Fox News (video here).

If you’re burned out on these affairs, consider it an early Christmas gift.

And if you’re one of the GOP hopefuls hoping to replace Barack Obama: yes, you too received an early present – your last chance to make a loud statement before Iowa Republicans caucus on the evening of Jan. 3.

By my own count, on 15 different occasions a minimum of a half-dozen GOP wannabes have gathered to discuss the defining issues of our times – the economy, national security, values, etc.

At times, the crammed debate schedule was hectic, even by Information Age standards. From Sept. 5-12, for example, the candidates gathered in three separate forums in three separate states (South Carolina, California and Florida). Four gatherings were squeezed in the 14 days beginning Nov. 9 (Michigan, South Carolina, Iowa and Washington, D.C.).

The first half of December witnessed another three exercises in forensics (the Hucka-summit in Manhattan, plus two Iowa-based debates).

What did this bring to the Republicans’ nominating process? Volatility.

There’s a pattern to how Republicans choose their nominee: the prize goes to the previous races runner-up. Ronald Reagan finished a close second in 1976; he was the 1980 nominee. George Bush finished second to Reagan in 1980; he won it all in 1988. Bob Dole lost out to Bush in that ’88 race; he was the GOP’s victor in 1996. Although Steve Forbes, the natural carryover from 1996, didn’t continue the pattern in 2000, John McCain did in 2008 – having lost eight years earlier to George W. Bush.

Using this model, it’s Mitt Romney’s race. But that hasn’t occurred. Instead, the GOP has raced through presidential frontrunners like Italy blazes through prime ministers (more on that below).

You can blame this on Romney’s challenges as a frontrunner. But you can’t ignore the impact of the nationally televised debates, which produced a few good zingers and cringe-worthy moments.

As for the last Republican debate of 2011, some observations:

  1. Yes, Newt Gingrich was right when he said that Reagan won more states than FDR (though Reagan ran in 50 states, compared to FDR’s 48). Click here to see the electoral maps for 1932 and 1980. But Newt as the Reagan of these times? Hmm.
  2. Ron Paul’s assessment of the President is off (“Anybody on this stage could beat Obama”), but he’s absolutely right as to the GOP’s challenge (telling voters “what we have to offer”). And then he ducks the second half of Megyn Kelly’s question – would he pledge to support the GOP nominee (thus closing the door on an independent run)? So much for champagne corks popping at Obama 2012 headquarters.
  3. Why did Rick Perry liken himself to Tim Tebow (had the guv stepped away from the podium and taken a moment to do a little “tebowing”, he might have stolen the show”)? Answer: Because the Denver quarterback polls better with Iowa Republicans than any of the GOP hopefuls. In case you didn’t know: Tebow was born in the Philippines. Forget Arnold: if Tebow ends up holding office one day, is he the new poster boy for amending Article 2, Section 1, Clause 5?
  4. Romney just won’t go after Gingrich whereas Michele Bachmann, in this debate and as she has on the campaign trail, minces no words on his ties to Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac. Always interesting when two campaigns look at the same target and arrive at different strategies.
  5. So Paul thinks we could have/should have lived with a nuclear Iraq, and we killed Libyans once we took away their nuclear capacity. Wow. (Addendum: the congressman needs to brush up on his history: JFK didn’t settle the Cuban Missile Crisis by “calling Khrushchev” – some military force was involved).
  6. Loved the final question of how candidates can avoid violating the Reagan 11th Commandment – after an hour and 50 minutes of moderators (Chris Wallace in particular) at times doing their best to bring out the worst in the contenders’ attack mode.

In all, a very spirited debate. Fox gave the candidates a long leash. Only wish they’d reserved 30 minutes for the candidates to pose questions to each other – sort of a political “spin the bottle”.

We’ll skip winners and loser. Iowans will decide that soon enough.

However . . .

The Iowa Poll will be in the field for first 72 hours following the debate. The last time the Iowa Poll sampled 400 likely caucusgoers, the numbers worked out as follows:

  • Gingrich 25%
  • Paul 18%
  • Romney 16%
  • Bachmann 8%
  • Cain 8%
  • Perry 6%
  • Santorum 6%
  • Santorum 2%

We’ll see if Gingrich maintains his lead, if Paul continues his surge, and if Romney stays in third (he can’t afford to do worse than “show” in Iowa) or gives ground to a charging Bachmann.

And that takes us to the defining feature of this Republican primary preseason: the brief shelf life of frontrunners.

Here’s a tick-tock of the Republican debate going back six months, to the beginning of the full-field national debates (i.e., when Romney joined the cast).

The first nationally broadcast debate to include Romney, at the time the frontrunner, was June 13 in Manchester, New Hampshire.

The numbers going into that debate:

  • Romney 23%
  • Cain 12%
  • Perry 8%
  • Paul 7%
  • Gingrich 6%

(Source: NBC News/Wall Street Journal, 6/9-6/13

The next debate was Aug. 11 in Ames, Iowa. The numbers going into that one:

  • Romney 21%
  • Perry 13%
  • Bachmann 7%
  • Paul 6%
  • Gingrich 6%
  • Cain 5%

(Source: Fox News, 8/7/8-9)

The next stop on the debate tour: the Reagan Presidential Library, Sept. 7. The field had a new frontrunner:

  • Perry 29%
  • Romney 23%
  • Paul 8%
  • Bachmann 6%
  • Gingrich 4%
  • Cain 3%

(Source: ABC News/Washington Post, 8/29-9/1)

Next up: Orlando, Florida, the evening of Sept. 22. The numbers preceding that debate:

  • Perry 28%
  • Romney 24%
  • Gingrich 9%
  • Bachmann 8%
  • Cain 7%
  • Paul 6%

(Source: Rasmussen Reports, 9/19-9/19)

On Oct. 11, the GOP hopefuls found themselves back in New Hampshire, at Dartmouth College. Lo and behold: the season’s third frontrunner:

  • Cain 27%
  • Romney 23%
  • Perry 16%
  • Paul 11%
  • Gingrich 8%

(Source: NBC News/Wall Street Journal, 10/6-10/10)

A week later, the field was mixing it up in a new battleground state – Nevada – with a new leader of the pack:

  • Romney 26%
  • Cain 25%
  • Perry 13%
  • Paul 9%
  • Gingrich 8%

(Source: CNN/Opinion Research, 10/14-10/16)

That was followed a couple of weeks later – Michigan’s Oakland University, Nov. 9 – with pretty much the same set of numbers:

  • Romney 28%
  • Cain 27%
  • Gingrich 13%
  • Paul 10%,
  • Perry 10%

(Source: NBC News/Wall Street Journal, 11/2-11/5)

That takes us to the next stop in the road – South Carolina, November 12 – and this set of numbers notable for the emergence of a new name climbing up the leaderboard:

  • Cain 18%
  • Romney 15%
  • Gingrich 15%
  • Paul 5%

(Source: CBS News, 11/6-11/10)

Ten days later, with a Nov. 22 debate in the nation’s capital, the field has its fourth different frontrunner – a ironically, a man once was widely considered the most powerful man in Washington:

  • Gingrich 24%
  • Romney 20%
  • Cain 17%
  • Perry 11%
  • Paul 8%

(Source: CNN/Opinion Research, 11/18-11/20)

And so the pecking order has remained. The numbers before six Republican candidates appeared on Mike Huckabee’s show on Dec. 3:

  • Gingrich 38%
  • Romney 17%
  • Cain 8%
  • Paul 8%
  • Perry 4%
  • Bachmann 4%

(Source: Rasmussen Reports, 11/30)

And where the candidates stood heading into the Dec. 10 debate in Des Moines:

  • Gingrich 36%
  • Romney 23%
  • Paul 12%
  • Perry 8%
  • Bachmann 5%

(Source: Fox News, 12/5-12/7)

Finally, a set of numbers from before the Dec. 15 debate – and after a good two weeks’ worth of Newt-bashing:

  • Gingrich 31%
  • Romney 23%
  • Paul 9%
  • Bachmann 6%
  • Perry 6%

(Source: Gallup Tracking, 12/9-12/13)

 

Would anyone have credibly predicted that Romney would be overtaken first by Perry, then by Cain – and a third time by Gingrich? Or that Perry and Cain would crest and ebb so quickly? Or that Paul would start to surge in Iowa in December – after Bachmann surged there in August, Perry in September and Cain in October and November?

For all its volatility, the GOP field could settle into a very familiar pattern come the new year: Iowa and New Hampshire cancelling-out each other, followed by the nominee turning the corner in South Carolina and the immediate states beyond.

Visions of this swift victory (a Mittzkrieg?) – not sugar plums – dance through the heads of Romney advisors.

Then again, I can paint you a scenario whereby Gingrich captures the nomination despite losing both Iowa and New Hampshire (last guy to do that: Newt’s old nemesis, Bill Clinton).

That’s a lot of confusion – more so than the GOP is accustomed to at this point in the selection process.

If you’re still searching for something to give that special Republican in your life, I have a suggestion? The best present under the tree for a confused Republican voter: clarity.

(photo credit: deckhand)

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