Monday, January 30, 2012

The Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party

It's coming down to the bitter--and will be bitter--end of the Florida primary as the vote will be tomorrow. The polls show Romney with a sizable lead in the sunshine state and I see no reason he won't put double digit numbers up over Newt. Blow-outs are usually highly uninteresting unless it's the underdog doing the blowing out and Romney, as rich as the past 8 presidents combined and a leader in '08 whose "turn it is now" is hardly anyone's idea of an underdog. So what's interesting about this race? 

What's interesting is two-fold: (1) The strategy and tactics that Romney used to beat Gingrich and (2) the fact that Gingrich has Sarah Palin and Herman Cain lined up on his side making him the Tea Party candidate.

Facing the possibility of a second loss in Florida which would cede all momentum and possibly the whole campaign to Gingrich, Team Romney, re-organized and re-tooled to go after Newt. This took the form of a far more aggressive Romney both on the stump and in the debates and, on the ground, applied pressure all over Newt with Romney supporters showing up at his rallies to heckle and rebut him. It also involved mega-bucks media-saturation ad-buys. This in-your-face blanket coverage has proven devastatingly effective dropping his favorability in SoFla from 23 points down to 10.

This is good tactics for Romney because it shows the base that he can take it to an opponent--even get personal (the link has a Romney staffer saying this isn't just about winning but about "destroying Gingrich"). This, frankly, is what the Republicans--base and otherwise--want to see in their candidate. They want someone who is angry at Obama and will bring with the holy fire of the righteous. Newt promised that--and Romney said Obama was "a nice guy but in over his head."

 No more Mr. Nice Guy.

It also shows that Team Romney can handle a complex multi-pronged attack plan in one of the largest and most difficult political terrains in existence. Florida is a big state with multiple segmented demographics (democratic south Florida, the Republican cow-corridor, the Southern-State Pan-handle). It has special interest in the form of Hispanic voters and expensive media. And did I mention, it's big. As a purple swing state, Florida is crucial to the election for both parties. If Romney can dominate here he can dominate everywhere he needs to.

It's a powerful argument for electability-by-competence.

 Romney also hired a new debate coach (the coach Michelle Bachmann used--and whatever her issues, she was pretty sharp in terms of execution in the debates) and used his staffer's relationship with The Druge Report to fill it with anti-Gingrich material.

Basically this is complex integrated "combined arms" approach where Team Romney makes a coordinated on-message assault on Gingrich and, well, wins. It puts Obama on notice that when they're up against Romney it isn't going to be any kind of cake-walk. That is, unless something goes terribly, terribly wrong.

The Tea Party and The Soul of the Republicans 
The only problem is that however much Romney is up he's still not more beloved by the base. Oh, they may be voting for him--but almost half would prefer a new candidate. The big news, however is that Sarah Palin has, yet again, all-but-officially endorsed him. Say what you will about Sarah, she has found a way to endorse someone 'several times' making the headlines each time. She says what's on a lot of people's minds:
Newt is an imperfect vessel for Tea Party support, but in South Carolina the Tea Party chose to get behind him instead of the old guard’s choice. In response, the GOP establishment voices denounced South Carolinian voters with the same vitriol we usually see from the left when they spew hatred at everyday Americans “bitterly clinging” to their faith and their Second Amendment rights. The Tea Party was once again told to sit down and shut up and listen to the “wisdom” of their betters. We were reminded of the litany of Tea Party endorsed candidates in 2010 who didn’t win. Well, here’s a little newsflash to the establishment: without the Tea Party there would have been no historic 2010 victory at all.
A lot of people are thinking the same thing. In fact, Herman Cain--a Tea Party champion even after his fall from grace (although less so now that he did his stage appearance for Colbert) just endorsed Newt on that basis.

What Does It Mean? 
Under normal conditions I would be especially impressed with the base "rising up." As we saw with the PUMAS in '08 (disgruntled Hillary voters who swore they would sweep in McCain as a lesson to the Democrats) it's mostly all talk and no (effective) action. The percent of people willing to waste their vote to send a message no one will get is small--and that small number creates a "death spiral" where, when you think about joining in, you go "But there's so few ... I'd be wasting my vote and no one would get the message anyway--or get the message we're a bunch of losers who deserve to be ignored!"

However the Tea Party is not in that category. They have (1) made their mark (the 2010 elections) and (2) they have shown they're willing to go down with the ship by backing an on-paper ludicrous candidate (O'Donnell, Angle). This means they're not so easy to ignore. Plus, hey, I hear they're funded by Koch brothers.

I don't think all the Tea Party support in the world can help Newt win in Florida at this point--and the few races in Feb mostly favor Romney as well (heavy Mormon western states) but if Gingrich keeps at it, when the tide turns to the south? Well, he might find some stronger tea waiting for him. It also doesn't help Newt that Santorum isn't giving up. Santorum is almost certainly pulling votes (evangelicals) that Newt would get the lion's share of--and while they won't all go to Gingrich (family values voters? Uh, not likely Mr-Three-Wives) if Romney doesn't become more likable it's Newt or Ron Paul and we know who scares evangelicals more.

What Do I Think? 
I think the tastiest possibility out of this mess is that Gingrich could go 3rd party in a kamakazi strafing run against Romney. I didn't think this was likely for Ron Paul--and would be pretty meaningless for Trump at this point--but Newt? If the partisan sniping gets hotter Newt may keep his supporters well into the race. Newt has already shown a penchant for Mutually Assured Destruction (taking on Clinton's impeachment while Newt, himself, was having an affair) and making it personal. Romney, by going directly after Newt in the debates (and schooling him badly in the last one) and having his supporters show up at the rallys? That makes it personal. Also, consider this: the narrative in Newt-supporters minds is that, like with classic Han Solo Star Wars, Romney "fired first." The argument is that Romney "attacked from the left" against Perry by scaring old-folks with Perry's Social-Security-Is-A-Ponzi-Scheme statement (which, uh, was in Perry's book--so I'm not sure why it should be off limits) and then going in for the "Alinskyite" politics of personal destruction against Newt in Iowa--something "only the left" does.

 A poster on one of the blogs asked tellingly: "When can we stop calling them leftist tactics and just start calling them tactics." To these guys, however Newt has sinned with is anti-capitalist attack on Romney's record at slash-and-burn Bain Capital, Romney started the fight and now is playing directly out of Obama's book as well. Newt, for his part, has some nasty attack ads out that are, I think, designed to wound Romney so bad he'll be unelectable in November. I think that's Newt's bet right now: hurt him so badly there is no choice other than Gingrich.

If that's the case, well, I don't know if it's possible--but it'd be scary for me as a GOP insider to watch happen. I believe the smart money says Newt will do no such thing--and that, if he did, his decision to run 3rd would happen late enough in the race for most of the base to have decided on Mitt anyway--but the possibility is still there ... and fascinating.

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