It turns out that I’m not very good at predicting winners. Over the weekend, I said that Rick Santorum would win the CPAC straw poll and Ron Paul would win the Maine caucus. In the case of CPAC, I was seduced by Santorum’s speech and the number of kids I saw wearing his stickers in the halls of the Marriot. In the case of Maine, I was swept up by the “Ron Paul’s Secret Army” narrative - that the Old Man would win the state with activist muscle alone.
It’s been a season full of surprises, and the media has largely failed to predict them. The pattern has been thus: (1) the media says Romney is going to win a primary. (2) He loses. (3) We all say that whoever won will now ride their momentum and win the next contest. (4) Romney recovers and wins. And then we’re back to square (1): an endless cycle of anti-Romney upsets.
Which leads me to ask if we’re following the correct historical model for these primaries? Hitherto, I’ve agreed with the consensus that this is a replay of 1996. That year, Bob Dole led the field to start with, but lost a couple of early contests to Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes. Then he rebounded in South Carolina and swept the nomination. Voters tested the alternatives before settling back on the establishment frontrunner.
It’s easy to see a similarity between Dole and Romney (aside from the fact that the former just endorsed the latter). Both are conservatives with the reputation for being moderates. Pat Buchanan looks like a combination of Ron Paul’s libertarian non-interventionism and Rick Santorum’s social conservatism (and you can read all about Buchanan in my book out on Tuesday). Steve Forbes reminds me of a pre-scandal Herman Cain. Forbes wanted a flat tax; Cain wanted a 9-9-9.
Following that model, I thought Santorum’s narrow upset in Iowa was going to be all the opposition Romney would face. I never imagined Gingrich would beat him in South Carolina (which traditionally favors frontrunners) or that Santorum would be leading in national polls six weeks in. “I knew Bob Dole. Bob Dole was a friend of mine. And you, Mitt Romney, are no Bob Dole.”
But maybe he is Bill Clinton circa 1992? Perhaps the model we should be working from is of a likely nominee who faces a series of painful skirmishes stretched out over many months. He has to fight not one sustained opposition candidate, but instead a series of individual opponents who attack him from very different angles.
Of course, Clinton is different to Romney in many ways (particularly when it comes to sex and personal integrity). But the Arkansas governor also faced the charge that he was insufficiently loyal to the values of his party’s base. He had hoped to win New Hampshire, but was beaten by Paul Tsongas from nearby Massachusetts. Clinton recouped with a win in Georgia, which established his Southern bloc vote for the rest of the contest. But as Tsongas sunk, Jerry Brown suddenly emerged. Brown won the bitterly fought Connecticut primary and was tipped by the media to win New York and maybe force an open convention. However, Brown foolishly said that he would consider Jesse Jackson for his running mate (he of Hymietown fame) and he lost. Thereafter, the nomination was Clinton’s.
What is interesting about this comparison is first that it fits the pattern mentioned above of Clinton/Romney about to win a contest, losing the contest, being written off, and then rebounding. Second, Tsongas and Brown never really threatened Clinton but nor did they go away. Brown stayed in the contest right through to California in June. That created a primary season that was artificially extended and gave the false impression that Clinton was logistically weaker than he really was. Many in the media thought Brown could win his home state of California and, again, throw open the convention.
The other tantalizing comparison is that 1992 was also a year of populist revolt. The emergence of Ross Perot on a platform of balancing the budgetnowandat any cost, threaten to eclipse Clinton’s candidacy. He ruthlessly pursued Perot voters but could never convince them that he was one of them. If Perot had been on the ballot in the California Democratic primary, some pollsters said that he would have won. The similarity with Romney’s awkward relationship with the Tea Party is striking.
Perhaps the truth is that we shouldn’t be trying to impose historical models on a contemporary race at all. Perhaps, with the emergence of Super PACS, we are entering a new era of primaries as dramatic in its effects as the 1972 Democratic race. Either way, what are people’s thoughts?