It's been over three months since we checked in with a GOP Cattle Call, largely because the size and scope of the field has been more fluid than the fat beads of sweat glistening on Haley Barbour's neck rolls on a still, sweltering August afternoon in Yazoo City. But now that the field has finally begun to firm up - or congeal, not unlike the melted shredded cheese food topping on one of Herman Cain's Godfather's Pizzas* - we can once again take a trip to the crazytown zoo to attempt to determine the social hierarchy of the Republicanis hopefulus, so as to better understand next year's challenge.
*NOTE: Not an actual "pizza," as defined by Neapolitan chefs, Mario Batali, or decent human beings.
The real power behind Godfather's Pizza. Not Herman Cain.
On one hand, it seems like a lot has happened since our last Cattle Call. The Trump boomlet came and went, Mike Huckabee - our frontrunner last time around - finally got around to admitting that he doesn't have the overwhelming desire for the Presidency necessary to commit to a successful campaign, both Barbour and Mitch Daniels opted out (contrary to the thinking of many, myself included, who figured that one of the two RGA all-stars would take a serious run at it).
But ultimately, things aren't all that different than they were in February, are they? Although Huck was clearly in a good position to win the nomination, we've known for a long time that his heart wasn't in it, and that he might well stand aside. Even at the height of his ephemeral popularity, few expected Trump to run, much less sustain an effective campaign over a year-and-a-half. And while I still believe that Daniels would have posed a formidable challenge to Obama next November, the Beltway pundits - enamored as they are by any "serious" Republican who isn't a frothing troglodyte on social issues - probably were overstating his chances in a primary process dominated by ... well, frothing troglodytes. (And I still say Barbour was never going to run. He's just too smart to have subjected himself to a campaign which would've been doomed due to his personal history.)
So we're still much where we were earlier in the year. Mitt Romney continues to raise obscene sums of money despite the fact that no one really seems to like him, Tim Pawlenty continues to benefit from the dearth of "serious" anti-Mitts in the field, and we're still waiting to see what the doyenne of dumb, Sarah Palin, chooses to do. That's not to say that the picture isn't clearer, because it is. It's just that there are still a lot of developments, not the least of which will be Palin's decision, that will have major bearing on the race once we get out of the pregame period.
Perhaps the biggest outstanding question - maybe even more momentous than "will Sarah run?" - is the makeup of the actual primary calendar. Remember how in 2008, the parties had a hard time corralling states like Florida and Michigan that wanted to move up and break the Iowa/New Hampshire/South Carolina (and lately, Nevada) oligarchy? Well, it's even dicier this time around. The RNC's "official" calendar kicks off with Iowa on February 6, but there's little question that Iowa, NH, SC, (and probably NV) will move in lockstep as early as they need in order to preserve their primacy, and Florida claimjumping may well push Iowa et al back into early December. We won't spend that much time analyzing all the possibilities here - just be aware that no one really knows when real voting is going to start, and follow the truly excellent Frontloading HQ for updates on the constantly shifting lineup of states and dates.
So how do the candidates match up, given that we don't know exactly who'll be running, where they're running, or when Republicans will be voting? Let's get to it.
As always, we'll use Markos's formula: "the rankings will be based on where I think they would place if the elections started today, using a mix of poll results, CW, media attention, buzz, and other intangibles." That's not to say that we won't project the rise and fall of various candidates; that's half the fun, after all. But the rankings will always be based on where the candidates would stand if Iowa unexpectedly caucused tomorrow.
1) Mitt Romney. He gets the green arrow there, and takes the top spot, but it's primarily by virtue of the fact that Huck dropped out and the general weakness of the field. Sure, he's raising a ton of money - $10.25M in one day is absolutely nothing to sneeze at - but he's still deeply flawed as a candidate for president in today's mouthbreathing Republican Party. The Tea Party is never going to truly embrace him, no matter how hard he flip-flops on Rombamacare, but just as importantly,he hasn't come close to winning over the party machers:
[Daniels'] exit illustrates the degree to which the GOP race is being shaped by who’s not running.
Consider the list of would-be candidates who’ve passed on a campaign in the last four months: Mike Pence, John Thune, Haley Barbour, Mike Huckabee, Donald Trump and now Daniels.
Add Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan and Rick Perry – Republicans with star power who’ve said flatly they won’t run – and it translates into a GOP establishment deeply worried that the flawed options they’re left with won’t be any match for an incumbent president who seemingly won’t face a primary but is likely to shatter campaign fundraising records.
“Insofar as politics abhors even a near-vacuum, others are bound to get in,” Weekly Standard editor William Kristol predicted this morning, suggesting a race that could “remain open and fluid until Thanksgiving.”
One Daniels friend and longtime Republican, who had already gotten dozens of emails by 7:30 bemoaning the news, was blunt when asked about who in the current field was now more appealing: “None of the above.”
When Roger Ailes and other GOP bigwigs are begging a chubby one-term governor with a net disapproval rating in his home state to jump in as their savior, you know that the frontrunner isn't exactly highly regarded. Republicans may usually jump on the bandwagon of the guy who's next in line, but Romney is clearly perceived as weaker than even McCain in '08 or Dole in '96. Because the field is so slim, it's possible that he might win this thing through sheer dint of money and basic competency, but I wouldn't count on it.
2) Tim Pawlenty. Like Romney, he hasn't really done much to earn the green arrow, but there's no one else whom you could really rank second. What's he got going for him? Well,
- He's running, which is more than you can say for Palin, or for any of the white knights like Jeb or Christie or Ryan. You gotta be in it to win it.
- He's not Mitt Romney. There's a market for an anti-Romney.
- He's apparently got a good media team.
- He secured Nick Ayers, the tyro ex-RGA director who learned at the feet of Barbour, as his campaign manager. Whether Ayers will actually be any good at running a presidential campaign remains to be seen - but he's a hot commodity, his name carries currency in Republican circles, and he lends an air of legitimacy to the effort - especially with both Daniels and Barbour out.
- He's from Minnesota, which is adjacent to Iowa.
- He's well-positioned to inherit from Daniels and Barbour at least some of the fawning national media that craves a "serious" Republican (not named "Willard 'Mitt' Romney") who isn't insane on social issues, but who "talks plainly" about the need for unemployed 58 year old ironworkers to "sacrifice" their Medicare and Social Security, while at the same time calling for "stimulative" tax cuts.
On the other hand,
- The same Republican establishment which is looking for Christie or Ryan to save them from Romney clearly isn't that hot on T-Paw.
- That great TV ad does a good job of masking the fact that Pawlenty possesses something approaching zero charisma. As a TV producer looking at the race wrote,
Once, a few years ago, when I was casting a pilot for a major broadcast network, I mentioned the name of a solid actor for the lead role. “Yeah,” the network’s head of casting sighed, “he’s good. But I don’t know. He always feels like the best man. Not the groom. I mean, is he sexually attractive?” (The head of casting, for the record, did not say “sexually attractive.” She used a four-letter word, followed by “-able.”)
That’s the drawback for former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, who is set to announce his presidential bid Monday. He’s called T-Paw, so he’s got a jaunty nickname, but viewers want a little more raw aggression in their star. Undeclared un-candidate Chris Christie, New Jersey’s governor, has it; tall, gimlet-eyed Rep. Paul Ryan has it — and Pawlenty needs to find some, quick. Put it this way: In the late 1970s, a popular sitcom, “Bosom Buddies,” had two young stars, Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari, in the lead roles. Pawlenty is currently filling the Peter Scolari role.
- Ayers has never run a presidential campaign.
- You know who else is from Minnesota and has a geographical advantage in Iowa? Michele Bachmann. You know who's crazy enough to inspire the lunatics who make up a substantial plurality of Iowa GOP caucusgoers? Michele Bachmann. Not T-Paw.
- Jon Huntsman is already winning the hearts of the "serious" press looking for a "serious" candidate, and unlike Pawlenty, he didn't appear on stage at the decidedly unserious freakshow Republican "debate" in South Carolina with Cain, Santorum, Ronpaul, and Gary Johnson. You know, T-Paw really didn't do himself any favors by showing at that debate. He diminished himself by standing up next to a bunch of third tier guys, while Mitt and Huntsman and even Bachmann passed. He was uniformly panned as flat, while Herman Freaking Cain was deemed the unanimous winner by Luntz's focus group. And Roger Ailes, as we saw linked above, isn't rewarding him for showing up at Fox's debate.
So he's got some problems. But there's a real chance that he can pull it off, if he can continue to insinuate himself deeper into hardcore conservative circles while remaining "serious." He'll need to win Iowa and parlay Ayers' southern experience into a strong SC performance, but both of those are possible. If you made me guess today who's going to have the privilege of losing to Barack Obama next fall, I suppose I'd pick him. But it's far, far, far from a sure thing.
3) Sarah Palin. She says she has "fire in her belly," but she's done very little to act on that fire, except for maybe taking a couple Tums. Still, if there's anyone who can bide her time, it's Wasilla's Finest, especially with Huck out. She could raise plenty of money and put together a fairly cohesive grassroots campaign in relatively short order. Whether she could assemble a cohesive professional operation to run that campaign is another story, but you cannot rule her out.
Despite her low approval ratings, her abysmal head-to-head numbers against Obama, and her generally erratic behavior, Palin has the potential to be a real force due to the intense personal loyalty of her legions of fans throughout the nation. And with a large number of states likely being forced to use proportional delegate allocation after the first four, she'll have the opportunity to parlay her hardcore base into a pretty serious delegation, provided that she does as well as she should in Iowa and SC. Too many people are discounting Palin. With the field the way it is, she's a real contender, if she gets around to running.
4) Michele Bachmann. If you'd told me three months ago that I'd be putting Michele Bachmann here, I'd have asked you to please slow down on the sazerac intake. But with Palin out for the moment, Huck out for good, and Newt shitting the bed worse than Osi Umenyiora after Taco Bell, she's the best option the Original True Patriotic Tea Party Patriots of America have. She polls better than most of your big-name "serious" candidates. She can basically live in Iowa through Christmas. And she's a fundraising machine. So who the hell else can you put in this spot?
5) Jon Huntsman. Serious. Dignified. Statesmanlike. Oh, and he supported an individual mandate, is Mormon, believes in climate change, and has pooh-poohed birthers. Huntsman, even more than "Truce" Daniels, represents the divide between real Republican primarygoers and the media that covers the circus. That's not saying he doesn't have a chance -- it's just a really severe uphill climb.
And the rest
Newt drops down to the grabbag tier, because his epic implosion of the last week pretty much guarantees that he won't win the nomination. At least the five we've already discussed all have some sort of plausible road to the nomination. I don't see how Newt can do it at this point ... I seriously contemplated ranking Herman Cain ahead of Newt, because, hey, he did win the SC debate ... What do Buddy Roemer, Ron Paul, Gary Johnson, and Rick Santorum have in common? They're all running for the nomination. What else do they have in common? They're not going to win it. (New Roemer meme: The Jim Gilmore of '12. Pass it on!)
Here's hoping Thad McCotter runs, because that could be fun to watch.