This is a messed-up year. Or it’s starting out that way. New Years Day fell on a Sunday, so the official holiday was moved to Monday – a Monday with everything closed and no mail, and the Rose Parade and Rose Bowl a day late. On the Sunday that was the actual first day of the year you were on your own. It was a dead, nothing day – you had to wait a day for the good stuff. And that’s no way to start a year, slightly bored after your hangover finally lifted, just hanging around. But maybe that’s good training for what’s to come. What really matters will happen later. It always happens later. So wash the car or balance the checkbook or something. Learn to wait, patiently. That is a useful skill after all.
And the next day are the Iowa caucuses – the Republicans’ first try at actually choosing someone to run against Obama, after all their debates and the rise and fall of one quite odd candidate after another. Yes, the Republican Party tore itself apart, with the big-money business folks at odds with the social-conservative evangelical base, and with the Tea Party crowd, whose general aim seems to be to end pesky government messing up our lives, and thus end most of government itself, sitting in congress and making sure nothing gets done and as much as possible gets shut down. Choosing a leader that makes all three factions happy may be impossible, but choose they must as this is an election year. And it all starts in Iowa – a small state comprised of mostly those social-conservative evangelical folks, at least on the Republican side of things. You know, they love Jesus and all-out war, equally, and don’t think much of Hispanics or anyone else who has foolishly chosen to be born a minority person, or French, nor do they care for folks who haven’t chosen Jesus as their Personal Savior, and they dislike gay folks intensely, and they don’t think the government should take care of anyone, ever – as personal responsibility is everything and you live and die on your own, and you don’t whine. It’s an interesting state, demographically. A glib way to characterize Iowa Republicans is Very White and Very Angry. The big-money business folks have no idea how to play things in Iowa. And the Republican-establishment insiders – those smooth operators who do know the ways of Washington and how things get done – have the same problem. This is, then, a highly specialized primary.
But it was just made for someone like Rick Santorum:
“Having that strong foundation of the faith and family allows America to be in a position where we can be more free,” Santorum says. “We can be free because we are good decent moral people.”
For Santorum that means cutting government regulation. Making Americans less dependent on government aid. Fewer people getting food stamps, Medicaid and other forms of federal assistance – especially one group.
“I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money,” Santorum begins. “I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money and provide for themselves and their families.”
Santorum did not elaborate on why he singled out blacks who rely on federal assistance. The voters here didn’t seem to care.
Those black folks want your money. That plays well in Iowa. And he’ll improve “black people’s lives” by making it harder for low-income families to eat and get medical care, you see. That may not play well elsewhere. But this is a special place.
And on the eve of the Iowa caucuses things looked like this:
If the freshest polls are to be believed, three very different candidates are the front-runners heading into caucus night – although in a campaign as muddled as this one, it’s anyone’s guess who will come out on top. Leading into the final stretch are former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) and former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.).
The other contenders are already looking beyond Tuesday night’s caucuses. At one time or another, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) were considered formidable candidates. But in the closing hours before voting, they were scrambling to spin something respectable from what is likely to be a disappointing evening and to put forward a rationale for continuing through contests in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida.
“I don’t think I’m going to win,” Gingrich said Monday, lowering expectations while blaming a barrage of negative ads from groups that support Romney.
So it’s down to three:
The front-runners represent a stark choice: Romney, the establishment favorite; Paul, the libertarian iconoclast with a young and passionate following; and Santorum, the conservative long shot who is experiencing a late-breaking surge resulting from his own tenacity and the collapse of several rivals.
And it didn’t hurt Santorum that he said if elected there’d be an all-out war on Iran, immediately, and by executive order he’d annul all gay marriages, although he didn’t go so far as saying he’d annul all mixed-race marriages, or interfaith marriages – but he’d ban abortion immediately, and he’s long said all forms of birth control are simply murder, and should be banned. Of course none of this could be done by executive order, but perhaps he just wanted the good folks of Iowa to know where he stood. And perhaps he’ll have a different message in New Hampshire. There are fewer salt-of-the-earth bible-thumping god-fearing farmers up that way. The primary process is strange. The focus always shifts.
But Mitt Romney might win this. The salt-of-the-earth bible-thumping god-fearing folks do know Santorum might not do well in the general election, against Obama. They know that the rest of the nation is not Iowa, and electability is an issue. If you want to get rid of the black man born in Kenya who wants to take all your money and give to black folks, your guy has to win. And Romney could win, possibly. Santorum is, as they say, an acquired taste – like possum stew or something. So they might hold their noses and vote for Romney, or not:
A Des Moines Register poll over the weekend indicated that four out of 10 caucus-goers are still open to changing their minds about whom to support. For some, that decision could come down to the final appeals they hear from their neighbors during the quirky, quadrennial exercise that will take place in 1,774 precincts across the state – in schoolhouses, libraries, churches and homes.
That’s a lot of undecided folks. And in this Politico item we hear from David Lane, an “influential and low-profile Christian conservative” worried by Romney’s seeming inevitability – “Right now it looks like 2008. Evangelicals, generally speaking, don’t understand politics.”
Well, that is a problem, and Dan Balz offers this:
As Republicans begin choosing a general-election candidate here Tuesday night, one question could shape the destiny of the eventual winner: Will the nominee define the party, or will the party define the nominee?
Successful presidential nominees often have helped redefine their parties. Ronald Reagan’s conservatism changed the Republican Party when he became its nominee in 1980. Bill Clinton portrayed himself as a New Democrat, which proved a key to his victory in 1992. In his 2000 campaign, George W. Bush used the term “compassionate conservative” to put distance between himself and the congressional wing of his party that had been defined by Newt Gingrich.
In this campaign, the opposite seems to be the case. “This year, it seems to me, the party is the sun and the candidates are the planets… They are trying to prove to primary voters that they are reliable and trustworthy when it comes to the basic platform of the GOP,” said Pete Wehner, a Republican strategist and former Bush administration adviser.
That’s another way of saying things are a mess. No one is being original and new. And Balz cites the Economist recently summing up the Republican dilemma – at a time when many independent voters may be looking for a solid center-right platform, the Republican Party “is saddling its candidate with a set of ideas that are cranky, extreme and backward-looking.” But maybe that’s what it takes to win, at least in Iowa. But then elsewhere that can kill you:
“This is a party that is very much defined by the tea party element, and the candidates have submitted to that,” said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. “That’s their destiny, and they’re going to have to live with it.”
A Republican strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about the election, agreed.
“What Obama needs to do now is force the Republican nominee into supporting the tea party wing of the party over the next nine months,” he said. “Can you tie the nominee to the congressional Republicans? If he can do that, now you’re talking about a real problem.”
This may not be a good year to be a Republican, as Dana Milbank explains about this week’s new darling:
I’ve covered Santorum on and off since his first run for Congress, in 1990, when I was a rookie reporter in Pittsburgh. Months ago, I predicted there would be such a Santorum surge in Iowa. But if and when he receives serious scrutiny, the surge will surely subside.
On Monday, for example, he claimed that he is the only candidate who “has proof that, with a conservative record, they were able to attract independents and Democrats.” And that is why Pennsylvania voters unceremoniously tossed him from office in 2006 by a nearly 18-point margin? An Iowan reminded him of this.
“Great question,” the candidate replied, blaming his GOP congressional colleagues and President George W. Bush’s unpopularity.
Talking about Obama’s health-care legislation, he pledged that “I simply won’t enforce the law.” But discussing immigration policy minutes later, he said that “we need to enforce the law.”
If the surge sustains him past Iowa, he will have difficulty explaining such things as his pledge to make abortion restrictions his first order of business or the treason accusation he hurled at Obama on Monday: In foreign conflicts, he said, “he’s sided with our enemies on almost every single one.”
No wonder things are up in the air in Iowa, with many undecided. And Kevin Drum offers this:
It’s not just that Republican voters can’t make up their minds. And it’s not just that they’re really, really resisting their eventual doom of pretending to be enthusiastic about a Mitt Romney candidacy. What’s really amazing is how fast every single candidate has fallen to earth after their initial surge. It turns out that even the Republican base got disillusioned with them after only a brief moment in the spotlight. The Republican base! These are people who believe the earth is cooling and Barack Obama was probably born in Kenya, and even they only needed a few weeks to realize that Bachmann, Perry, Cain, and Gingrich were nutcakes who probably shouldn’t be allowed to take a White House tour, let alone occupy the Oval Office for four years.
Alternatively, of course, you might think just the opposite: what really happened was that the Republican base needed only a few weeks to decide that these folks weren’t quite batshit crazy enough for their taste. Maybe so. But that’s such a glass-half-empty point of view, isn’t it?
But Sasha Issenberg argues that there are lot of myths about undecided voters, but sometimes many of them are profoundly apathetic:
A large chunk of people decide late because they just don’t care about politics and tune it out for as long as they can. Tulane’s Brian Brox and the University of Arkansas-Little Rock’s Joseph Giammo examined the attributes of late deciders in presidential general elections and found that a large chunk of them resembled the “stereotypical apathetic citizen.” They tended to be less partisan and politically active than early deciders, treated the candidates as interchangeable, and weren’t inclined to care who won.
One surprising twist: Brox and Giammo found that these “low-interest late deciders” seemed to recoil at information sent their way. The more Republican ads they saw, the less likely they were to vote Republican; Democratic ads pushed them toward the GOP. “These voters may actually be likely to become irritated with the efforts of candidates to attract their votes,” Brox and Giammo write “since we know that they have little interest in the campaign in the first place.”
That might be the problem in Iowa. Sometimes, as particularly in a year like this, you just don’t care. And it’s hard to tell anything about those Iowa Republicans who are still undecided:
This presents a serious challenge for the Republicans vying for votes in this year’s Iowa caucus. To make matters worse, many voters who tell pollsters they’re undecided are actually anything but – they’ve made up their mind, but for one reason or another, don’t care to share their feelings with pollsters. What’s more, studies have shown that many undecided voters don’t ever show up to vote in elections at all, making efforts to win them over doubly doomed.
And Issenberg complicates the picture by citing other kinds of undecided voters, like the Future Bandwagon Riders:
A lot of Iowans want to vote strategically, but don’t know how. Since 1972, when changes in the nominating calendar placed the caucuses first, Iowans concerned with supporting a candidate who can capture the nomination and then be a strong general-election contender have had less evidence to go on than voters in all the other states. That is likely one significant reason why so many Iowa caucus-goers remain undecided for so long. The problem is particularly acute this year, when the polls have been fluid and have never pointed to a consistent national frontrunner.
In short, you can’t really tell who is electable. There’s no bandwagon yet.
And there are the Wedgies:
Much has been written about the role of wedge issues in general-election races, where an emotional issue can be used to divide a party coalition: Think of the Republican who defected to John Kerry over stem cells, or the Democrat who supported the Iraq surge and was pulled to McCain because of national-security concerns. But even in a primary, where the field largely agrees on many issues, a single subject can give a voter pause about backing a candidate he or she is otherwise drawn to. For instance, a voter attracted to Gingrich or Perry might be hung up by their relatively liberal attitudes toward legalizing immigrants.
That complicates matters, as does the issues of peer pressure:
Too many friends, however, can be overwhelming. Dianna C. Mutz, now at the University of Pennsylvania, has found that voters whose social networks force them to encounter dissonant views – like, say, a businessman whose chamber of commerce buddies push him to Romney while his fellow churchgoers are talking up Perry – remained undecided later in the campaign. Such indecision can be paralyzing: Those facing what Mutz describes as “cross-cutting social networks” were less likely to actually vote at all.
And then there are the liars:
In late 2007, Hillary Clinton’s data team noticed a peculiar trend coming out of Iowa: The numbers coming in from volunteer phone banks consistently overstated Clinton’s support when compared to the numbers coming in from the paid call centers the campaign also used to identify voters. One of Clinton’s analysts concluded that part of the problem might be exuberant volunteers overestimating a voter’s potential support – so you’re saying there’s a chance? But the bigger takeaway was that voters don’t always want to be honest with someone on the other end of the phone about their preference. The easiest way to let a canvasser down easy: claim you’re undecided when you’re not. And while the Democratic caucuses require attendees to declare their preference in public, Republicans vote by secret ballot – so it’s easy for a voter to keep a choice private throughout the process.
And there are the Subconsciously Already-Decided:
Polls tend to treat being decided as a binary condition – like being single or being married – but what if people are dating the candidate they’ll end up marrying but just don’t know it yet? University of Pennsylvania doctoral candidates Lauren Kogen and Jeffrey A. Gottfried invoke the dating metaphor in a new paper in Political Behavior that considers the National Annenberg Election Survey taken during the 2008 general election. The survey asked respondents throughout the campaign for their candidate preference, and then asked those who voted after the election when they made their final decision. By looking at the overlap between the two methods, Kogen and Gottfried found that nearly one-third of voters claimed to have been undecided later in the campaign than they actually were. They called this category “uncommitted early deciders,” and found they were more partisan and more knowledgeable about the campaign than those who really did decide at the end.
And then there are the Ashamed:
Are voters claiming to be undecided because they’re afraid to report what’s really driving their choice? In the 2008 general election, final polls closely predicted Obama’s actual popular-vote total, while John McCain performed nearly two points better, suggesting that late-deciding voters broke toward the Republican. Rutgers’s David Redlawsk found that among the 6 percent of voters who described themselves as undecided in the final days of the campaign, two-thirds indirectly acknowledged worry over the fact that Obama would be the first black president, according to a survey list experiment designed to discern hidden bias. Are Iowans now wary of acknowledging their bias against a Mormon or female candidate hiding their actual preference by claiming to be undecided?
And there are the Haters:
In a multi-candidate race, it can often be easier to decide who to oppose than it is to settle on a favorite – and it turns out, despite their supposed niceness, there’s an august tradition of negativity propelling Iowans to vote.
Issenberg has more categories, and each offers an analysis of how each Republican candidate is dealing with that group. But it is depressing reading, as much of political science is. It could be that the whole process – Iowa then New Hampshire then South Carolina then Florida – is a farce. After all the debates and all the shouting back and forth on Fox News and MSNBC, and on talk radio, is this what we’ve been waiting for?
But this is the year of waiting. It started out that way. And sometimes all you can do is learn to wait, patiently. That is a useful skill after all. And this will all work out.