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Saturday
Oct292011

US Politics Feature: Is It "The Curse of the Front-Runner" for Mitt Romney? 

See also US Politics Feature: Is It President Obama by Default in 2012?


Take a look at intrade.com, the political betting website, and Mitt Romney has got the Republican presidential nomination wrapped up. He is currently given a 69% chance of becoming the GOP candidate in 2012, with Rick Perry and Herman Cain trailing at 12% and 7.6% respectively.  

Unfortunately for Mitt Romney, the history of Republican primaries  is littered with examples of hot favourites who were unable to maintain their momentum and finish the race as the victor. Almost exactly four years ago, Fox News conducted a poll of likely voters: 

Rudy Giuliani  31%
Fred Thompson  17%
John McCain  12%
Mitt Romney  7%
Mike Huckabee  5% 

(The poll also had Hillary Clinton leading Barack Obama by 42% to 25%.) 

In early December o2007, CBS News and the New York Times released a poll with the headline "Sweeping Changes". Now the numbers were: 

Giuliani 22%
Huckabee 21%
Romney  16%
McCain  8% (down from 18% in the same poll on 7 October)
Thompson  7% 

Note Rudy Giuliani's impressive polling figures of 31% in that first October poll. Mitt Romney has approached that level in 2011 polls, compiled at realclearpolitics.com, but never managed to top it.  

The lesson for anyone who has read Theodore H. White's ground-breaking The Making of the President The Making of the President series is that an early lead in voter preference is not necessarily a good thing when it comes to winning the nomination. 

These precedents have come to mind as I read the media's presentation of the Romney campaign: unless the ex-governor of Massachusetts can figure out a way to get past his 30% barrier of support, he may soon find that his campaign to become President is all but finished.  

The brutal fact for Mitt Romney is that conservatives, who have enjoyed a much more prominent voice in choosing Republican candidates since the rise of the Tea Party and their associated media outlets, do not trust him to represent their viewpoint if he becomes President. In the past few months, conservative Republicans have flirted with the idea of tolerating a Romney presidential bid in the interests of putting forward the most electable candidate for independent voters; however, in the last two weeks, there has witnessed a noticeable ant-Romney shift at the "king-breaking" conservative news site redstate.com.  

On October 14, Erick Erickson wrote, "What the GOP Must Do: Finding Common Ground With the Occupiers". While continuing his generally hostile tone to the Occupy movement, Erickson conceded that their “cause of populism against Wall Street” had a valid point and concluded: 

The point to all of this is that a Republican candidate can run against Wall Street, though probably not Mitt Romney. A Republican can run on a very simple message — in this country we should all be able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, but government and big business have gotten in the way.”

And this gentle questioning at RedState of a Romney nomination (presumably not to burn all bridges with the Romney campaign for now) continued all week. In Nostalgia & Decline and Exacerbating Distrust on 19 October, and Thin Skin and The Horserace the next day, Erickson stressed the theme: “The inevitability meme his campaign has been generating just isn’t working right now. Conservative voters do not trust him.” 

If Erickson is as influential in deciding this contest as I think he will be, watch out for the word "consolidation" in forthcoming media accounts of the Romney campaign --- this will be shorthand for more conservative, candidates uniting in their criticism of Romney and knocking him, instead of each other, out of the race . Erickson argues, “ Mitt Romney has the money, team, and game to win this thing if consolidation does not happen. And Team Romney knows it.”

In further worrying news for Romney's presidential ambitions, the Washington Post has also struck a more sceptical tone about an anointed Republican candidate. Last Saturday saw them go with ""Mitt Romney reaches out to voters but often lacks the common touch", and Sunday saw them post the much more devastating hint that all may not be well with his candidacy:

Polling seems to suggest that electability is taking a back seat to ideology. In aWashington Post-ABC News poll that concluded early this month, 73 percent of Republican respondents said it was more important to them to support a candidate they agreed with on the issues, while just 20 percent said a candidate’s chances of winning mattered most.

If those figures hold up, come the primaries, Romney will have more of a 7% than a 70% chance of winning the nomination.

This is not to write Mitt Romney off, but he is losing some of that inevitability sheen his campaign began with. Which leads to the inevitable question, who can emerge from the trailing pack to challenge him?

No one knows, of course. Erickson prefers Herman Cain (though still sceptical of his chances of winning),highlighting his enthusiasm and ability to inspire a positive reaction among voters: 

People, subconsciously or consciously, are trying to turn back the clock. They want to get back to a time that was less complicated, maybe a little more raw, but filled with the wild west spirit of optimism and hard work that saw each horizon as something to be crossed to a better tomorrow.

Right now, only Herman Cain really expresses that time.

On Monday, The Washington Post followed up with a long narrative of Cain's business experience as the head of the Godfather Pizza chain, "The Cain recipe: enthusiam, stamina and the 'next thing'"

An intriguing suggestion as to the chances of a long-shot winner of the nomination, akin to McCain surging from his lowly 8% backing in December 2007, came with Erickson's assessment of the chances of Newt Gingrich after the latest Republican candidates' debate:

Gingrich may be starting to see a path to victory. I am starting to see one for him, but it depends on taking out Herman Cain. Voters are starting to flirt with Newt. As Herman’s image gets tarnished a bit over 999 and now this abortion matter, conservative voters are taking another look at Newt.

Cracks are beginning to appear in the facade of the Romney campaign's presentation of their candidate as the only realistic chance for Republicans to beat President Obama in a general election. If you see the word "consolidation" in the next few weeks, consider a bet on another candidate of your choice at Intrade while you can still take advantage of outsider odds. 

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