Running Against Their Shadows


The GOP primary is in a strange place, with everyone bumping and sliding around Mitt Romney’s seemingly unmovable poll numbers.  Romney can’t seem to expand his appeal, but he doesn’t really lose any ground, either.  Other candidates surge and collapse while Romney stays put.

This is partly due to the way Republican primary voters measure electability.  Every GOP candidate is running against his or her shadow: the electorate’s worst fears about how they could lose the race.

This is a pronounced tendency among Republican voters because they know their candidate will be savaged by the media, and possibly by elements of the GOP establishment.  They’ve seen it happen many times before.  That’s why they look at each candidate and see the worst-case headlines, October surprises, and November late hits.  The more plausible a candidate’s doomsday scenario feels, the less electable they are judged to be.

Democrat primary voters, by and large, seem more concerned with how a candidate can win when they measure electability.  That’s not necessarily a better approach, because it blinds them to a lot of flaws.  You may recall that the 2004 Democrat electorate was very concerned with electability… and they came up with John Kerry.  They did this, in large part, because they thought his military service would checkmate Bush’s advantage in foreign policy and national security.  They didn’t spend much time actually listening to the absurd and repellent Kerry, or pondering his service history at any great length.  They just checked off the “War Hero” box and sallied forth to the polls.

The gloomier Republican electability test has its flaws too, but the GOP voter’s apprehension about media doomsday scenarios has a certain realism, and at least pessimists are thorough.  The successful GOP candidate avoids running in his own shadow, by making the type of mistake that validates the lingering dread of nervous voters.

Rick Perry’s poll slide, for example, comes from living down to the fears of those who thought he’d come off as inarticulate, insufficiently grounded in conservative principles, or too easy for Obama to dismiss as a Bush clone.  His dismissal of criticism against those discounted Texas tuitions for illegal aliens as “heartless” played into those fears.  Then he picked up the deeper shadow of a helpless slide to the bottom of the polls, and a floundering campaign. 

His loose-cannon moments at the last GOP debate felt like a clumsy attempt to dispel the impression that the Perry campaign was running out of gas.  (Which doesn’t mean it didn’t work.)  Serious energy and tax reform proposals, and the ability to defend them skillfully during debates, will do him a world of good.

Herman Cain’s doomsday scenario is that he’ll appear unqualified or clueless on some important matters when he runs against Obama.  He’s been saying a lot of things he has to “clarify” later, especially pertaining to topics he views as less important than his key economic reform proposals.  Some Republican voters might agree that these are peripheral issues, and might not hold his stumbles or unclear positions against him personally… but they worry, understandably, that he won’t be given any opportunity to “clarify” debate mistakes against Obama. 

One of the reasons Cain surged in the polls is that he seemed so thoroughly in command during the Orlando debate.  Primary voters who liked him all along were convinced he’d tackled the chronic un-readiness that compromised his electability.  Electricity flowed into his campaign.  He could lose that electricity by reverting to his pre-Orlando state of unreadiness. 

 Cain should understand that the press won’t let him get away with this “apples and oranges” stuff if he gets his shot at Obama – the headlines screaming that he “wants it both ways” or “gave a bizarre and confusing answer” are not difficult to imagine.  Straight talk is his strength, and he should play to it.  He should dispel the nagging fear that Obama would make him look foolish or unprepared.

Newt Gingrich is fighting to overcome memories of how thoroughly he was demonized in the Nineties.  He accomplishes that when he’s substantive, witty, and quotable in the debates.  Each of the other candidates has a similar mixture of past performance and (often unfair) stereotype, which GOP voters worry will drive away the fabled independents during the general election. 

I have the sense Republican voters worry about this much more than Democrat voters do.  Sometimes they overestimate the skittishness of independents.  Sometimes they underestimate the persuasive abilities of good candidates.  It’s very difficult to predict what other people will respond to.  That’s why huge national elections are so challenging, for both participants and pundits.

As for Romney, I suspect some of his polling stability comes from the suspicion of GOP primary voters that aspects of his performance and record which bother them won’t hurt so much with general-election voters.  The big doomsday scenario is that he won’t be able to drag his RomneyCare baggage past Obama (“Thanks for sending your advisors over to help me design my health care reforms, Mitt!”)  Romney’s been trying to assuage that fear by vowing to be a dedicated foe of ObamaCare, on a take-no-prisoners mission of repeal. 

The trick for Romney, I think, is to show us how he’ll win that debate in the general election, when Obama runs through the similarities between O-care and R-care, and asks Romney what he’s complaining about.  Perhaps Romney could sharpen both his critique of ObamaCare’s specifics – beyond merely asserting that the individual mandate is unconstitutional at the national level, which doesn’t quite seem good enough all by itself – and combine it with piercing criticism of how ObamaCare was passed.  He could talk about the Cornhusker Kickbacks, backroom deals, midnight votes, and unwritten legislation filled with Pelosi “pass this bill to find out what’s in it” surprises.   

Filling Republican voters with confidence that general election victory is possible doesn’t require trickery or betrayal of principle.  It takes confidence, skill at handling the media, a thorough mastery of the issues, and a convincing impression that one’s campaign does not have a one-shot kill spot.  This will never be easy, but when the stakes are as high as they are now, it’s no wonder that each of the candidates makes some portion of the GOP primary electorate nervous.