Wednesday, November 10, 2010

It WILL NOT Happen!

Tom Harkin and the 1992 Democratic nomination are ancient history.

FHQ is as guilty as most in the 2012 gazing. [We've been doing since November 2008.] However, this speculation on Mitt Romney and New Hampshire seems misguided to me. Yes, it is way too early and yes, that lead Romney holds in the Granite state may not hold over the next two years. Yet, even if it does, it would be suicide for any of the prospective Republican candidates to skip the state. This has not happened since 1992 when Democratic candidates opted to cede Iowa to favorite son, Tom Harkin. Actually it has happened. Rudy Giuliani skipped Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina to focus on Florida. And how did that work out? Not well. Once McCain won the Sunshine state primary on January 29, 2008, Giuliani was done. Why pass up a chance to put a major kink in the Romney armor in early 2012?

Look, Karl Rove's "attack you opponent's strength" is now among the dominant strategies in campaign politics. To pass up challenging Romney in New Hampshire is to pass up an opportunity to completely undermine his presidential candidacy. Let's not forget that running for president is about winning, but depending on the cycle winning is defined differently. In a George W. Bush in 2000 type of race, it is about overwhelming your competition on your way to the nomination. In more competitive races, though, it is important to win, but also important to beat expectations.

The Republican nomination race in 2012 will be competitive, and the expectations -- given the polls of the state that have trickled out since 2008 -- Romney is "supposed" to win handily. Of course, Bill Clinton was "supposed" to get swamped in the Granite state in 1992. Yet, all we talk about is his comeback and second place finish. Who won that primary? Why President Paul Tsongas, of course. No, Tsongas didn't win the 1992 Democratic nomination despite the win in New Hampshire. Bill Clinton did and taught us a valuable lesson about expectations in presidential nomination races.

  • Obama wasn't supposed to win Iowa in 2008, but he did by seven points.

  • McCain was supposedly done in the summer of 2007, yet his fourth place finish -- given the resources he had spent in Iowa -- was seen as a fairly good result.

  • John Edwards had to win South Carolina in 2008 after winning there in 2004. But he didn't and that was a damning indictment on his candidacy.

Yes, these are all examples from 2008, but the premise can be extended to other cycles as well. Expectations matter in the context of presidential primaries and caucuses and will continue to matter. The expectation in November 2010 is that Romney is going to win in New Hampshire in 2012. There's a long way to go and Romney may win in the Granite state, but how much he wins by in a competitive race (for the nomination) will have a say in who the eventual nominee is.

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Anonymous said...

I WILL PLAY Devil's Advocate! (Intense post title!)

1. It seems ceding Iowa to Harkin SUCCEEDED in the expectations game. The win was diminished, explicitly or not, as a fave son rather than the beginning of a national consensus on nominee. He converted no momentum. You could say it was the right move for Clinton (the winner) and allowed him to focus on NH where his strong performance boosted him.

2. Unlike the back of the pack in NH now (obviously we're a year out), Clinton had led in NH then was reeling form scandal.,_1992

Ultimately, Clinton couldn't THEN pull up stakes and head to South Carolina because it would exude surrender and give the scandal traction (heading into a socially conservative state). He instead fought his way to single digit loss. This is not quite analogous to those candidates who have always widely trailed Romney in a state he ran well in last primary and probably has sky high favorables in. I take your larger point about exceeding expectations but it's not clear the prospects for doing so if you are Sarah Palin (though Ayotte might help her) or Mike Huckabee (who ran weakly in NH in 08). Trying to challenge Romney in NH could help him by lowering expectations for HIM akin to Bill Clinton 92 or Hillary Clinton 08 or McCain 08 which he could then exceed by simply winning like he was always going to. That gives him more momentum. As opposed to rope-a-dope letting him win uncontested so he boringly meets high expectations. (Btw, I don't think McCain's Iowa performance helped him at all. It was the re-allocation of resources to NH that allowed him to score a narrative-turning victory THERE.) I think history suggests yielding.

Who wins Iowa in '12 will help form the narrative. If it's Palin or Huckabee or Barbour, it makes more sense to head right to South Carolina and try for a second win to solidify yourself as the consensus candidate while arguing Romney is just winning in his backyard NH.

If Pawlenty, Thune or Daniels pulls off an upset in Iowa or a momentum-boosting strong second, there might be a novelty to them and they may be more palatable to NH in a way that recommends as you say going after Romney where he's strongest.


Josh Putnam said...

Good points, anon10:40.

The intensity is due to the fact that I've already made this point several times. We just won't see candidates skip New Hampshire en masse. We may see a candidate or two among the top tiers opt to allocate resources to other early states, but they won't skip the Granite state entirely.

I don't know that I'm arguing that the "ceding Iowa to Harkin" strategy didn't work in 1992. Rather I'm pointing out that such a strategy has not worked in the intervening years in the earliest contests. It is better to go in and compete, take your chances and minimize (as best you can) any delegate advantage the state's frontrunner holds coming out of the contest.

Yes, Clinton was a nominal frontrunner heading into 1992. He had to have something to which to come back during New Hampshire. I will grant you the point that Clinton '92 and Romney '12 are not directly analogous, but my broader point there was one concerning the expectations game.

No, McCain's performance in Iowa in '08 was not what propelled him to victory in New Hampshire five days later. Again, my point was one of expectations. That result was better than expected and taken with the win in New Hampshire help to start a new narrative about his campaign.

I don't know that history does suggest yielding; not widespread yielding at least. If Palin and/or Huckabee skip out that opens the door to someone else to step in and do well relative to Romney's expectations. That's a gamble. Again, a handful of candidates may limit their resources in New Hampshire but we won't see a full scale draw down.

Thanks for commenting.