FHQ would be remiss if we did not at least make some effort to counter several points that Newt Gingrich raised in praising the current presidential nomination system on On the Record with Greta Van Susteren Thursday night. Gingrich is typically very sharp, but several of his comments suggest a fundamental misreading of the nomination system.
First of all, I agree with Gingrich's assessment that the system is not broken.
"I'm a fan of [the saying] 'if things aren't broke, don't fix em', and I believe the system that we have right now.... I think the system works reasonably well."
Despite all the issues that people have with certain states perpetually going first or with the perceived problems with frontloading (...etc.), the system does work. It still produces nominees for the parties who in turn give said parties a good, if not the best, shot at winning the White House given certain other structural factors (nature of the times, fatigue with the incumbent party, etc.). One may be tempted to argue that the Democrats, for instance, nominated Walter Mondale in 1984 and he was subsequently crushed in a Reagan landslide in November of that year. Democrats must have done something wrong, right? Not really. Aside from Ronald Reagan switching parties, the Democrats had no chance in that election no matter who the candidate was.
The system, then, isn't perfect, but it does the job the parties want it to do (see Cohen et al., 2008). Gingrich and FHQ are on the same page there, but that's where the agreements cease. The remaining points the former Speaker makes are either rooted in myth, outdated/obsolete or just aren't all that factual.
Gingrich on equal opportunity (quotations from GOP12):
".... In the opening weeks, you've been in the Midwest, you've been in the Northeast, and you've been in the South, and now -- with adding Nevada -- you've been in the West in the very first weeks, at an affordable pace for unknown candidates.
For somebody like Governor Pawlenty or Senator Thune, who are just starting out, or Senator Santorum.
If you don't have the scale of money that some candidates have, this is an enormously open and equal opportunity model to allow talent to emerge."
This is where my qualms are largest. To the extent that Pawlenty or Thune or Santorum has a shot at the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, it has less to do with gradually building momentum and fund-raising through wins in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada than it does with what's happening right now in the invisible primary. The only reason the line is at all blurred at this point in the process is that there is no clear frontrunner in this particular nomination race. That opens the door ever so slightly to saying that there is more opportunity for longer shot candidates, but not that there is equal opportunity.
And to go on and use the examples of Reagan's nomination in 1980 and Carter's in 1976 to highlight this conclusion is misguided at best. It assumes that virtually nothing has changed in nomination politics in the post-reform era. I can think of several political scientists who have made careers (or part of their careers) out of demonstrating how rules matter and how changes over the last four decades have changed the process in their research.
Do Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada matter? Yes, but first one should look toward whether the invisible primary produces a frontrunner first. What would determine a frontrunner? Above I mentioned fundraising, but along with that poll position and endorsements are also good indicators of where the nomination race may go (again, see Cohen et al., 2008). The premise there is that the party plays a large role in determining who its nominee will be. Of course, in the case of the 2012 Republican nomination race there is one mitigating circumstance that should also be considered. The party may always have its hand in the decision, but in this case the grassroots/Tea Party movement may wield more power relative to the establishment/party elites than in past Republican nomination contests.
With that said, there's a reason Gingrich is heading off to those early primary/caucus states. Yes the former Speaker knows wins there are important, but he and all the other candidates heading to those areas also know money, poll position and endorsements will matter first.