Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Circus Nears Finale

I don't like repeating myself on the blog, so I've been saving myself the time and trouble of commenting week by week on the ups and downs of the Republican nomination process. So, I haven't been saying:
--Despite the win(s) today in XXX state, Rick Santorum is not going to win the nomination. Mitt Romney has much more money, a much better organization, a strategy for winning it, and has more delegates than all his opponents combined.

--The win in XXX makes it ever more certain that Mitt Romney will end up with the nomination. Though Rick Santorum contested the state vigorously and gained support from the right wing of his party, his disadvantages in money, organization, and lack of support from the Republican establishment doom him in the long run.

Now Romney can begin the long transition from pretend-right-wing-extremist primary candidate to reasonably-toned-safe-hands moderate general election candidate. He will be able to cross the rhetorical gap, but will the moderate voters--the ones who decide the general elections--find his change of costume credible? I am certain that the Obama campaign will be prepared to spend large sums of money and bring an impressive array of researched evidence to make sure that does not happen.

Romney begins the general election campaign with a large deficit, particularly among women and in the crucial swing states. National opinion polls are all over the place; a long string of polls through the Republican primary season showing Obama ahead was broken by two recent polls--by Fox News and Rasmussen, which does not invalidate the results but does suggest raised eyebrows at the source--with Romney ahead. Real Clear Politics' poll aggregator has Obama ahead by 2.6% in its weighted composite rating. The normal pattern would be for Romney to make up some ground in late summer, buoyed by the party convention, and with Obama probably hobbled by some economic or legislative bad news. But Romney's chances will depend on his ability to win some key swing states.

Veepstakes Preview
There is one item left to come out of the Republican camp which is of more than trivial interest: who will Mitt Romney choose as his running mate?

The importance of the VP selection may easily be overstated, but it is one of the clear degrees of freedom the nominee has, an indicator of the kind of campaign and kind of campaign strategy intended. The key dimension of the decision will be on the level of risk Romney takes: will he go for a safe, reassuring choice (Dubya choosing Dick Cheney, Clinton choosing Al Gore) or one designed to shake things up (Bob Dole choosing Jack Kemp, Poppy Bush with Dan Quayle, John McCain with Sarah Palin)?

I would say that--with one exception noted below--I see no reason for Romney to reach out to the right wing of the party and choose a Tea Party candidate. Maybe if he had failed to win control of the nomination process, things might have been different, but I would think that the last thing Romney should want to show with his selection is that he is beholden to the right wing.

The overriding facts that Romney must face, though, are his opponent, an incumbent with all the advantages that can bring, plus being a good campaigner, along with an excellent campaign organization, and a pretty good Electoral College position. The Associated Press had an unsigned analysis this weekend showing Obama ahead, 242-191 (with 105EV in 10 states as tossup), including states clearly leaning to one direction or the other. I would add NM and CO as states Obama figures to win, which would mean Obama would need just one of: VA or NC or OH or FL or the combination of IA, NH, and NV (out of the AP tossup states) to lock it up. So, Romney had better focus on something that will turn around that math.

I will review his choices briefly around possible Electoral College strategies and suggest some of the choices that are a) boring and low-risk (i.e., a close match to Romney in style) or b) interesting/risky. These are in reverse order of likelihood from my point of view:

1) Counter the Obama forays in the South or West: In the West, which was a strong area for Romney in the primaries, the idea would be to lock up Arizona and deny Obama Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico. In the South, it would be to take back Virginia and North Carolina. The Southern approach could well succeed, but might not even require the special effort of a VP choice, while the Western angle, which really needs close to a sweep of those states to be successful, would require a game-changer.
Boring choices: Jon Kyl, retiring Arizona senator; Bob McDonnell, term-limited Virginia governor.
Risky choice: Susana Martinez, New Mexico governor.

2) Florida: I see FL as a must-win state for Romney; therefore, no effort should be spared. Contrary to the strategy document that the Obama campaign sent me this past winter, I believe they are planning an advertising saturation campaign there without precedent, as winning the state would shift their chances from "likely" to "near-certain". I have the feeling the Romney campaign will feel that they can win the state without naming their VP from there, but I see two interesting candidates which could tempt his choice:
Jeb Bush--Basically, Romney is at core just like a Bushite--a big-money, establishment Republican with conventional conservative views. I think Jeb would actually take the job if offered it, and he's probably one of the best choices Romney could make from the point of view of qualifications and intelligence; it's a risk for Romney to go with him, though, because it works against the story line that this election is "about Obama's failures, not Bush's".
Marco Rubio --I sill see him as the best choice Romney could make, but it may not be in the cards--and there's some doubt that he's ready to go for it. Rubio's not officially a Tea Party guy, but he's close enough to make them happy, and he's popular enough in Florida to make a difference. I see Rubio and Jeb as the two most likely 2016 candidates (assuming Romney loses; I don't buy the Chris Christie argument), so it puts Mitt in a potential position of giving a boost to the fortunes of one of them (if you call being the VP candidate on a likely losing ticket a boost, which is highly doubtful).

3) Change the dynamic in the North: This has several variations and is probably overall the most likely direction for Romney to go: he's a Northerner himself, and it's a target-rich environment (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa, and Minnesota are all states Obama won which are not out of reach for the Republicans at this point).
Boring Choices: Rob Portman (Senator from Ohio), Tim Pawlenty (former Minnesota governor), and Mitch Daniels (retiring governor of Indiana) are just three of the many boring, safe white guys Romney could choose. Daniels, in particular, would be a respected, moderate choice that would suggest good governance if Romney is going in that direction, though Indiana is the one state of those I listed which he should be able to win anyway.
Interesting/Risky choices: Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin would be a provocative choice: not quite a captive of the Tea-Baggers, but he has been a formative influence, and I'd say don't believe those denials of interest. His fate may be determined in June by the recall election of Gov. Walker in Wisconsin; if Walker should fall, it would indicate that Wisconsin may be too fired by Democratic forces up to be a plausible Republican pick-up.
Former Senator Rick Santorum (yes, that one!) could be a ticket complement for Romney, as he might bring some of the blue-collar, folksy appeal that has eluded Mitt. The idea of playing to win in PA is highly tempting to the Republicans. Finally, if you're a Machiavellian Republican advisor, thinking of how to win in 2016, Santorum as VP would be a sneaky-but-smart play: it would move him from "next guy in line" (the usual winner, as with Romney this year, in the Republican nomination game) to "failed VP candidate" (which buys you nothing), and the reason for wanting that change: the Santorum we saw in the primaries would be a disaster as a national Presidential candidate, a 40-state loser. As a VP-candidate, his right-wing stances would be less of a handicap, would help solidify the base, and if Romney-Santorum should win, he could change his perception among the political classes that he is a loser.

It maight take something as radical as Santorum in 2016 to shake the Republicans out of their post-Bushite stupor (reinforced by their misleading 2010 Congressional and state wins) and do something to reformulate their failing brand, but I think that the whipping they are likely to take this year might do the trick.

Bottom line: My guesses are, if he goes for boring--Daniels; if exciting--Rubio.

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