Republican Horse Race Enters The First Turn

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

Hard as it is to believe, the first phase of the Republican presidential nomination campaign will come to a close next week. Though this is not a formal deadline, Thanksgiving marks the beginning of a month’s long holiday season which takes us through New Year’s Day. Presumably, most voters will be tuned in to events with family and friends, and tuned out of presidential politics. On the evening of January 3rd, voters in Iowa will gather within their communities and caucus, casting the first official votes for delegates to the Republican Convention. These GOP delegates will eventually nominate the challenger to Barack Obama in Tampa at the end of August.

Because of the presumed detachment of voters from news during the upcoming holiday period, rival campaigns have been desperately attempting to position themselves over the past couple of weeks. The race to be perceived as the “front runner”, or at least “top tier”, has been ongoing for months. But with Thanksgiving fast approaching, the moves have been sharp and abrupt over the past few weeks.

The revelations about Herman Cain’s settlement for past claims of sexual harassment were likely not an accident of timing. While Cain’s early statements blamed “liberals” trying to smear him, the reality is that the leaks were likely fueled by a rival positioning themselves for the next leg of the race. The distraction has shown some softening of Cain’s support in the polls, but his campaign is also reporting that they have received record fundraising amounts since the story broke.

Rick Perry, likewise, was positioning for his second look. His disastrous debate performance in Michigan last Wednesday night will likely make it harder for him to receive a third look for many voters. That’s probably OK with him, as he seems to have difficulty with things that come in threes.

Newt Gingrich, once written off as a serious contender, is now running among Cain and Mitt Romney in the latest national polls. His view to voters as Presidential material seems to be benefitting positively in comparison of so many others he continues to share the stage with that are clearly not.

And then there is Mitt Romney. Romney is often knocked as having run for President for 6 years, yet has remained stuck in the polls at 25-30% since this field was set. He’s raised a lot of money, but has been almost invisible at times. His positions have been carefully crafted, but also seem so safe to some that they and the candidate espousing them seem overly sanitized. Many choose to write him off because he has not yet moved in the polls. They should not.

It is quite popular in the punditocracy to refer to the contest for the nomination as a horse race, a sports metaphor almost as overused as “it’s a marathon and not a sprint”. Those who enjoy the comparison to thoroughbreds should also consider how often the horse that is ahead at the first turn wins the race. Most of these give out of gas early, and finish well in the back of the pack.

Politics is not that dissimilar, though there is a clear need for some candidates to get out in front early. A Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann would lack national name ID, and the fundraising and grassroots organization that would come with that. For their campaigns to have any measure of longevity, they have to run at the front early, hoping that early success would separate them from the Gary Johnsons, the Jon Huntsmans, and the Buddy Roemers.

Once out front, however, the lead candidate becomes the lead target. The inexperienced, ill prepared, and undefined can quickly be taken over by those who are organized, well funded, and previously vetted. Often those at the front early are backed by the most idealistic of supporters, who often let the ideal of what they want to support blind them to the realities of the imperfections that will become apparent in the political process. The more experienced and arguably more jaded organize behind the one who they think can win, understanding that perfection is an impossibility.

The early leaders are often overtaken at this point because they have no ground game to execute. Those who have been able to raise large sums of money and/or amass large networks of volunteers haven’t been focused on daily tracking polls. They have yet to unleash their ground game.

They also understand that national polls at this point are largely irrelevant. The serious strategists are focused on some combination of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, and Florida. Primaries, after all, have a momentum factor. A candidate who doesn’t do well or underperforms in any of the above is done. A candidate must finish in the top few spots in each in order to continue any hopes of capturing the nomination.

As we’re rounding the first turn, Mitt Romney remains slow and steady, but has also yet to exert any real effort. Gingrich has recovered from an early stumble out of the gate and has regained stride. Cain may lead by a nose but is already showing signs of tiring. Perry has a lot of folks that bet on a sure thing just a few months ago now wondering how they face such long odds. Quite a few other dark horses run alongside, though none seem likely to break out.

The nomination is a process where the early games resemble a spectator sport. The lasting effect of what has been the focus until now will soon fade. Money will be spent, and the organized grass roots will begin to work for the votes of the unorganized. Come January, a new phase begins with totally new rules. Only those who have built a campaign to go the distance are likely to survive until Georgia gets its turn to vote in March.