By Al Giordano
Four years ago, I intensively covered the 2008 presidential elections in the United States, from the first caucuses and primaries through the final result.
This year, not so much, and since it became clear that the Republican nominee would be former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, not at all. Since then, I've not wavered once from my view that President Barack Obama will be reelected tomorrow. And today, after carefully examining the polling, early voting and field organization numbers state-by-state, and daily interviews in recent weeks with people on the ground in the "swing states" (in order of Electoral Votes: Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa) and also the "faux-swing states" (those states that many in the media try to convince you are still up for grabs: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Hampshire), The Field projects Obama to win tommorow with 318 Electoral Votes to 220 for Romney.
This projection does not differ all that much from those generated by aggregating polling numbers and weighting them, with the exception that I'm projecting North Carolina for Obama while projecting a Romney win in Florida. (Caveat Emptor: Florida is the only state I've projected incorrectly twice in the last two presidential elections, and so it won't suprise me if I'm wrong about it, but I'll explain my logic here.)
When statistical models state that a candidate has a 75 percent chance to win a state, that means that one of four times the other candidate will win. Yet one of the frustrations of working strictly off polling data is that until recent cycles there wasn't anywhere near as much polling being done by as many polling organizations. Therefore, "polls" lack a depth of historic memory.
What are the factors that have made polls differ with the final result before?
The most important is field organization. An example of that came in 2004 when the southern Appalachian region of Ohio saw higher turnout among Evangelical voters than expected: Karl Rove, working under radar with the Christian Right, in effect, "expanded the electorate" for the George W. Bush campaign, and that had not been picked up by the pollsters who had projected an edge for John Kerry. In the 2008 Democratic primaries, the Obama campaign's more advanced field organization trumped the Hillary Clinton campaign and those of other rivals in multiple states, and delivered an encore performance in the general election.
It is astonishing to this observer that the Romney campaign, with the unlimited resources of a billionnaire candidate and that of other Forbes list Goliaths unleashed by the US Supreme Court's "Citizens United" decision, did not construct its own field organization and instead left Get Out The Vote efforts to the Republican National Committee. One would think Romney would have at least tried to mimic the advances in micro-targeting and intensive training of field organizers that were key to Obama's 2008 victory.
And yet I'm not surprised. I've known Mitt Romney up close since 1994 when he waged his first campaign, an unsuccessful one, against the late US Senator Ted Kennedy and I reported the battle for The Boston Phoenix. Willard Mitt Romney is a strange bird. He reminded me then of the fictional character Biff Howard Tannen from the 1985 motion picture Back to the Future: a dimwitted high school bully who made other kids do his homework for him (a Washington Post story earlier this year that looked at Romney's time in an elite prep school only confirmed that preconception, disclosing that Mitt had been an actual bully who wrestled another boy to the ground to forcibly cut his hair).
I reported a story, in '94, about how Romney, as Bishop of the Mormon church, tried to bully a young mother out of having an abortion while he was running for office in the Bay State as a supposed backer of a woman's right to choose. And I also reported how the Kennedy campaign completely overwhelmed Romney at the polls through a superior field organization that had been decades in the making. But not even that caused Romney to correct his mistake; not in the 2008 presidential primaries and not in those of 2012, when he utilized his larger bank account, and that of other billionnaires supposedly acting "independently," to squash one rival after another: Michelle Bachman, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum... none of those politicians had built even a half-decent field organization and thus were crushed, one at a time, by Romney's financial advantage. Romney, the governor's son, has always had a smirk on his face that suggested that he and he alone knew that it was his destiny to become president of the United States, and that his money would buy it for him.
From the beginning of 2012 it was clear to me that the Obama campaign had executed a plan to surpass even it's historic 2008 field organization. The only open question was whether it would find enough volunteers to carry it to fruition. By early summer, when filing reports to the Federal Elections Commission revealed that Obama was easily surpassing his 2008 small donor numbers, and such a high percentage of these people were first-time donors, it was clear to me that even if half of his 2008 volunteers had moved on to other things, there would be plenty of fresh replacement power to replenish the phone bankers, door to door canvassers and data entry wizards who are the foundation of Obama's campaign. In recent weeks that has become tangibly evident. There are more troops on the ground today than he had four years ago. In the language of the architect of the most recent Super Bowl victor, New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin, they are "finishing" strong.
Another factor that can cause results to be different than what polls predict is that of voter and ballot suppression. One need only remember the debacle of Bush's Supreme Court-ordered "victory" in Florida in 2000 to cite a fresh example. The incidents, in 2012, of malicious anti-democracy efforts to sabotage a fair election in swing states are most extreme in Florida and Ohio, and they are targeted most precisely against African-American and young voters. (Ohio Secretary of State John Hunstead's one-man campaign to suppress the vote is on a scale not seen since before Southern racist "poll tests" were prohibited by the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and, worse, he keeps getting slapped down by the Courts and just goes out and disobeys the court orders anyway.)
The aggregate polling data from Ohio gives Romney a one-in-seven chance to overcome Obama's lead there. Add to that Obama's clear advantage in field organization and the vote will not be close enough for these suppression techniques to carry the day. The Obama campaign also has 2,500 lawyers on the ground in Ohio to push back strongly on these efforts. The best Hunstead can possibly accomplish is to delay the full counting of the votes for days after Tuesday, but the result will still end up as an Obama victory in the Buckeye State. (I know there are also people sincerely concerned about vote theft by machines which are made by a company that has interlocking relationships with companies related to Tagg Romney, the candidate's son. Let's simply say that the national public unrest that would be unleashed if Ohio alone changes the Electoral College victor with outlier results is not a Pandora's Box that even Romney would want to open. But if anything truly bizarre like that occurs, head to this page for Civil Resistance training and a plan.)
Florida, according to the aggregate of polls, is the closest of the swing states, with Romney having a 6-to-5 chance of winning and Obama at 5-to-6 underdog odds. Florida Governor Rick Scott and Republicans in the legislature severely curtailed early voting (limiting it to 96 hours in only eight days, compared to 120 hours in 14 days back in 2008) and the lines have been so long that many waited for hours and were still unable to cast a ballot. So while in a fair fight, Obama's field organization would likely be able to overcome a modest disadvantage in the polls, Florida is not right now a fair contest. The vote is being stolen again as it was in 2000. And it's likely to be close enough where that really makes the difference.
Interestingly, the conditions in North Carolina for a fair and free election are among the most exemplary in the nation. A Democratic governor has determined the majority in every local election board and from Asheville to Greenville this year's cycle has been meticulously free of voter suppression. More than 2.7 million North Carolinians have voted early, and that's 4.4 percent more than did four years ago. Among African-Americans, it's 7 percent higher. Romney recently made a desperate email plea for out-of-state volunteers to head to North Carolina whereas the Obama campaign locked in its troops on the ground well in advance, leaving nothing to improvisation. Some of my friends in New York have been part of the phone bank in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, that for weeks has been hammering at key North Carolina precincts with persuasion and Get Out The Vote calls. The phone bank's coordinator, Jordan Thomas, is one of the unsung heroes of this election cycle. Not only that, he's got me pinned down with a commitment to buy a round for all his volunteers when I visit New York next month. Now, that's organizing.
The aggregate polling data gives Obama only a one-in-four statistical likelihood of winning the state. But one out of four is not bad odds if you have a clear advantage in being able to get out the vote. The aggregate of polls, according to Nate Silver, has Romney ahead by 1.9 percent. Field organization superiority has overcome that narrow a lead before. (In 2008, the polling organizations SurveyUSA, Mason-Dixon, Rasmussen and Zogby all had McCain beating Obama in North Carolina in their final pre-election polls. How did Obama overcome that to win? Superior field organization.)
Beyond field organization and voter suppression tactics (or outright fraud), what else has historically been a factor in shifting the results? One is that sometimes the motiviation and enthusiasm of voters for one candidate overrun those of the rival candidate. Early voting numbers in North Carolina give an advantage to Obama there on those measuring sticks.
Another is the national media narrative and the intangible thing called "momentum." It is also in the media's nature to create the belief that a contest is "going down to the wire" because when people don't panic they don't watch or click or read the product of news organizations as much. We all saw that happen after the first presidential debate in a cycle that, until that night, had been impressively free of Chicken Little clucking. The media was determined to declare Romney the "winner" of that debate before its first word had been spoken, because prior to then most of the nation believed Obama would win reelection. The panic and teeth-gnashing in the days after the debate should be embarassing today to those who engaged in it. If you were one of those people, think hard about how the media led your emotions around by the nose ring the next time it tries to do that. I watched that debate and thought that Obama had done what he needed to do, and did not see it as a game changer. Weeks later, nobody is really pedaling the snake oil that it somehow was.
Post-tropical storm Sandy came and destroyed many things. One of them was Romney's last chance to build a new media narrative that might give him momentum. Instead it gave Obama a photo op and kind words from the Republican governor of New Jersey and an endorsement from the Republican mayor of New York.
All of that, as electoral factor, is over now.
All that is left is field: The side that gets its voters to the polls or successfully suppresses opposing votes will be the victor on Tuesday. To understand what will happen, those are the only two things to watch. And they are both factors that you and I can still influence.
A friend of mine asked me if I would be willing to place a wager on my North Carolina projection. Of course I will. And since I work for myself, there will be no "public editor" to undercut me in these final hours of the 2012 campaign, as so unfairly the New York Times did to Nate Silver the other day only because he had said he would put his money where his projections are.
Well, that's the commercial media for ya. His projections based on hard numbers are undercutting the media narrative that this thing is still so close you can't turn off your TV or Internet screen and go turn out some voters instead. And I think his map is essentially correct, with the exception of North Carolina... because I believe in field. And that means I believe that you and I can always make a difference in history, not by being spectators, but by rolling up our sleeves and making a few more calls until every last vote is made real.
By Al Giordano
Another big march – really, at least 52 marches throughout the country – will occur on Sunday in Mexico City. It will be the second by the nascent “YoSoy132” (“I Am 132”) mobilization by students who oppose the commercial media’s imposition of a presidential candidate in the upcoming July 1 election. Authentic journalist Isadora Bonilla has reported about the march plans on Narco News, and one need only read the guidelines for the march (I've translated them to English, here) to see that this is different and more disciplined than previous protests in Mexico and in many parts of the world.
The guidelines for Sunday are clear and instructive:
All who attend the march pledge to:
• Attend on Sunday, June 10, 2012 in the Zocalo without any partisan political displays. The recommendation is to dress in black.
• Not engage in any prosletism in favor of any candidate or party. This means not wearing the colors associated with political parties, images that allude to the candidates, cheers for any of their names, etcetera.
• March PEACEFULLY and on the indicated route.
• Remain in only one lane of traffic so as to not impede the travel of vehicles.
• Respect all who attend the march, pedestrians and vehicles along its path, irregardless of their political inclinations. There will be some guides during the march solely to indicate what that means, but we trust in your civility and if we act according to these guidelines everything should happen exactly as it is planned.
• Do not respond to any provocations by infiltrating groups nor occur in acts of vandalism or violence, such as taking down, damaging or destroying campaign signs. We must not damage any public services.
• Do not bring your voter ID of the Federal Elections Institute nor expensive objects of value that could be robbed or a target of provocations.
• Expose vandals and people who occur in acts of violence. If this occurs we suggest stopping the march and sitting down with arms crossed around the violent person, filming and taking photographs. This is how we will expose the aggressor.
• Deliver any person who conducts acts of vandalism or violence to the authorities.
• Inform the people of the truth about candidate Enrique Peña Nieto: his errors, goof-ups, evil governing, inexperience, ignorance, etcetera.
• Inform about the dishonest news by media companies bought by the PRI party (like Televisa) that have edited or ommitted relevant information that would expose the true face of Peña Nieto.
• In the event that any of these cited agreements are violated, retreat from the march.
Thos are the instructions that appear on the March's Facebook page and, now, for the first time elsewhere on the Internet.
It struck me, reading the guidelines, that it has been decades since I have seen any march of this size include a pledge by participants with that much discipline and awareness that the march is about influencing public opinion (in other words, not about "us" but about everyone). It reminds more of the guidelines from the victorious struggles of Ghandi to win independence from colonial rule in India, the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s and the anti-nuclear movement of the 70s. Impressive that they came up with these in less than a month!
And I thought, “what if some of the bigger protests of more recent years - I’m looking at you, “Occupy Wall Street” and at the “anti-globilization” summit protests post-Seattle 1999 - had, when they began, agreed on such clear guidelines?” I conclude that they would have won more concrete results, just like the aforementioned and more disciplined movements that won big nonviolent battles decades before them.
Yet these guidelines were not developed or imposed by aging veteran organizers: the universities of Mexico have a population of youths from 17 to 22 years-old with post-graduate students mostly in their twenties. We have already reported on the May 30 assembly by more than 6,000 students from 150 universities where these and other agreements were reached; on the seriousness and outwardly looking tone of the students who were more interested in getting to work on changing public opinion in their country than in building an “identity politics” activist niche for themselves.
The truth is that “Occupy Wall Street” – although covered in the media as a “youth movement” – was dominated by people already in their 30s, as were the post-Seattle milieu of protests that preceded and influenced it (those folks are now in their 40s and older). Those protests quickly became more about the “occupy” than about “Wall Street” and devolved into a navel-gazing series of ever-smaller “assemblies” that largely neglected to consider what they wanted to achieve other than proving to themselves that they were supposedly doing “something new.” Nine months later, they have little in concrete gains to show for it, still.
The teens and twenty-somethings of Mexico are the country's most media-and-Internet-savvy generation of university students yet. They have followed the protests of recent years, seen what worked and what did not, and seem wary of the kind of “self-referential protest” that has risen and fallen both in their country and in other lands without tangible victories.
During a meeting yesterday, June 6, of one of the YoSoy132 commissions, some participants would seek to debate points of political ideology or opinion over side issues. They were routinely met with a response of “we are not here to debate those things; the last meeting took six hours and we have to get this done in two hours today.” They are goal and task oriented. They want to get the job done. And they have clear consensus on their two major goals. The first is to stop the imposition of presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto and the return of his authoritarian PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) that governed Mexico from 1929-2000. The second is to end the domination of two television networks and a very few other media on the nation’s permitted political discourse: to end the media’s tyrannical power to manipulate society.
As with the Egyptian movement that ended, in 2011, the thirty-year rule of the dictator Hosni Mubarak, YoSoy132 is so horizontal that a frustrated media still can’t identify a single charismatic leader of either movement to rise up and then chop down to strip the movement of credibility. In place of that, already, less than a month into YoSoy132’s birth, are 150 autonomous cell groups nationwide that have agreed only on the goals and to obtain them nonviolently “without aggression,” plus 15 work commissions – many of them replicated in other geographic regions beyond the nation’s capital – who impress with their speed and coherence at coming to agreements and banging out a new movement’s strategies and tactics on multiple fronts simultaneously.
Perhaps this is a positive consequence of the rise of online social networks (this writer has penned plenty already on their negative consequences): Most of these youths already feel like they’ve had their Warholian “15 minutes of fame” (or, at least, created their own among the people that matter to them) and don’t appear to see their participation in this movement as a “career move” or an audition for media celebrity status. They seem more certain of who they are and are definitely more sure of what they want. That is, to save their country from the imposition of a past and still present authoritarian regime, and to end the media spectacle through which such impositions happen.
Their goal is, in their own words, “authentic democracy.” In the Authentic Journalism renaissance of the past fifteen years a lot of spectators already in power - including those who traffic in "alternative media" - did not like our use of the “A-word.” It made the inauthentic uncomfortable. Today, the youths of Mexico have adopted “authentic” as their banner. And to this observer, they seem authentic in exactly the way that we have sought to redefine media and journalism. Narco News will be there Sunday reporting on the mass marches. But the more important coverage we will continue to offer is that which goes behind the media events, that documents, coldly and rationally, how people are organizing themselves and others, and how they develop winning strategies and tactics. Authentic journalism doesn’t stop at writing down or filming human events yesterday and today: It looks forward to the next steps, and how the lessons of today can be applied tomorrow. These are the lessons that people all over the world can learn from to end their own tyrannies. And today Mexico is one grand laboratory in tackling the major obstacle to authentic change: the undemocratic power of the media, and the utter impossibility of authentic democracy until that power is collapsed.
Stay tuned. (And readers of The Field can find more info by regularly checking our flagship Narco News.) As always, you will be there with us every step of the way.
By Al Giordano
There comes a moment in a political forecaster’s journey when the thing he’s good at analyzing just ceases to hold enough interest for him to go through the motions. Such it is, at least for today, on the eve of the Republican primaries in Arizona (Mitt Romney will win as he did in Nevada; the demographics are even older and more religiously oriented toward him) and Michigan (four polls taken on Sunday have the contest between Romney and Rick Santorum with neither candidate showing momentum nor a lead outside the margin of error). They’re both awful candidates and worse human beings in their own special ways. It's impossible to care about either of them.
If I have to swing for the fences and pick one I’d say that Democrats and Independents who want to prolong the GOP primaries longer to further weaken the eventual nominee, if they’re smart, will head to the polls tomorrow, hold their noses, and cast a vote for Santorum if only to keep the this train wreck of a contest flipping down the rails into the next set of primaries and caucuses. Every time there’s a candidates’ debate the general election public ends up with a lower opinion of all of them. The motto for Spring 2012 ought to be: Keep dopes alive!
And here’s a memo to the Supreme Court, who thought its decisions paving the way for mega-millionaire SuperPacs would help the rich consolidate political power: Can you guys say “unintended consequences?” What has precisely kept the richest candidate in the race from closing the deal on his nomination is that other rich guys are allowed to play like never before to keep their pet candidates, Santorum and Newt Gingrich, alive and in the hunt long after when, in previous years, they’d likely already be out of it or about to be. Negative ads on each of them are dominating the airwaves in every primary and caucus state, and this is great news for those who favor President Obama’s reelection: A circular fratricide among the elites. What’s not to love about that? Or about the fact that Romney has to defend, with his millions, his home state, where unlike the Creedence Clearwater Revival song, he really was “a governor’s son.”
Since I believe in the basic intelligence of human nature, I’ll pick Rick in a photo finish, thanks to savvy crossover voters who want to keep seeing 'em collide. Perhaps a Field Hand or two will want to get out there and make me right.
But even if Santorum implodes from his recent missteps (a lackluster debate last week and the vetting of his previous attacks on rock and roll, the supposed vehicle by which Satan, according to him, is wrecking America), we still have Newt (lots more fun than Rick), and his big-money backers to pick up where Santorum leaves off, who can pop back up skewer Romney for a few more rounds.
The happiest person with this entire scenario has to be Michele Obama, because nothing in the Republican contest is making her husband nervous enough to crave a cigarette. And this is the proof of how much the opposing party hates Barack Obama: They're denying him even a reasonable explanation for coming home from the Oval Office emanating the sweet scent of tobacco. "Sorry, Honey, it's just that I'm so nervous about this campaign," just isn't going to fly - not yet, at least - in the Obama household. C'mon guys! Give the guy a contest at least so he can enjoy a frickin' cigarette.
So, while we're waiting for the walking dead to become interesting, let me talk with you about what really does excite me: Community Organizing. We saw a lot of that in the 2008 primaries but this year’s won’t uncloak (although it’s happening intensely in preparation) until the general election campaign starts for real.
I’d like to share with Field Hands the text of my remarks the other day at the first Nonviolence Training session of the Mexican movement against the war on drugs, something we’ve been reporting heavily for the past 11 months on Narco News: Nothing Is Ever Won Without Organizing.
Here is a brief excerpt and then you can choose, if you like, to click to read the whole thing (translated from the original Spanish):
"I will speak about organization, based on my own experiences as a community organizer and a journalist. The first thing you should know is this: All organizing begins with the telling of a story.
"When we listen carefully to somebody’s story, we learn what motivates him, what she is passionate about. When we listen and learn from this story, we can then organize that person to do things that help us get what we want, by helping him and her get what they want, too. Listening is the first skill and duty of a community organizer. Before we can get somebody to do something, we have to learn what he and she want, which is usually different than what we presumed they wanted.
"My story began at a workshop very much like this one. I was 17. It was an eight-hour nonviolence training session for people who wanted to participate in an occupation of a construction site in the Northeastern United States where a nuclear power plant was being built in a town called Seabrook…"
I’ll dedicate these remarks to all community organizers everywhere. You may not be getting the media attention that these clowns on the ballot tomorrow are receiving, but it’s your work, and not theirs, that keeps changing the world over and over and over again…
By Al Giordano
While tea leaves point to a likely Florida primary victory for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney tonight, the former Massachusetts governor will emerge only marginally ahead in the delegate count with 46 of the 50 states yet to cast a vote.
But the costs of this victory to Romney go far beyond the $17 million in attack ads he and his Super PACs deployed to stop – now for the second time in a young campaign – the rise of rival Newt Gingrich. Hell hath no wrath like a Gingrich scorched. The former House Speaker is the Keith Richards of US politics: no matter what debauchery he passes through he never dies. Newt is the zombie candidate. Burn him, bomb him, poison him, hack him into a thousand pieces and he quickly reassembles and gets back up again, madder than before and coming right back at ya'.
The story out of Florida isn't Romney's win (and if, as some late polls suggest, it ends up thinner than double digits, even that will be questioned). It is that Romney has failed, again, to eliminate his nemesis. But that’s not even the worst that happened to Mitt in Florida. Ten days ago, general election polls showed him in a tie with President Barack Obama in this must-win swing state. Then Romney had to debate Gingrich and the other candidates and make bold statements to prove his fealty to the far right GOP base that are far outside of mainstream public opinion, especially the views of independent swing voters. The new general election numbers in Florida are Obama 49 percent to 41 for Romney; a dramatic turnabout for the president in a matter of days. (All the Republican candidates have been wounded for the general election by their adventures in pander-to-the-base wingnuttery, the poll also shows: Obama 50, Paul 36; Obama 50, Santorum 35; Obama 52, Gingrich 35.) The survey was taken January 25 to 27 and has a 2.6 margin of error.
This, without the Obama campaign spending a cent on advertising in Florida: Given, his State of the Union address clearly boosted the president’s popularity there and nationwide with those independent swing voters who decide elections. And his campaign has cleverly used each primary and caucus so far to reignite the trained community organizers of his field organization, state by state, that took him to the White House four years ago. One Field Hand reports “huge turnout” at the events this week opening Obama campaign headquarters throughout the Sunshine State. And the Republican candidates’ own statements and behavior has frightened even Democrats who, only weeks ago, were angry and disillusioned with their president enough to say so publicly. Today, many of those same people have gone from declarations of "I'm not voting" to posting “I’ve got his back” messages to their social network pages.
So while the Field projects Romney to win tonight’s Florida primary, it’s clear that the real winner of the contest is Barack Obama. Romney’s victory came at a cost that will haunt him for months to come as Zombie Gingrich keeps rising from the tomb.
We’ve now watched three Republican primary and one caucus vote. And each time the pundits of the press corps have declared those contests to have been deciders of the nomination. Not so fast, kids! The Unbearable Lightness of Romney will continue to make him victim to the whims of a fickle Republican electorate that remains unhappy with its crop of candidates. Each time one of them seems to gather steam – Santorum in Iowa, Romney in New Hampshire, Gingrich in South Carolina – the momentum turns against that guy in the next contest. The moment somebody looks like the virtual nominee, buyer’s remorse sets in and the tables turn anew.
What’s more is that relatively few delegates will be at stake in the coming weeks, most of them in caucus states (Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota and Maine between February 4 and 11), giving Ron Paul a chance to emerge here or there as an underdog winner on more libertarian friendly ground, and giving Gingrich the breathing room he needs to regroup and assemble the minimal resources to come back and fight again. Gingrich will pick a state to reenter sprinting. Will it be Arizona on February 28? (Romney is expected to handily win Michigan, where his father was once governor, on that same date.) Or will it be Super Tuesday on March 6, where some states – Massachusetts, Vermont and Virginia (where only Romney and Paul are on the ballot) – give home field advantage to Romney, but others – Georgia, Tennessee, perhaps Oklahoma – will be friendlier to Gingrich? And the big one on Super Tuesday – Ohio – will be set up by the media as probably the most telling battleground that day, which is still five weeks away. A week after that Gingrich gets to play in Alabama and Mississippi, and the back-and-forth ping pong game of victories and defeats between the two leading Republican candidates will keep going, perhaps all the way to a brokered convention. At least that’s what the party establishment fears.
In the end, nothing is decided by Florida. Not until November, anyway…
By Al Giordano
Now that everyone in this electoral projections business is picking former House Speaker Newt Gringich to win a come-from-behind victory in today's South Carolina primary, let's reflect on why they had so little faith until after the polls began turning his way. Less than a week ago, the New York Times' 538 blog projected former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney with an 82 percent chance to win in the Palmetto State and, citing its method of "regression analysis" gave him a 98 percent chance to win the GOP nomination.
What a difference a week makes. One good debate performance, another great debate triumph (sparked by a flopped sex scandal attack of the sort that inoculated Bill Clinton in his 1992 presidential campaign) and suddenly Gingrich is back in a big way. The Field projects him to win today's third-in-the-nation contest, setting up a months-long back-and-forth two-way contest ahead as Gingrich and Romney battle through upcoming state primaries and caucuses (with an ocassional Ron Paul boomlet in the latter, to keep things weird enough). The also-rans have run out of gas. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum just could not get a word in edgewise and probably wishes he had a sex scandal of his own now. Former Utah Governor
Rick Jon Huntsman and Texas Governor Rick Perry are now officially out. And Gingrich will now play Itchy to Romney's Scratchy for the coming weeks and months and then in the end somebody will get blown up and everybody gets to laugh.
But the real lesson here is that polling is not the most reliable indicator for early presidential primaries and caucuses. It wasn't four years ago when the pundits and pollsters tried to feed us the "inevitability" of Hillary Clinton's nomination for president, nor is it this cycle when Politico's Roger Simon wrote, after the Iowa caucuses that "It's over. Let's all head to Tampa" and coronate Romney as the nominee. A lot of people who bet on Romney on Intrade (with a 90 percent supposed chance of winning South Carolina) are likely to be parted with their money tonight because they were foolish enough to believe the mass media hype.
Field Hands who read this column, of course, had good reason not to fall into the trap. You read here on December 22 - a month ago - our opinion that Gingrich Could Still Win Iowa, or Lose It and Still Win the Nomination and the reasons behind that thinking, which are now emerging as the core dynamic of this nomination fight. You also read on January 2 our projection that Santorum would win Iowa (it's now official that he won by 34 votes), where we added: "Gingrich and Perry, both claiming the role of putative 'Southern Candidate,' will likely pull out all the stops to try and reemerge in South Carolina, too. And I may yet come full circle by then to my original instincts that Gingrich had the best chance of becoming the Anti-Romney."
Back on December 22, I wrote:
"Gingrich is not going away, he is going to be a force to be reckoned with in the primaries down the stretch, especially in the South, and I still think, as I wrote in April 2010, that the media - perhaps partly out of the intense personal dislike he provokes - has always underestimated him. I dislike him, too. But that doesn't color the cold and rational projections that y'all rely on me to make. This should have been evident to all the 'professionals' of the pundit class 20 months ago! Of all the GOP hopefuls, he's the only man with a plan. That makes him armed and dangerous and nothing that has happened so far, not even his sudden dip in Iowa polls, causes me to reconsider my general sense that in the sum of all the primaries and caucuses of the coming months, Newt Gingrich is likely to carve his initials with a switchblade through Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, or anyone else he perceives as standing between him and the Republican nomination."
First instincts are often the best instincts. And paying too much heed to "conventional wisdom," the pack reporters that follow it, or mechanical "regression analysis" that leave the human touch out of political forecasting is what has everybody else scrambling today to adjust to what a botched sex scandal attack, an agile candidate, and two strong debate performances can accomplish in the final days of an early primary. I love it. The ghost of John Henry, tonight, may prove alive and well, beating the steam shovel once again. And that will give us weeks or months of enjoyment watching two angry men of dubious character tear each other up, one of which will emerge wounded and limping to face President Barack Obama in November.
By Al Giordano
Every four years as the first-in-the-nation caucuses approach in Iowa, back east the national and New Hampshire (read: Boston, Massachusetts) media recites the old yarn, “Iowa picks corn, New Hampshire picks presidents.” There are, in fact, 47 citations of this quote since December 22 in the major media aggregated by Google News.
It’s a popular little ditty. And it’s been entirely wrong for the last 30 years.
Decades ago, New Hampshire did pick presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter each forged a non-incumbent path to the White House by winning New Hamsphire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Think you're a smart political junkie? Answer me this: When was the last time a non-incumbent (that is, not a sitting president or vice president) took first place in New Hampshire to go on and win the election?
It was 32 years ago and his name was Ronald Reagan.
That's the last time that New Hampshire "picked" a president.
What happened to the Granite State’s former primacy in the electoral process? The downfall came via what could be called the Massachusetts invasion. People born out of state, many from next-door Massachusetts, but also from New York, New Jersey and other industrial mid-Atlantic states, began to populate the charming little state of New Hampshire. Boston TV channels 4, 5 and 7 displaced Manchester’s WMUR channel 9 as primary news sources, just as the Boston Globe and Herald cut into the market niches of Granite State dailies. White-collar workers commuted from southern NH to the Bay State and listened to Boston talk radio and music stations in the car.
And then, prior to 1988, then-Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis figured out that the state to the north was already a media colony of his own commonwealth, and mounted a NH primary victory to win the Democratic nomination for president.
Four years later, in 1992, Massachusetts then-junior United States senator, Paul Tsongas, won the NH primary. In 2004, his senate successor, John Kerry, did the same. They were “favorite sons” in the state next door. Now, if you are a Massachusetts pol in the New Hampshire primary, victory is expected (so much so that in 2008, when former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney lost the NH primary to John McCain, the wheels quickly came off his campaign bus).
Romney’s defeat four years ago aside, in recent decades, coming in second in the New Hampshire primary has in fact served as a better springboard to the presidency than outright winning the contest has accomplished for anyone. Bill Clinton came in second to Tsongas in 1992 and got nicknamed “the comeback kid.” George W. Bush placed to McCain in 2000 and repeated that luck. And Barack Obama, in 2008, placed to Hillary Clinton in 2008, but turned his “concession speech” into the single-largest night of online fundraising and momentum in US electoral history.
(Walter Mondale, losing to Gary Hart in 1984, and Bob Dole, to Pat Buchanan in 1996, forged second-place NH finishes into national party nominations, but went on to lose the general election against popular incumbents).
This is all to state the obvious: Everybody expects Romney to win in Tuesday’s NH primary – he was at 49 percent in the polls in a crowded field just a week ago! – and so the real attention is on second place, a spot that Texan US Rep. Ron Paul has occupied since the end of last year. Paul’s candidacy, though, is something like previous crusades of Pat Buchanan or Pat Robertson; not even he believes he can become the president! He’s in it for other motives, and for purposes of analysis, we can punt on whether they are ideological or ego-driven. It doesn’t much matter to the narrative of who gets to be the GOP nominee or have a shot at serving as president starting next year.
Behind Romney and Paul is the third tier of candidates trying to break out of the pack and emerge as the Anti-Romney: the Iowa victor and former US senator from Pennsylvania Rick Santorum (it seems he really did win the Iowa caucuses outright, after a typographical error gave Romney 20 votes he never obtained: The Field 1, the pundits and polls, 0), former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, and former Utah Governor and recent US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, Jr., each would love to come in a surprise second – or at least edge out the rest of the tier for third – in Tuesday’s primary to set up a chance to knock Romney down when the contests move to the South later this month.
While Santorum, Gingrich and Texas Governor Rick Perry - bypassing NH for the January 21 South Carolina primary - are jockeying to become the Anti-Romney, the recent boom-let in NH polls by Huntsman is interesting from a different angle: a member of the same Church of Latter Day Saints as Romney (although more secular than Romney, a former Mormon bishop, Huntsman likes to boast that his grandfather, contrary to his Church’s teaching of abstinence, owned a saloon), Huntsman isn’t gambling on becoming the standard bearer of the GOP’s Southern Baptist and Evangelical base. Rather, he wants to be the shadow Romney; the guy who can pick up the pieces when Romney stumbles in the road ahead. Think of Huntsman as the Tim Tebow in the contest, waiting behind Kyle Orton for his shot at starting quarterback.
After 160 campaign stops in New Hampshire (Huntsman skipped the Iowa caucuses altogether), the grassroots organizing is paying off. In the RealClearPolitics aggregate of polls, Huntsman has bounced from the back of the pack to a third-place tie with Santorum, each at 11.2 percent. Last night’s PPP survey even had Huntsman challenging Paul for second place, with these results: Romney 35 percent, Paul 18, Huntsman 16, Gingrich 12, Santorum 11, Perry 1 (and a freak 3 percent status for former Louisiana governor – and former Democrat – Buddy Roemer).
Somewhere in that sweet spot between second place or strong third place there is the possibility that Huntsman emerges as a media narrative coming out of New Hampshire’s vote. What would that suggest? While it would not set Huntsman up for Anti-Romney status in Evangelical-heavy South Carolina on January 21, it might be worse news for Romney in this sense: How could another centrist, corporate CEO (of the chemical company Huntsman Corporation), and Mormon take a significant vote away from Romney’s NH base in just a week’s time? Indeed, if Huntsman takes 15 percent or more, that comes pretty much out of the 15 percent or so that Romney has sunk in the past week’s NH polls (with another part of it coming from moderate NH Republicans who had "settled" for Ron Paul before learning more about his wild patchwork of issue stances).
Romney’s “Huntsman problem” is this: Jon Huntsman is a more authentic version of Mitt Romney! Huntsman’s survival in NH would soon become a constant reminder of the glib flip-floppy phoniness of the commander-in-chief of Hair Force One that is Romney today.
Romney stepped into his “Huntsman Problem,” big time, when he criticized Huntsman for having served as US Ambassador to China in the Obama administration, and Huntsman parried it like a candidate ready for prime time. Scott Conroy of RealClearPolitics reports:
“Let’s just be honest about it: I put my country first. Apparently Mitt Romney doesn’t believe in putting his country first,” Huntsman told RCP, as he was surrounded by a crush of reporters. “He’s got this bumper sticker that says, you know, ‘Proud of America’ or ‘Believe in America.’ How can you believe in America when you’re not willing to serve America? That’s just phony nonsense.”
Given that Huntsman – like Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum – never served in the US military (Paul and Perry are the two Air Force veterans in the litter) – it’s pretty crafty that Huntsman was able to pull a ju-jitsu move and use Romney’s attack on him to remind that Romney is a Chicken Hawk. This, in the week when photos emerged (see above) of a 19-year-old Romney protesting against anti-war-in-Vietnam protesters at Stanford University, only to then accept a “missionary deferment” from actual military service…
“I stepped up when my president asked, and I always will -- it’s part of my philosophy,” Huntsman said in Hampstead. “I know that may be hard for Mitt Romney and some people to take, but most of America is with me because in the end, they want this America to be run together. They want us all to find solutions, but they want us to find solutions as Americans first and foremost, not as divided people.”
Huntsman has also taken to bopping around New Hampshire in an Air Force pilot bomber’s jacket with an American flag patch on the arm (as also seen in the photo montage, above). He’s pulled off the PR miracle of turning an ambassadorship (something that more often than not is gifted as a political plum for past support) into something akin to combat duty. But, again, that speaks as much to Romney’s weaknesses as it does to Huntsman’s strengths.
The sudden rise of Huntsman in New Hampshire primary polling also indicates that Newt Gingrich’s kamikaze negative campaign against Romney (returning the favor from Iowa, where Newt was savaged by Romney’s “SuperPACs” in a TV ad barrage) is working to chip away at the former Massachusetts governor’s support – and at his media-fed luster of “inevitability.”
There are other ways in which Huntsman is a superior, more authentic and able version of what Romney purports to be. Most of them come down to one of the key differences that allowed Obama, in 2008, to outmaneuver the former frontrunner Hillary Clinton. It’s generational. Huntsman, born in 1960, is part of the more agile punk rock generation (as a youth he in fact played keyboards in a band called The Wizards) whereas Romney – who happened to be in Paris as a 21-year-old doing missionary work during the Situationist-inspired General Strike of May 1968 – carries himself much like other members of his generation in politics: there is a sense, watching him, that he knows he’s a fraud but keeps pushing on anyway because he doesn’t know any other way to be.
Huntsman's script, in fact, reads like a Republican version of his fellow punk-rock generation member Obama (see the words, above, about how Americans “want us to find solutions as Americans first and foremost, not as divided people,” which are almost verbatim out of Obama’s 2004 Democratic convention keynote speech).
In fact, if I were a New Hampshire voter unregistered in any party, I’d think in “Operation Chaos” terms and utilize the Independent voter’s right to cast a Republican ballot to go in there and give Huntsman a little extra push. All Huntsman needs to do is come out of New Hampshire with enough credibility to remain on the debate stages for the upcoming primaries and caucuses and serve as that “place-marker candidate” for centrist and business-oriented Republicans that have lined up behind Romney but who are beginning to notice the significant cracks in His Phoniness’ hull.
A third place finish in New Hampshire, or, god forbid, a second place steal from Ron Paul, and Huntsman could emerge as the story out of New Hampshire, following in the footsteps of guys named Clinton, Bush and Obama. It seems almost impossible that Huntsman could rob the GOP nomination from pols with more money and name-recognition, but it likewise seems unlikely that the scent on the Romney rose is going to keep smelling as sweet to Republicans who want a candidate with a shot at defeating Obama.
Many long distance runner champions have shared their strategy of remaining a few steps behind the leader for most of the race only to wait for the frontrunner to stumble or fatigue in the final laps and then sprint ahead. Not only does the current frontrunner have to contend with a pool of rivals elbowing each other to fill the Anti-Romney majority niche in the party, but even if those guys keep dividing that vote, the Mittster may, after Tuesday night, have to look over his shoulder at another candidate whose gambit is not to become the Anti-Romney, but, more like a stalker, to become Mitt Romney (or, better said, supplant his position in the contest).
The Field projects Mitt Romney to come in first in the New Hampshire primary, but finds the contests for second and third place more interesting, reminding that they have been more significant at "picking presidents" in recent decades.
Meet Jon Huntsman. He’s kind of like Romney except that he’s smarter, more agile, and more genuine than Romney. Not that that's a particularly difficult thing to be. Most human beings are. But Huntsman happens to be a candidate on the ballot competing with Romney. He may flop on Tuesday night or he may hit that sweet spot that others before him reached with a second place or strong third place finish. If the latter happens, Romney will then have two flanks to defend in the upcoming primaries and caucuses - something that for him would require from Mitt the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time, not a skill we've yet seen from him - which is more precarious a balancing act than simply having to keep the Anti-Romney field populous, divided and SuperPACed in a big money Whack-a-Mole game of pounding the hammer on the head of whichever one takes the lead at any moment.
It’s the sort of dynamic that, if it happens – and it is entirely plausible, although no sure thing, that it can – would make Romney’s tenuous hold on the “inevitable” armor more vulnerable with each passing day.