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News from the Votemaster

Romney's Choice     Permalink

As the implosion of Herman Cain continues, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney is just lying in the weeds waiting for Cain to exit stage right. Cain never had a chance at the nomination (because the Republican establishment would never tolerate a candidate who would be crushed in the general election) anyway but recent news about what he did or did not do as chairman of the National Restaurant Association a decade ago put the final nail in his coffin. He may or may not have done anything seriously wrong as chairman, but he has handled the scandal terribly. One report said that he told one of his female employees that she was the same height as his wife and she got all bent out of shape about this. If his offense was merely saying things, as opposed to touching things, he probably could have admitted it now, said he was sorry, and moved on. Bill Clinton survived much worse behavior. Of course, if he did more than just talk inappropriately, probably nothing could have saved him. But he is now in a completely hopeless position, with all the news about the scandal. Everyone has already forgotten his 9-9-9 plan. This is not a good place to be--unless he is really running for a show on Fox News--which is a realistic goal.

All this puts Romney in an interesting position and forces him to make a choice where there was previously no choice. Simply put: Should Romney compete in the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3? Up until now, it was a given that he would lose Iowa to Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX), Cain, or some other far-right candidate. His strategy was to win big in the New Hampshire primary (Jan. 10), try to avoid losing too badly in South Carolina (Jan. 21), and then blanket the great swing state of Florida with TV ads in advance of its Jan. 31 primary, despite this date being in violation of Republican National Committee rules.

Cain's stumbles have changed the situation for Romney. Although he is not at all popular with the conservative evangelical voters who dominate the Iowa Republican caucuses, what are they going to do? Bachmann and Perry surged and then faded and now Cain awaits the same fate. The activists there are surely going to caucus, but who to vote for? There is still former House Speaker Newt Gingrich or former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, but so far neither of them has taken off (although with Cain in trouble, conceivably one of them could catch on). As usual, Ron Paul will raise lots of money and get 10% of the vote, but he is just a sideshow. If Romney makes a serious effort to win Iowa, he might get 25% of the vote. But in a deeply flawed field, that might be enough to win and all the headlines the next day will be "Romney Wins Iowa." Followed by a big win in New Hampshire, he might even win South Carolina and then carpet bomb Florida into submission followed by a win in Mormon-heavy Nevada (Feb. 4). At that point the media might declare the race over and Romney the nominee. From there he would cruise to the nomination and the general election campaign would begin in early February.

So why wouldn't Romney do this? In a word (actually, in a number): 2008. In the previous presidential election, Romney got 25% of the vote--about what he might get this time--but lost to former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who got 34%. if Romney were to compete this year and lose, he would be seriously damaged. If he doesn't compete and loses, he can brush it off by saying: "I didn't even campaign there, so how could you expect me to win?"

So it looks that there are four possible scenarios with respect to Iowa:

     - Romney competes and wins: Romney coasts to the nomination
     - Romney competes and loses: Romney is hurt badly and has to struggle for months
     - Romney skips Iowa and wins anyway: the race is over and Romney is the nominee
     - Romney skips Iowa and loses: minor damage, but nothing serious

No doubt his handlers are talking day and night about these possible paths.

How long the nomination battle goes on is important. First, if it is all over but the shouting by mid-February, then Romney does not have to waste much money on primary battles. This is clearly very important since President Obama is probably going to raise between $500 million and $1 billion for his campaign. If Romney has to burn all the money he raises until mid- or late Spring on primaries, he will be at a huge financial disadvantage during the general election.

Second--and this is probably crucial--Romney will never be popular with the tea party voters or evangelicals, many of whom don't think Mormons are Christians. Whenever Romney seals the deal, there will be a lot of PUMA (Party Unity My Ass) voters making noise, just as there were Hillary Clinton voters doing the same thing after Obama's victory in June 2008. Many of them will be hoping for a third-party candidate (like Ron Paul) but if none shows up, what are they going to do? Probably sulk for a while, but eventually come around to supporting Romney out of hatred for Obama. But it matters a lot if the race is over in February and there is no serious alternative versus a long drawn-out battle with Romney eking out victory after victory with 25-30% of the vote each time. That's not exactly a mandate and will not encourage his opponents to jump on the bandwagon because there will not be a bandwagon.

Thus Romney's choice now is to really compete in Iowa and hope for a quick kill (with the downside being serious damage) or play it safe and skip Iowa and risk a months-long battle, primarily with Perry, who has already raised enough money to get him through Super Tuesday, where Southern states could give him a real boost.

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