Where does the race for the Republican nomination stand? What are the chances of a brokered convention? And, who has the best odds against President Barack Obama? The Marist Poll’s John Sparks visits with Marist Poll Analyst and syndicated political columnist Carl Leubsdorf who writes a weekly column for The Dallas Morning News about this and more.
Listen to the interview below.
Carl, where do you think things stand on a Republican nominee at this point?
Well, I think the Republican race is much more uncertain than we thought it would be at this stage. The general assumption was that Mitt Romney was a reasonably strong frontrunner and would show that, but he’s proved to be a weaker front-runner than many people anticipated. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with his campaign, and his campaign is well run. He’s got lots of money. In fact, his money has saved him so far. He has two big problems.
One is that the dominant conservative wing of the party has never quite accepted him as one of theirs. Romney keeps insisting he’s a conservative, but the problem is that he wasn’t always a conservative. He was pretty moderate when he ran against Ted Kennedy for the Massachusetts’ Senate race in ’94. He was pro choice. He was in favor of doing positive things for the gay and lesbian community. He at one point was a registered independent. He voted for Democrat Paul Tsongas in the ’92 Democratic Presidential Primary and was critical of President Reagan. So, his conservatism is rather recent and to some critics in the party is something that he’s acquired for purposes of running for president.
His other problem is he’s just not an effective candidate. He has trouble when he gets off his script. He doesn’t mesh with real people too well, and he has a tendency to say some odd things. He was last week, for example, in Michigan and talking about his affinity for Michigan, the state in which he grew upin. He said he loved Michigan. He said he loved its trees. They’re the right height. Now, what in the devil does that mean? He talks not like a real person sometimes, so he’s had a lot of trouble there.
The real fight in the party has been: Who is the conservative opponent for Romney? That’s sort of been going on from the beginning and, as we know dating back to last summer, we’ve had a whole string of pretenders [sic], various Republican contenders — Michele Bachmann; Governor Perry of Texas, Herman Cain soar to the top of the Republican race then in December, Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House. About the only one who didn’t was Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania Senator and who was plotting along working in Iowa, visiting every country there. But in the end, the conservatives in Iowa sort of solidified around Santorum. On the night of the caucuses, it appeared he had lost narrowly there, but when they finally counted all the votes, he in fact beat Mitt Romney there. It’s been a peculiar race though. Then Mitt Romney won in New Hampshire where he has a summer home, and it’s adjacent to Massachusetts where he was a governor. He looked like he was on the right track, but then in South Carolina, a state that every Republican nominee has won since they started their primary in 1980, Newt Gingrich beat Romney rather decisively. The following week in Florida, Romney turned the tables on Gingrich. Meanwhile, Santorum was sort of finishing well back in the pack in some of those states. Well he was working in some of the caucus states rather than the primary states, which it’s a lot cheaper to run there, and they’re the kinds of situations dominated by the more conservative wing of the party. And on Tuesday two weeks ago, he scored three victories which have catapulted him into the lead in the national — in most national Republican polls. It was an odd set of races. One was Missouri, a non-binding primary where he won quite easily. The other were two caucus states which Romney had won four years ago, and that I think explains why these had such a big impact. One was Minnesota where Governor Romney had the support of the state’s former governor and one of its leading Republicans, Tim Pawlenty, and Santorum won there. And the other is Colorado, not considered as conservative a state, a state with quite a few Mormons in it as Romney is, and Santorum won that too. So, it really turned the race upside down. It established Santorum as the main rival to Romney. And in Michigan, that is next week we have two primaries, in Michigan and in Arizona, and the major test is Michigan, the state in which Governor Romney grew up in and where his father was a popular Republican governor in the ’60s, and every poll so far shows, Santorum leading there. So, if Santorum would actually beat Romney in Michigan that would really turn this race upside down. Romney could no longer be considered the front-runner, and it would really set Santorum with a real chance of becoming the nominee, but that hasn’t happened yet.
So, that’s a long version of where things stand.
Listen to Part 2:
If something like that does happen, looking down the road, where do you think the tides might turn for a candidate? In Texas, the primary has been delayed until probably late May. Could Texas be a decider?
Texas, I mean… And actually, I think Santorum would probably like to have Texas sooner rather than later because there’s a new poll put out by the Texas Tribune and the University of Texas that shows Santorum with a rather substantial lead. Remember this: The Texas Republican Party is very conservative. In the primary for governor last year where Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison challenged Governor Perry, Hutchison got 30% of the vote, Perry got 50% of the vote, and a Tea Party candidate got 20% of the vote. That means that 70% of the votes cast were cast for very conservative candidates. So, this is not a good — Texas is not a good state for Romney. He’s probably just as well for the primary has been delayed indefinitely.
What happens after next Tuesday, and I mentioned that Arizona is also voting next Tuesday, its rivals have pretty much conceded that to Governor Romney. So whatever happens, he’ll have a victory, but if he only wins Michigan – – wins Arizona and doesn’t win Michigan, it will be something of a hollow victory because the real fight is in Michigan. The week after that we have so called “Super Tuesday” with a whole bunch of primaries. Some are in states like Massachusetts where Governor Romney almost certainly is going to be the winner, but in states like Tennessee and Oklahoma and Georgia, Newt Gingrich’s home state, so it’s going to be a very interesting day and not a great day probably for Romney. His next big stand would probably come on the 20th of March in Illinois, the kind of state that Romney as a more moderate Northern candidate ought to be — have a good chance in. But, as I say, if Romney loses in Michigan next week, all bets are off.
Listen to Part 3:
Carl, could it be that we could head into the National Convention and see a brokered convention if things keep flip-flopping?
Well let me approach that in a couple of ways because every time we have one of these fights and it looks a little bit inconclusive, the first words that come out are “brokered convention.” First of all, it’s not clear who would broker a convention because the idea that candidates who have run for months and months and years in some cases would suddenly say, “Okay, we’re deadlocked, let’s like let a bunch of party leaders who’ve been on the sidelines decide it.” It ain’t[sic] going to happen that way. That’s not how it works. To have a brokered convention, you probably need three, at least three candidates with substantial number of delegates. Now the problem in the Republican Party now is that there are four candidates still staying in the race, and one of the issues will be whether in addition to Santorum and Romney, the other two candidates, Gingrich and Ron Paul, continue to acquire delegates. That’s not at all certain. Someone did a study, and they said that if Romney won the rest of the primaries with 49%, he wouldn’t win enough delegates to be nominated till June. If one of these candidates starts winning more decisively, they will not be getting 49% of the votes, they’ll be getting 59% and 69%, and they will be getting well over half of the delegates in most of these races. Gingrich, for example, has got to make a showing on Super Tuesday with races in Georgia and Tennessee. I haven’t seen any Georgia polls, but, in Tennessee, the last poll I saw had Santorum up by a pretty substantial margin. Gingrich’s only hope is that his principal financial supporter, Mr. Adelson out in Las Vegas, is planning to spend a lot of money in his behalf. That might help keep him in, but he is — he looks like the guy on the outside now as Santorum and Romney are fighting, and Ron Paul is sort of working along the fringes in smaller states. He will continue to get delegates, but it’s not clear how many delegates. So, that’s the first thing. There has to be three candidates getting delegates because otherwise the leading candidate, assuming there becomes a leading candidate, will begin to pile up delegates at a big pace.
If one of the candidates has a substantial lead, but it doesn’t quite get to the figure over 1,100 that they need to be nominated, the first thing that would probably happen is that that candidate would try to make an accommodation with one of the other candidates to get some of his delegates. As I say, the idea that Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum and Ron Paul and maybe Newt Gingrich after running all year would suddenly step in the sidelines and let former Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi or Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana try to decide the nominee, it just doesn’t happen.
Now the other possibility is that another candidate comes into the race. There are a number of primaries where the deadlines have not yet been reached and where a candidate could come in. Now that’s very hard to do. There’ve been a number of examples. It’s very interesting. The pattern of this race is beginning to resemble two past races of recent years in which there was an insurgency against a rather weak establishment candidate. One was 1964 when Barry Goldwater was running against Nelson Rockefeller for the Republican nomination. One was 1972 where George McGovern was challenging Senator Ed Muskie for the Democratic nomination on the Vietnam War issue. In both cases another candidate did come in. As Muskie began to collapse in ’72, the party leadership encouraged Hubert Humphrey, the former vice president, to get into the race, and he carried the race all the way to the convention but did not win. In 1964 when the Rockefeller candidacy faltered and it appeared that Goldwater was going to get nominated, a number of the party leaders got behind Governor Scranton of Pennsylvania and got him into the race in the last month, and that went nowhere. Goldwater had enough delegates and was nominated. So, you could get another candidate in. You could get party leaders to trying to do something, but there’s no guarantee that they would derail some arrangement among the top candidates. The danger here is that if the more ideological candidate gets nominated, and that would be Santorum in this case, the danger is that that candidate often has a more difficult time winning the general election. Goldwater carried six states against Lyndon Johnson, and McGovern carried one state in the District of Columbia against Richard Nixon. Now, this election won’t be that one-sided in any case. The Republicans will certainly win a certain number of states in the South and in the mountain area, and the Democrats will certainly will win a bunch of states in the Northeast, but what looks on paper to be a close race might not be so close if the Republicans nominate a candidate who drives away independent voters.
Listen to Part 4:
As Republicans continue to battle in public, isn’t the real winner sitting in the White House sitting on his $76 million in campaign funds waiting for the general election?
Sure. As I said, the battle — the real key to this election are the independents. The Democrats are 90% for Obama, and the Republicans are 90% for whichever one of these candidates gets nominated, but the different tallies show different numbers among the independents. Most of the discussion of that until very recently had to do with Romney versus Gingrich and that Romney was a better candidate against the independents, for the independents, being more moderate than Gingrich. It’s more complicated with Santorum because on one hand, he seems to have definite appeal to blue collar voters, what we call the “Reagan Democrats,” the people who were union people and of ethnic origin who had been traditional Democrats but were fairly conservative on social issues and began to vote Republican often starting with President Reagan, but there’s another group of independents, and those are the suburban independents. I always like to call them the “Clinton Republicans.” They probably voted for Reagan in the ’80s, but they then voted for Bill Clinton in the ’90s, and they voted for Al Gore, and they certainly voted for Obama, and they’re not as conservative on the social issues. And if the Republicans have a candidate who stresses social issues, like Santorum, he’s going to have a lot trouble with the suburban voters in major states.
The White House likes this. The White House has been planning all along for a race against Romney. You know, Romney is still the more likely candidate, but he has shown his weakness steadily through this race, but they’re also beginning to consider what would happen if Santorum were the candidate. They haven’t done much about that yet. There’s a lot of material on Santorum, especially from his unsuccessful re-election race in Pennsylvania in 2006 against Bob Casey, a conservative Democrat. Lots of material from there that has not been used so far, which the Democrats have. So, a lot of that will depend on what happens here. The White House is quite happy for the Republicans to be fighting among themselves, using up their financial resources, and the fact that the campaign has taken on such a negative tone among these candidates, especially in the television commercials. So, the White House is quite pleased through this. In the meantime, the economy has gotten somewhat better, and so, it looks like President Obama’s situation politically is somewhat better than it was last year. That doesn’t mean he’s yet a strong favorite to win, it still looks like a close race, but more and more people who follow this are thinking that Obama’s chances are beginning to edge above the 50% mark.
Listen to Part 5:
Interesting that you mention independents. Twenty years ago, Ross Perot launched his presidential bid as a third party candidate. Last week, Tom Friedman was talking about that and suggesting maybe the time was now ripe for an independent candidate, a third party candidate. Any chance of something like that happening?
There has been a group called “Americans Elect” that is talking about getting a ballot space in every state with the idea of having an Internet primary and putting a candidate on the ballot. The problem with this is they don’t at this point have a candidate, and most American third party movements have been driven not by parties but by candidates. For example, when Ross Perot decided to run for president 20 years ago, he created the mechanism to get on the ballot. It wasn’t like there was a party out there that nominated Ross Perot, and the same thing happened in 1968 when former Governor George Wallace of Alabama ran as an independent candidate for president. So this Americans Elect group so far does not have a candidate. I’ve noticed over the weekend there is one person who has emerged who might try to win that nomination. His name is David Walker. He’s not known at all. He’s a deficit hawk who was the comptroller general of the United States, which is a bookkeeping job pretty much in the government, and he’s been a big advocate of cutting the deficit and taking stern measures and not — to deal with the deficit issue. So he might be a candidate for that, but I think it’s going to be very difficult for a third party candidate to be in this race.
Carl, in 1992 when Perot ran, the clear loser was an incumbent president, George H. W. Bush. If a third party candidate were to emerge, who would be most likely to be vulnerable?
I think probably if someone ran on a deficit cutting ticket that it would probably hurt President Obama more than the Republican candidate. It’s interesting, Alan Lichtman, the Professor of history at American University who developed a system for judging president races, has what he calls “13 Keys to the Presidency.” And if a certain number turn against the president, the incumbent president he’ll lose. And he became very famous about 20 years ago because one he was one of the early people who fingered George H.W. Bush as a loser in 1992 as he turned out to be, and one of his keys is a third party candidacy, a third party candidacy in his system hurts the incumbent. Again, it really depends how many votes the… you could say that the Ralph Nader candidacy, which is, of course, Nader has run several times, in 2000 defeated Al Gore because Nader got enough votes in New Hampshire, presumably mostly from liberals, that it was more than the difference by which Gore lost the state to George W. Bush. And without Nader in the race, Gore probably would’ve carried New Hampshire, and that would’ve been enough to win that very close election. So in that, he was running as the candidate of the incumbent party. So I think a centrist independent is bad for Obama. On the other hand, if say — and there’s no sign of this at point, suppose Mitt Romney wins the Republican nomination, and a group of conservatives get together and say, “He’s too moderate for us, we want a conservative candidate,” and they run a conservative candidate as a third party candidate and get on ballot, that would obviously hurt the Republicans.
Listen to Part 6:
If you just have a Republican versus the President in November, who’s the best candidate? Who prevails if it’s Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, or even Ron Paul? Who do you think has the best chance?
Well, I think the assumption all along has been that Romney would have the best chance basically because he’s more moderate than the others. He would have a better chance of getting independent votes, and most of the polling until now has shown that. Now interestingly, some of the more recent polling has shown Santorum’s chances are almost as good, and the places where Santorum would challenge Obama more may be somewhat different from the states where Romney would. Romney, a lot of people, more moderate voters, probably don’t believe Romney’s conversion to conservatism like the more conservative Republicans who don’t believe it either and might vote for him on that basis. Now he says he’ll have a very conservative presidency and has listed some of the positions he’ll take, and then that’s always a danger that the zeal of the newly converted is greater than that of the traditional holder of the views. George W. Bush ran as something of a moderate personality in 2000, but he said he would name Supreme Court justices like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, and he named two very conservative Supreme Court justices. So, you got to be careful of what you wish for, it may not be what the candidate will advocate.
But at the moment, Romney looks stronger, but he’s got a lot of flaws as a candidate. For example, you would think that he would be able to take advantage of the bad economy in a place like Michigan, his home state because of him being a businessman, but he opposed the bailout of the auto companies which has been spectacularly successful and has saved General Motors and Chrysler, and he’s still arguing that it was a bad idea. That’s hurting him in Michigan. Heck, it’s hurting him against Santorum in the primary even though they both had the same position, partly because Romney was in favor of the bank bailout but against the auto bailout whereas Santorum was much more consistent. He was against both of them. So, I still think Romney is (a) the more likely nominee and (b) the stronger general election candidate, but he’s been hurt a lot by the race so far.
Carl, it’s always a pleasure. I’ll be watching with interest, as I know you will, and look forward to visiting with you again real soon.
Happy to do it, and it’s just been a fascinating race and much more than we could’ve bargained for.