How the GOP candidates choose who to attack
Feb 27, 2012

How the GOP candidates choose who to attack


Ron Paul:
There has been a lot of buzz recently about the fact that Ron Paul, while viscously attacking his other opponents, seems to give Mitt Romney a free pass. And vice versa. ThinkProgress has a count which shows that Ron Paul has, despite 20 debates and 39 attacks on other candidates, has not once attacked Romney. His advertising has been targeted at Santorum and Gingrich even in states like Michigan that Paul has no hope in. 

Why would Ron Paul give Mitt Romney such a free pass? First we need to recognize that Ron Paul is not running to be the President of the United States. He has no shot of that, and knows it. He is running to promote his libertarian views, values, and ideology as well as to build his brand to pass on to his son Rand Paul. It is about shifting the conversation and creating a counter movement that may become strong enough to affect policy. There is real value in this and while I disagree with Ron Paul on many issues, there is nothing ignoble about his goal. 

The best way for Ron Paul to accomplish this, is to get a lot of prominence in the GOP race. This is why he is winning in the first place, and the better he does the better he accomplishes his goals. In a race that has perennially pitted the frontrunner Mitt Romney against the not-Romney favour of the month, the best way to get attention is to be that not-Romney candidate. An amazing result would be for him to have won or come second in a few early contests and then had the rest of the primaries be a Ron Paul vs Mitt Romney showdown. As is, with him being 3rd or 4th in terms of polls (and a distant fourth in terms of possible expectations), he gets relatively little attention; certainly nothing like what the various runner ups like Santorum or Gingrich get when they are surging. 

In order to be the not-Romney in the race, in order to be the person that Romney has to beat in state after state and thus to be the one that the media follows, Ron Paul needs to beat out Santorum and Gingrich for that status. As such, it is entirely logical that he uses his resources (time in debates, money for advertising) attacking first Gingrich and then Santorum depending on who is surging. Attacking Romney gains him nothing. Hence the asymmetry. 

Doing this can also buy Ron Paul a little bit of protection from Mitt Romney's monstrous financial weapons. Should Ron Paul devote energies into attacking Romney, Romney would be almost forced to retaliate which would hurt Ron Paul. As long as neither attacks the other, neither gets hurt and so the Nash equilibrium is for both to do nothing. Various theories about a possible deal with Rand Paul and the like seem to be entirely unsubstantiated and Occam's illustrious razor seems to dismiss them given the logic of this more compelling reason. 


Mitt Romney:
Conversely, Romney also has no reason to attack Ron Paul. He needs to focus on staying ahead of whoever the relevant not-Romney is: at the moment, Rick Santorum. As such, all energies are devoted to attacking Santorum as they previously were on Gingrich. Attacking the greatest threat makes sense. The best situation for Romney is one where the not-Romneys are all divided and don't coalesce around one candidate. It is thus in his best interests to ignore Ron Paul or even help Ron Paul to keep him relevant and stealing votes from the others. 


Rick Santorum:
As this month's not-Romney, all of Santorum's energies are focused on Romney. To win he needs momentum in Michigan and in Super Tuesday. That is, he has to beat out Romney. Especially with limited resources, defending his rear from Paul and Gingrich  makes little sense.


Newt Gingrich:
Gingrich is in probably the most interesting spot in terms of trying to devise a good strategy. There is no point in attacking Paul, but there is value in attacking both Romney and Santorum, the latter because he needs to beat out Santorum to get into the runner up status, and the former because at some point he actually was to win versus the front runner Romney. How best to distribute resources doesn't have the same kind of obvious game theory conclusion the other candidates have. 

Complicating the situation for Gingrich is that the financial side of his candidacy is almost entirely dependent on enormous contributions from Sheldon Adelson (who owns Israel's largest right leaning daily). He has apparently just pledged to donate even more. There has been some speculation that this would only occur on condition that Gingrich only use the money to attack Santorum (thereby effectively helping Romney). To what extent these conditions are true, and thus to what extent Gingrich focuses on Santorum or Romney, remains to be seen. 


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