The importance of fundamentals for a stable nomination race
Mar 31, 2012

The importance of fundamentals for a stable nomination race

For any analyst, covering this GOP Presidential Nominee race is a humbling experience. Almost everybody - myself included - has made bad predictions. It has been so wildly unpredictable and erratic experiencing swings up and down in the polls for almost every candidate. While the eventual winner, Mitt Romney, has long been relatively clear, exactly how the race would pan out and who would be the final "not Romney" was not at all clear and almost nobody could have predicted the meteoric rise and fall of someone like Herman Cain in the middle.

As the primary season moves into its finishing legs, it seems we might finally be able to speak with some certainty. The pecking order has been fairly constant for almost two months: Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, and then a distant Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. Delegate math indicates that Mitt Romney is almost a lock to be able to either win before the convention or be sufficiently close that it will be an easy win after the convention. There may still be some surprises, but I think it is relatively stable. As such, it is time for us to turn our gaze backwards and try to understand exactly what happened. Namely, why was this race so unpredictable for so long, and why is it stable now?

Classical political science dictates that the population is differentiated into various groups that tend to vote largely as blocks. Each of the groups picks up a candidate of their choosing who represents them and it is largely a demographic contest with the battle occurring in the swing voters and people in the overlaps between various group. The Republican Party base has, conventionally, had precisely such demographic blocks. Namely, it has the evangelicals who make up some 40% of the GOP primary voters, who push very hard for far right social conservatism, and the relatively more moderate establishment. In the 2008 race, for instance, the final three was Mitt Romney and John McCain who represent the moderate establishment, and Mike Huckabee who represents the social conservatives. A small portion of the party has libertarian leanings and vote for the Ron Pauls and Gary Johnsons of the world.

Throughout much of the 2012 race, however, this dichotomy was not manifest in the various candidates. Take Herman Cain or Newt Gingrich. Neither of these candidates has a real demographic constituency. For the most part their rise and fall was entirely determined by their unique personalities. Herman Cain had his eccentric 9-9-9 plan and simplistic charm, Newt Gingrich the pseudo-intellectual self styled historian debater. It is not a coincidence that these two candidates who are the most personality based and least based in a fixed ideological or demographic base are the ones who experienced the greatest of the up and down swings in the race. Contrast this with a candidate like Ron Paul who is entirely stable because of his close ties to his ideological base.

Further complicating matters was the issue of the Tea Party. When the Tea Party broke onto the political scene in a big way in 2010, it was painted by some (on both the right and the left) as transformational. I always felt that it was much more benign and really was just a re-branding of the standard schism within the Republican party. Indeed, as time went on the Tea Party left its original roots fighting against the particularly noxious mixture of big corporate money and big governance to more standard evangelical concerns like a militant stance on abortion. However, in the middle there was a lot of confusion over just exactly what the Tea Party was and, as such, who exactly might represent it. In some ways, the Sarah Palin/Michele Bachmann version of the Tea Party was simply taking the same types of people with the same mix of values and issues they care about but giving a new type of personality that would lead it.

Because of the confusion with the Tea Party, we got many different candidates aiming to represent the Tea Party who, ultimately, were all unsuccessful. While Rick Santorum's base undoubtedly overlaps with whatever the Tea Party was or is, almost all pundits have dropped the term "Tea Party candidate" from Rick Santorum and have reverted back to the original dichotomy of his appeal with social and evangelical conservatives. I have previously written that this indicated the declining significance of the Tea Party movement.

My claim is this: when a race has candidates with the correct fundamentals - that is, each candidate has a certain base within the party that they have distinct appeal to - then the race is a stable one and a demographic projection is a reasonable thing to do. When the race has many candidates that are not based in fundamentals, and are representing unorthodox views or have eccentric personality traits that result in their popularity, then the race is very chaotic and unpredictable. Indeed, in this race we have seen that when there were many candidates the later case was true and we had an unprecedentedly chaotic race. However, when it dwindled to a Mitt Romney vs Rick Santorum race where both represented clear segments of the party the race became far more stable.

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