Romney: nominee by default?

I’ve written before about how weak and divided the republican presidential field is at the moment. It seems, however, that there’s a new media narrative going around at the moment: that most of the heavyweights will stay out of the race, leaving the 2012 primary battle to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich… and a handful of people that analysts agree are no-hopers, like Ambassador to China and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, former Ambassador to the UN John Bolton, former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer and former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee looks more and more likely to stay out of the race. Sarah Palin (who needs no introduction)? Who knows, but it increasingly seems like the establishment and the right-wing press have turned against her, meaning that while she could do well in primaries, she would probably have little chance of winning the nomination. We may also have another far-right candidate like Reps. Michele Bachmann and/or Steve King, but neither of those two individuals will come anywhere close to being the republican nominee. Oh, and then there’s Donald Trump, who’s about as likely to become president as I am.

With that in mind, Mitt Romney is the clear frontrunner, with the most establishment support, the best organisation and the most money. But could he win, bearing in mind his moderate record as governor and his frankly rather liberal positions back in the 1990s? I’m not just talking about his passing healthcare reform (‘Romneycare’) in Massachusetts – I’m also talking about his past support for abortion and gay rights when he ran for the Senate in 1994 against Ted Kennedy, best illustrated by this wonderful video:

Conventional wisdom would suggest that all of the anti-Romney forces would eventually coalesce around a candidate to the right of the former Massachusetts governor, who would go on to win the nomination. That could very well be Tim Pawlenty, who has low visibility at the moment but lots of money, a promising campaign staff, and a lot of goodwill from the establishment – Pawlenty talks like a moderate, but is actually quite conservative on both economic and social issues, and is an evangelical Christian. It could also be Newt Gingrich, who’s said some very repulsive things about the current president, Muslims and other people and groups in recent months.

At the same time, though, consider 2008. John McCain was seen as the ‘moderate’ candidate who could not be trusted by the right. Yet he still managed to trounce more conservative opponents in ’08, and win the nomination surprisingly early. And Romney has been even more deft than John McCain in flip-flopping on past statements and talking like a true red-blooded conservative – perhaps best illustrated by the title of his 2010 book, “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness“. While there’s still time for someone more authentically conservative, with enough establishment support and money to have a serious shot at the nomination, yet without the total lack of charisma from which Tim Pawlenty suffers, to enter the race, Ross Douthat argues in the New York Times that this might just be one of those elections where the best candidates decide not to take the plunge, and the GOP ends up with a lacklustre nominee:

…sometimes the “person who can win” decides not to run, and you’re left to choose between people who can’t. The last time the Republicans made big gains in the mid-term elections [1994] and then faced a vulnerable-but-formidable Democratic incumbent two years later, they found themselves choosing between Bob Dole, Lamar Alexander and Pat Buchanan in the primaries, while figures like Colin Powell and Dick Cheney (now there would have been a primary campaign!) stayed on the sidelines. It could happen again: Just because the Republicans seem to need a better candidate than Mitt Romney doesn’t mean they’ll get one.

I think that’s right. And while I still have trouble seeing how republicans could possibly nominate Mitt Romney, I have even more trouble imagining any of the other probable candidates winning their party’s nomination. So, right now, it’s Romney – unless Mike Huckabee proves the pundits wrong and decides to actually run.

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Newt Gingrich is running for president

It seems that, after the announcement from former pizza exec Herman Cain that he’s setting up a presidential exporatory committee, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is doing the same:

The 2012 Republican race for president has a second candidate! According to “confidants close to the former House speaker”… Newt Gingrich will announce his decision to form a presidential exploratory committee by the end of this week…

Newt Gingrich was once the most important republican in politics, as leader of his party in the House of Representatives. But he’s been out of elective politics for over ten years. And while he’s undoubtedly an intelligent and brilliant man who’s managed to stay in the public eye despite more than a decade out of office, he’s also been married three times (never a good way to connect with those religious conservatives), and divorced his ex-wife while she was in the hospital recovering from cancer. That’s John Edwards-style behaviour that would be unacceptable from a democrat.

However, his history of bigoted, populist comments may prove more damaging in an election against President Obama, even if they serve him well in a republican primary. Media Matters has a good selection of some of his worst recent utterings:

A June 16, 1995,Washington Post article reported that Gingrich, in a discussion with black journalists, stated that the failure of poor black people to acquire wealth was in part due to their “habits.”

A January 19, 1995, New York Times article reported on concerns about women in military combat roles that Gingrich had raised while teaching a history course at Georgia’s Reinhardt College… The Times reported that Gingrich told his students that “females have biological problems staying in a ditch for 30 days because they get infections…”

On the November 14, 2008, edition of Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor, Gingrich stated… “I think there is a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us, is prepared to use violence, to use harassment.”

And so on and so forth. I’m not convinced that American journalists are hard-working and courageous enough to actually call Gingrich on his public nastiness. But I do think that, while many Southern and rural white voters won’t see a problem with many of the things that Gingrich has said, minority voters and educated whites will be disgusted enough by the man’s comments to turn out in bigger numbers than usual to ensure that he doesn’t get elected to the White House. Even Sarah Palin hasn’t said anything remotely as bigoted, even if she’s spouted some crazy nonsense at times. Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney are practically democrats in comparison.

This is all, of course, assuming that a thrice-divorced overweight man who’s been out of politics for more than ten years can win the republican nomination.

The electoral college explained: how America chooses its presidents

I’ve tended to comment on current affairs on this blog, writing relatively few longer, analytical posts about issues. That’s obviously a mistake, but it’s due to the time constraints I’ve had of late, especially with my recent move to Brussels and search for an apartment (and a pretty nasty cold and fever on top of that).

So I thought that I’d finally get around to doing something worthwhile: the first in a series of explanations of the American political system to both foreigners (the majority of my readers, I think) and people more generally who pay little attention to the intricacies of US politics. And what better way to start than the way America elects its presidents?

Unlike most countries with presidential systems, America does not, in fact, directly elect its head of state. What? The appearance of a presidential election every four years in which Americans across the country vote would seem to suggest the contrary. Yet things are in fact far more complicated, as we saw just over ten years ago when Al Gore won half a million more votes than George W. Bush, yet lost the election to his adversary.

The system that actually exists in the United States is one of an electoral college indirectly electing the president, as is set out in Article II, Section I, Clause II of the US Constitution:

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or Person holding an Office of Trust or Profit under the United States, shall be appointed an Elector.

That might sound like nonsense to most people, but it’s actually extremely logical – it just requires a basic understanding of the federal legislature. Like most modern democracies, the United States has three branches of government (legislative, executive and judicial). The legislative branch is represented by a Congress comprised of two houses – the House of Representatives and the Senate. Many other countries have bicameral systems like this one, though the US is one of the rare few to give equal powers to both houses.

Under the terms of the Connecticut Compromise, the two houses were designed to represent different constituencies. One, the Senate, would give equal weight to every single state (with two senators per state), while the House would represent the people, with the number of representatives per state determined by population. Since the Reapportionment Act of 1929, there have been 435 members of the House, divided among the 50 states on the basis of the most recent census (held every ten years); since 1959, when Hawaii became a state, there have been 100 members of the Senate (once again, two per state).

What this means, going back to the Constitution, is that every state has a certain number of presidential electors, based on its representation in both houses. In 2008, the most recent presidential election, California had 55 electors, because it is represented by 53 members of the House and 2 senators; Alaska, on the other hand, had 3 electors, corresponding to its sole congressperson and its two senators. These electors, who number 538 in total (435 representatives, 100 senators, and 3 electoral votes for Washington, DC, which lacks congressional representation but which has a vote in presidential elections since the ratification of the 23rd Amendment in 1961), pick the president every four years.

How are these electors chosen? Well, theoretically, a state can choose to pick its electors however it likes. In 1789, the first presidential election, won by George Washington, four states allowed their state legislatures to pick electors, one left it up to the governor, while the others had some form of popular vote, either by district or state-wide. Right up until the Civil War, South Carolina still left it up to its state legislature to pick determine its electoral college vote.

Today, however, every state lets its residents (or, rather, US citizens registered to vote in the state) choose its electors. What does that mean, exactly? Well, let’s take Florida. Florida has 25 representatives and 2 senators, giving it 27 electoral college votes (though that will change in the 2012 election, following the recent census). When a Floridian goes to the polls, he will have in front of him a ballot that looks a bit like this:

Looks simple, right? Just pick the presidential ticket (presidential and vice-presidential candidates) that you’d most like to see running the country for the next four years. What actually happens is somewhat different, however.

When a Floridian picks one of the duos on the ballot above, he actually chooses a list of electors picked by the campaign of the candidates in question. So, for example, Barack Obama picked 27 candidates for elector who would vote for him in the electoral college. Their names are not on the ballot, though they are publicly available. But should Obama win Florida (which he did in 2008), his 27 candidates would be chosen as Florida’s electors in the 2008 presidential election.

What that means is that you effectively have 51 (50 states plus DC) separate elections, with each state choosing a ‘slate’ (list) of electors who will then vote for the president. Almost all states (Maine and Nebraska being the exceptions) attribute these electors on a ‘winner-takes-all’ basis, meaning that the ticket winning the most votes in the state wins all of the state’s electoral votes. Going back to Florida as an example, Barack Obama’s 50.92% of the vote in that state meant that he won all of the state’s 27 electoral votes, while John McCain won Missouri’s 11 electoral votes (to take another example) by beating Obama 49.43% to 49.29%.

Sounds complicated, doesn’t it? Well, let’s forget the electors for a second, and just think of states representing a block of votes in the electoral college. New York is worth 31 votes, while Texas is worth 34. Barack Obama won a majority of the popular vote in New York, meaning that he won that state’s electoral votes, while John McCain won Texas and its 34 electoral college votes. Add up all of the state-wide totals, and you have the Obama-Biden ticket triumphing with 365 votes to McCain-Palin’s 173.

That’s not a big deal, as long as the electoral vote winner and the popular vote winner are the same person – though Obama won nearly 68% of the electoral college votes with only 52.9% of the popular vote (the total of all of the votes cast by US citizens in the 50 states plus DC). However, the system has several inherent flaws. For one thing, because of the way electoral votes are apportioned, small states have disproportionate power compared to their population – Wyoming has roughly 188,000 residents per elector, compared to California’s 677,000. Secondly, since most states clearly favour one party or another (Minnesota last voted for a republican in 1972, while Alaska only gave its electoral college vote to a democrat once, in 1964), a few ‘swing states’ like Ohio, Florida or Colorado essentially make all of the difference. Finally, the national popular vote actually matters surprisingly little – as Al Gore found out in 2000; John Kerry, also, would have won in 2004 with a small swing in Ohio despite trailing substantially in the popular vote nationwide.

What is also possible is an electoral college draw or tie, despite a popular vote win for one candidate or another. In order to win the presidency, a candidate must win the votes of a majority of electors (270, under the current rules). If no candidate reaches that number, either because there are more than two candidates winning states, or because both major candidates win 269 votes, then the House of Representatives gets to pick the president, while the Senate picks the vice-president. The Washington Times foresaw a scenario in 2008 where, because the outgoing House was in democratic hands but the Senate was evenly divided between Obama and McCain supporters (Joe Lieberman, an independent democrat, supported McCain over Obama), we could very well have seen a President Obama elected by the House and a Vice-President Palin elected by the Senate.

It’s all quite fun from a political pundit’s point of view. It makes elections more interesting, reducing states to blocks of votes to be attributed en masse to one candidate or another. Election night is more fun when you’re tallying up states on a board, trying to get to the magic 270. It’s fairly nonsensical, however. Every country with a strong executive president elects its head of state by giving each citizen an equal vote. Imagine such a system in France, with each region or département having a certain number of votes in the presidential election to divvy up as it saw fit. One could argue that such a system does exist in the election of the presidency of the European Council, with each member-state given a weighted vote based partly on its population. However, we’re not talking about direct elections for the presidency of a country – picking the person that will have access to the nuclear launch codes for the next four or so years.

Basically, it’s somewhat silly and out-dated, but it’s not going to change any time soon, and it doesn’t make that much of a difference, to be honest. We’ve only seen three scenarios thus far in American history (1876, 1888 and 2000) when the winner of the popular vote didn’t win the electoral college vote and become president. One more such case might be enough to force people to support changes to the system, like the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, which would give a majority of the electoral college votes to the popular vote winner. But, for now, at least you might have a slightly better understanding of how America elects its president.

Mike Pence isn’t running for president in 2012: no word on whether he’s running for any other office

The Atlantic brings us the news that Mike Pence isn’t running for president, though he may be running for statewide office in Indiana:

Mike Pence, the Indiana Republican congressman who’s gained attention among tea partiers and other conservatives over the past couple years, says he’s not going to run for president.

Pence has been considered a potential White House aspirant since the 2008 campaign ended, but not many expected him to rise into the top tier of the GOP primary field. Pence is best known as the former chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the policy committee for conservative House Republicans. He had finished near the bottom of national GOP presidential polls. He collected two percent in a January poll by The Washington Post and ABC, finishing ahead of Haley Barbour and behind Tim Pawlenty.

Pence will likely run for either governor or Senate, as today he hinted at serving Indiana in some other capacity. The influential Club for Growth has previously suggested he run for Senate.

That’s probably the right decision to take, though God knows he had a few cards up his sleeve in terms of conservative creds and charisma. And it means that the 2012 field is gradually, very gradually, firming up. Haley Barbour looks like he probably will run. Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney are definitely in. Mitch Daniels probably isn’t going to go for it. John Thune is looking more and more like he will mount a bid. Rick Santorum is certainly looking like a candidate. Herman Cain is set to be 2012’s Alan Keyes. The big elephants in the room remain Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin – and, to a lesser extent, Newt Gingrich, though I still can’t see how he can come close to getting the nomination.

Jim DeMint running for president?

No, he hasn’t officially declared yet. But he has stopped denying he’s interested, which is a sign that the conservative firebrand and junior republican senator from South Carolina may well be thinking about a bid:

News that South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint will travel to Iowa on March 26 to address a conservative forum organized by Rep. Steve King is sparking another round of chatter that DeMint might launch a dark horse bid for the White House in 2012.

The Republican gadfly has been adamant in denying such intentions for more than a year – just Wednesday, he gave CNN’s Wolf Blitzer a flat “No” when asked if he plans to seek his party’s presidential nomination. But the ground may be shifting in DeMint-world, and several of his closest advisers and political confidantes are now telling CNN that he is at least open to a presidential bid if a suitably conservative candidate fails to emerge from the early and wide-open GOP field.

“I think that you can read into it that he sees he has a role in the process and he sees he hasn’t completely shut the door,” said one DeMint adviser asked about the Iowa foray. DeMint currently sees his role in the 2012 process, the adviser said, as “setting the bar high” for the presidential contenders when it comes to advocating for a small government agenda.

“He hasn’t completely shut the door on running, and if there was a situation where there is a massive void in the group of candidates, who knows what would happen?,” said the adviser, who was quick to caution that there is only a five percent chance his boss will run.

Aside from Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, who is currently deciding between a presidential run and a gubernatorial bid in his home state, DeMint’s advisers are having a difficult time envisioning a candidate that he could get behind.

That could be a game-changer. The thing that people don’t realise about Jim DeMint is that he’s an extremely intelligent, polished politician. He’s perhaps further to the right than Sarah Palin, but he’s respected as much as he is feared because he’s actually a great media performer who can talk a good game without coming off as phoney – and do the folksy thing without sounding stupid. He’s loved on the right-wing blogosphere, and yet people don’t have the same negative image of him that they do of Michele Bachmann or other tea partiers. I still think that he’s probably looking more at the VP spot, possibly as either conservative cover for a more moderate candidate like Mitt Romney, or as an experienced figure (a sort of ‘Dick Cheney’) to balance out a presidential ticket topped by a policy lightweight like Sarah Palin. But he’d be one of the most formidable opponents for President Obama in 2012, mobilising the conservative base without turning off moderates. He should be feared, not laughed at.

New Hampshire straw poll: Romney wins an impressive victory

The New Hampshire Republican Party met today to pick a new chair (choosing a Tea Party favourite over the establishment pick endorsed by outgoing party chairman and former White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu), but also to participate in the first presidential straw poll of the season. For those of you who don’t know what a straw poll is, it’s a sort of mock election held by activists, generally to determine which candidates are and aren’t viable within their particular interest group or political community. The CPAC straw poll, as well as the Ames, Iowa, contest (to be held on August 13 this year) are traditionally seen as early indications of who the conservative base is and isn’t enthusiastic about in the presidential field. Last time around, at the 2007 Ames straw poll, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee’s strong second place finish behind former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney gave the former a major boost – Huckabee went on to win the Iowa caucuses, and do well in subsequent contests.

This early New Hampshire face-off was clearly won by Mitt Romney, with Ron Paul placing second:

The leaders of the New Hampshire Republican Party have spoken, and they have given Mitt Romney the early presidential lead in the Granite State. In the first-of-its-kind straw poll of members of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee, Romney drew 35% of the total vote. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) came in second with 11%.

The straw poll was conducted in Derry, NH and was sponsored by ABC News and WMUR-TV…

The top 10 results from the straw poll are below. For the complete totals, see WMUR’s website:

  • Mitt Romney 35.14%
  • Ron Paul 10.51%
  • Tim Pawlenty 7.61%
  • Sarah Palin 6.88%
  • Michele Bachmann 5.07%
  • Jim DeMint 5.07%
  • Herman Cain 3.99%
  • Chris Christie 3.26%
  • Rick Santorum 3.26%
  • Mitch Daniels 2.90%

What this clearly shows is that, for the moment at least, Mitt Romney is way out in front, with everyone else way, way behind. He’s the establishment candidate. Ron Paul’s viability in this libertarian-leaning state, while a sign 0f Paul’s enduring appeal to a portion of the conservative electorate, can probably not be generalised nationwide – Iowa republicans, for example, lean evangelical, while lacking the same extreme anti-government views that Paul espouses. Tim Pawlenty did remarkably well, considering he’s about as boring and instantly forgettable as one can get. But Sarah Palin has to be worried – while New Hampshire isn’t her kind of state, she should be getting more than 7% among party activists, considering that her name recognition is about 100%. People have already made their minds up about her. She might just pick up Michele Bachmann’s 5%, but that’s about it. That’s her ceiling. Jim DeMint can be happy about his 5%, considering that he’s shown no signs of running and hasn’t been visiting any primary states. Herman Cain’s 4%, given that no-one knows who he is, isn’t bad either. But everyone else did terribly. Newt Gingrich, who most media types consider to be a frontrunner, didn’t even place in the top 10. Mike Huckabee got under 3% (though he’s polling extremely well in Iowa, so he can afford to be a bit less worried). Chris Christie, who’s purportedly the new darling of the right, did badly too. And how much would it suck to be John Thune, that media favourite, the fresh face from South Dakota, who placed in 21st and last place with 0% of the vote?

These straw polls don’t matter much at this stage. We don’t even know who is and isn’t running yet. And unknown candidates can certainly pull off upsets with the right campaign strategy – Christ, no-one had even heard of Mike Huckabee back in 2007! Still, though, what this shows is that, as of now, Mitt Romney is the man to beat. And if things stay this way, the only way anyone can best him is to be the anti-Romney, anti-establishment candidate – which is why one assumes he’s dying to have Sarah Palin enter the race.

And yes, I realise that other posts on the site suggest that the race is wide-open. That’s true. Anyone can win right now. But if you wanted to bet money on anyone, I’d suggest a fiver on Romney. Not more than that – worth waiting and seeing how he deals with past political flip-flops like healthcare and abortion – but he’s the favourite right now.

Could Mike Pence be the Republicans’ man for 2012?

Politico is suggesting that, with the Republican field so wide open, many conservatives are urging former talk radio host and Indiana congressman Mike Pence to abandon his expected run for governor in 2012 and set his sights on the White House:

An Indiana congressman with just five terms in public office, Pence is currently the subject of a draft movement—but he may well pick a gubernatorial run over a White House bid.

Nevertheless, a group of longtime Republicans – including former House Majority Leader Dick Armey and former Rep. Jim Ryun – are working with a well-connected conservative PR firm to urge the congressman to head to Des Moines and Manchester instead of Indianapolis and Muncie.

Their efforts have intensified in recent days as Pence’s own self-imposed end-of-January deadline for a decision grows near.

For all the praise they heap on the congressman – and his fans tend to be effusive – it’s also plain that what makes him so compelling is the perception that he lacks the flaws of the other candidates currently in the presidential mix.

The pro-Pence crowd consists of a group of traditional conservatives who, while sympathizing with her, don’t view Sarah Palin as a serious presidential candidate. They doubt Mike Huckabee will run again or can broaden his appeal. And they believe the rest of the field features has-beens or candidates insufficiently pure on cultural issues.

For them, the Hoosier checks many boxes – a fresh face on the national scene, a charismatic speaker from the heartland, and, most important, a Republican who can appeal to all three elements of the party base: social conservatives, economic conservatives, and foreign policy conservatives.

Pence does seem like a compelling candidate. He’s obviously oozing with charisma, and he clearly pushes all the right buttons for the Republican base, as his win in the Values Voters straw poll back in September 2010 showed – yet he doesn’t have the negatives that Sarah Palin does. On top of that, he’s seen as something of an ‘ideas man’ within the GOP. He’d be an excellent candidate, and someone of whom President Obama should be afraid, because he’ll bring conservatives to the polls without turning off moderates. But can a sitting member of the House win in 2012? The last (and only) time a candidate was elected directly from the House of Representatives was when James A. Garfield beat Winfield Scott Hancock in 1880.

This time, though, with such a flawed field of candidates, Mike Pence might have a decent shot. With the economy gradually picking up, however, and President Obama’s approval rate now back over 50%, Pence might be better-advised to duck the uncertain outcome of a 2012 race and run for the governorship of his state instead. He can then use the Indiana governor’s mansion as a launching pad for a 2016 bid against Joe Biden – and he’ll have an impressive field of 2010 Senate freshmen to choose from for the VP spot, including Marco Rubio, Rob Portman and Pat Toomey.