Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Why Are The Fringe Candidates Doing So Well Now?

Every presidential cycle creates its own chemistry and follows its own political dynamic.

The last cycle was marked by two major circumstances. First, there was no incumbent running, so the nominations of both parties were up for grabs. Second, this circumstance led to a very early beginning in the respective party nomination contests.

This cycle has the Democratic nomination likely to be won again by Barack Obama, now the incumbent president. (His popularity is low enough and vulnerable enough, and his left base is beginning to be upset enough, however, that it is possible (but unlikely) he might yet face a challenge from his left.)

Conditions in the nation continue uncertain, although many are citing recent economic statistics as proof that the long current recession is over. Yet unemployment remains very high, home sales and values remain depressed, and the price of gasoline has soared to almost $4 a gallon (with little in sight to reverse it). Furthermore, the international arena has become once again filled with unexpected volatile events, most of which do not seem to favor U.S. economic, military or diplomatic interests.

Of course, any of these can change relatively quickly, and the current mood of high risk, danger and vulnerability could be replaced with new optimism and more positive prospects. But even if they were thus replaced, there is less and less time available in the presidential campaign which will end only 18 months from now. Common sense indicates that an economic and political reversal in short order is unlikely because the U.S. continues to fail to provide alternatives for its oil supply (such as building more refineries, offshore drilling, developing new energy capacities from sources that can provide significant energy supplies (these do not include wind and solar power technologies now in fashion, but limited in what they can provide). After the recent Japanese experience, it is almost impossible to imagine the U.S. returning to the construction of significant new nuclear power plants, at least in the short term. While several economic markers have recently turned more positive, the public remains extremely cautious in many of its buying habits, and lacking a dramatic decline of unemployment to 5-6%, the economy will continue to recover slowly, if at all.

Thus, the Republican nomination means something in 2012. In fact, incumbents in recent years have not done so well in winning second terms, including Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush. Those who have won second terms (Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush) campaigned for their second terms during more positive economic times.

Yet the late-starting 2012 Republican campaign has been marked by the rise of fringe candidates receiving extraordinarily high poll numbers when measured against the so-called “serious” and “major” candidates. These latter include Georg Romney, Mike Huckabee, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels, Newt Gingrich and Haley Barbour. How do we explain this?

I suggest the timidity and caution (they would argue that it’s prudence) of the major candidates to formally enter the presidential race has made this inevitable. Hemming and hawing, teasing and testing, these candidates have been constrained by all the new rules for a formal presidential campaign and the uncertainty of the economy and world situation. Although Mitt Romney is a nominal frontrunner, and Mike Huckabee (who does well in may polls), are well-known and potentially formidable in 2012, there is no GOP candidate who has any likely “lock” on the nomination. One so-called “dark horse,” Tim Pawlenty has already risen from second tier to first, and should he decide to run, Mitch Daniels could do the same.
Mr. Romney, Mr. Huckabee and Mrs Palin are already well-known from the 2008 campaign but one or two of them may not run. Both Newt Gingrich and Haley Barbour, formidable figures already in their party, and, in Mr. Gingrich’s case, clearly very well-qualified for the presidency, have stumbled in their initial unofficial campaign efforts, as they and their colleagues are being quite careful what they say about each other and some of the controversial issues.

For the media and the general public, however, the campaign has already begun, and the both parties have powerful factions which want to hear what the candidates think about the controversial issues.

It was considered an absolute no-no for any GOP candidate to bring up the Obama “birther” issue, but a significant segment in the GOP base remains unsatisfied with the fact that, although a birth certificate in Hawaii allegedly exists, the president has not performed the simple act of making it public. Donald Trump, the New York real estate developer and TV celebrity, had nothing to lose by making this his issue. In fact, he shrewdly guessed that some voters would be grateful to him for it, even though it is really, at this point a non-issue and a diversion. Because of that, and his “impolitic” critiques of the other candidates and the Democrats, he has inevitably gained considerable media attention and, it goes without saying, temporary high numbers in the polls. As the GOP “establishment” denounces him as not a serious candidate, the public of course takes further interest in him.

While Congresswoman Michele Bachmann,, unlike Trump, is an elected official, her appeal to voters is primarily to “Tea Party” conservatives who emerged in the 2010 campaign, had an enormous impact on it, and remain a large if nebulous force in politics in 2011 and 2012. While her colleagues in Congress and fellow Republicans who are governors are making significant initial change in DC and many state capitals, their progress is slowed by the fact that Democrats still control the U.S. senate, the White House and many state legislatures. Thus provocative rhetoric seems more appealing than the apparent slow pace of actual change. Mrs. Bachmann, and to some degree Mrs. Palin, thus are turning on voters strictly with their rhetoric, as is Mr. Trump. None of them are actually doing much if anything to bring about the change voters still want.

The longer the “major” GOP candidates take to begin the formal hand-to- hand combat of the presidential campaign, the longer Mr. Trump and Mrs. Bachmann will capture the headlines and high poll numbers.

Mrs. Bachmann is a serious political figure, as her opponents in Minnesota have discovered in recent years, but her case for being elected president so far is very, very thin. Mr. Trump, an over-coiffed, boastful self-promoter is not, by any form of reasonable imagination, a serious political candidate. But he is, of course, laughing all the way to the bank, promoting his ego, his investments and his TV show.

In the short-term, these two figures, and any other GOP fringe candidates do not matter in the totality of the 2012 presidential campaign in that they are not going to be nominated. But they are having a secondary effect which could matter, that is, the longer they dominate the headlines and public attention, the more likely the Republican “brand” and the true conservative cause in 2012 is diminished.

That is why GOP strategists and candidates are likely to give Bachmann and Trump “the hook” sooner rather than later.

If they do not, it will be Barack Obama who will be laughing all the way to the voting booth.

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