Advancing a Free Society

Perry and the Laws of Political Gravity

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Should he go on to capture the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney should thank whoever on his staff came up with the following strategy: avoid sure-to-lose straw polls.

Romney invested precious little into last month’s Ames Straw Poll (the same straw poll, btw, that Romney won in 2007, but received little in the way of a bump as Mike Huckabee’s second-place finish was the big story). The seventh-place finish, this time around, did little to affect his campaign’s momentum.

Romney also chose to avoid this weekend’s straw poll in Orlando.

And it may have been his best move yet, as a 2012 candidate.

By purposely avoiding the Orlando vote, Romney (a) was able to plausibly dismiss the poll’s results (a distant third to the surprise winner, Herman Cain); and (b) he kept the media spotlight on his nemesis, Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Instead, Romney turned his attention north, to a straw poll at Michigan’s biennial Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference. It was safe harbor for Romney, a Michigan native whose father was the state’s 43rd governor nearly a half-century ago. And a poll dominated by party insiders, not party activists. Indeed, Romney beat Perry by a comfortable 3-1 margin.

Perry didn’t play Orlando to win, just as he flew into Mackinac to give a brief speech soon before that vote – a half-in, half-out sort of gesture. But he did invest enough time and money in both events to get noticed, as in this passage by veteran political reporter (and Hoover media fellow) Paul West, who was on the scene in Orlando:

On the morning of the vote, Perry shook hundreds of hands, signed autographs, posed for pictures, and made small-talk with the delegates. He also met privately with party leaders, elected officials and key activists.  He spent lavishly to woo the straw-vote electorate—including a large buffet breakfast spread on Saturday morning offered gratis to every delegate. At best half showed up, leaving tables groaning with uneaten bagels, scrambled eggs, bacon and fruit.  At the end of the governor’s rather perfunctory eight-minute speech, the breakfast crowd offered a rather perfunctory round of applause, the first public clue that all might not be going well in Perryville.

The Texan’s campaign fielded the largest cadre of volunteers and paid staff at the event. His staffers, wires dangling from their ears (a touch, and expense, that no other campaign matched), were very much in evidence Saturday inside the convention hall, as they distributed signs and buttonholed delegates. Another visible sign of the considerable investment Perry made in Florida: signage that included a huge banner hanging in the foyer of the convention hall, which greeted the 3,000 delegates starting on debate night; Perry’s campaign paid an undisclosed sum to the state party for the privilege.

Such is the nature of running for president in this modern age, as the Perry campaign has now discovered. Media hype creates the impression of a candidate with runaway momentum. The next thing you know, media dog-piling has said runaway train going off the rails (shaky debate performances will do that).

Consider these headlines at the top of a Google news search for “Rick “Perry”:

“Rick Perry Reels After Florida Flop”

“Why Rick Perry Faces Uphill Battle to Dislodge Mitt Romney’s Hold on Michigan”

“Rick Perry’s ‘Electile Dysfunction’”

“Rick Perry’s Days as the Consensus Frontrunner Are Ending”

Reporters will tell you that political candidates, like the rest of us, are subject to the laws of gravity: given time, they’ll fall back to earth.

What they won’t tell you is America’s political media – and both liberals and conservatives are guilty of this – operate under a herd mentality (what the media pump up, they assuredly will pull down). And, at present, the herd is stampeding in this direction: Perry’s a wounded frontrunner; he looks worse the more he debates, but it’s still a young campaign.

Here’s what I’m looking for next, in this race:

  1. The Sept. 30 quarterly deadline approaches for the campaigns’ financial machines. The Perry campaign has offered a target of $10-$15 million. Look for the final dollar figure, as well as much of Perry’s cash comes from beyond Texas. Also, keep an eye on Michele Bachmann’s haul – will she have enough in the bank to run strong Iowa for another four months?
  2. The next GOP presidential debate is scheduled for October 11, at Dartmouth College (Bloomberg/Washington Post sponsoring, Charlie Rose moderating). Topics du jour: jobs, deficit, taxes and the economy. If I’m Rick Perry – and getting heat for not having a detailed economic plan – I’d use the interim to cobble together an abbreviated agenda. That shouldn’t be hard, if he blends what’s worked in Texas with what the House GOP desires. Bottom line: Perry needs more gravitas to fend off the laws of political gravity.
  3. Finally, and getting back to gravity, Newton and his Third Law of Motion (for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction): does Perry unease draw New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie into the race? Christie’s a big man – as some have weighed in, maybe too big to win the presidency. As long as he remains coy about his presidential ambitions, he’s a big distraction for GOP insiders still on the fence.

(photo credit: Thomas Heyman)