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GOP Race: What A Strange, Strange Trip It’s Been…

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Now that the caucus votes in Iowa have been cast, it’s time to look back on the race for the Republican Presidential nominee so far. And what a race it’s been! In a year where the pundits tell us the electorate is looking for an “outsider”, we’ve seen a lobbyist and former central banker  (Herman Cain), a disgraced House Leader with a penchant for lobbyists’ cash and affairs (Newt Gingrich) and now the king of earmarks (at least a billion dollars) and deep friend to lobbyists who lost his seat by the widest margin in the history of his state (Rick Santorum) all top the polls at some point. We’ve seen a Governor who can’t count to three (Rick Perry), a House Representative with a tentative relationship with truthfulness (Michele Bachmann) and a candidate who dropped out before a single vote was cast (Tim Pawlenty). And another House Representative who stakes out positions his opponents refuse to even consider worthy of debate, but who received one in five votes in Iowa (Ron Paul), while another candidate changes positions with remarkable fluidity to suit the mood of the electorate and is considered the “presumptive nominee” despite seemingly incapable of rising above 25% in the polls, no matter how much money he spends, how many endorsements he gets or which position he stakes out on a particular day (Mitt Romney).

Throughout the debates we’ve seen flat out lies, and lots of them: Iran has promised to launch a nuclear attack against the United States (Bachmann, and Santorum and Gingrich, to lesser extents), the HPV innoculation can lead to brain disease (Bachmann again), a panel made up of seven Democrats and seven Republicans, and which voted thirteen to one for sanctions against the House Speaker, was a “partisan attack” (Gingrich), and many more.

We’ve learned that Newt Gingrich was in favor of a personal health mandate when that view point paid (a reported $37 million to his foundation) but is against it now (at least since March). Mitt Romney was in favor of it too, and implemented it, but now considers it unconstitutional.

Rick Santorum, we learned, wants to bomb Iran and then “publicize it”, and says not a penny can be cut from the military (while the United States spends more on its military than the next twenty countries combined). He also believes the Constitution does not confer the right of privacy to individuals, including the right to consensual relations between two people in the privacy of their home (he really believes this, including a husband and wife).

The US spends more on the military than the next 20 countries combined.

We’ve seen two candidates on, essentially, book tours who suddenly found themselves leading the pack, and just as suddenly found themselves back on book tours (Gingrich and Cain).

We’ve seen a candidate who fought hard for hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks for a company which immediately put him on their payroll once he was trouced out of office by a disgusted electorate (Santorum). And billed taxpayers $72,000 per year for private school for his children while in office. He now runs as the “outsider” and the “true conservative”.

We’ve seen a contender who thinks any position other than “pro-war” is “dangerous”, but who repeatedly refused when he was drafted into the military (Gingrich).

And throughout it all, we’ve watched a restless electorate switch their support from one flawed candidate to another, while the political pundits label each candidate “top tier”, until their fifteen minutes are up (see Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich and, soon, Santorum). That same electorate has sent to the top of the polls some of the most deeply “establishment”, big-government, big-spending candidates who have been working the system for years.

What a strange, strange trip it’s been…

The Republican Party’s Brand Problem

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What is a “brand”?

A “brand” is a product or service or organization which has values, qualities or traits deeply associated with it. It is the “identity” of a product, service or organization, and it is reinforced by “differentiators”: those things which set the brand apart from its competitors. When you buy Coke rather than the generic alternative (and typically pay far more in the process), you do so perhaps because you prefer Coke’s taste (a trait) or (more often) because Coke’s marketing efforts have associated with their product values you favor or relate to. When you buy Pepsi instead of Coke, maybe you like Pepsi’s taste, or maybe you identify with Pepsi’s efforts to position their product as “younger”. At root, however, “brand” is a function of trust: when you buy a Coke, you trust it will consistently deliver whatever it is you’ve come to expect. Whether you are in Hong Kong or London or San Francisco, when you order a hamburger at a McDonalds, you trust it will taste the same and deliver the same experience. Being true to the brand promise is of extreme importance: if the burger you ordered at any particular McDonalds was completely different than the burger at any other McDonalds, or if each can of Coke tasted differently, the brand would instantly become meaningless: the brand promise betrayed, there is no longer any reason for you to pick the brand over a competitor.

What does the idea of a “brand” mean in the context of the Republican Party? And how’s the health of the Republican Party’s “brand”?

The Republican Party likes to brand itself as the party of small government, fiscal prudence, a free market and liberty. Their brand promise is lower government spending, less governmental intrusion into the lives of Americans, safety and the ability to transact business with limited governmental constraints, and minimal direct governmental participation in the economy.

How has the GOP performed on its brand promise? Are the party’s differentiators meaningful to their customers, the Amercian electorate? The answers, in short, are: poorly and no.

Many voters today see little difference between the Republican and Democratic parties: independent voters are now the largest segment of the electorate, and the fastest growing. Republican George W Bush, of the ostensibly “small government” party, increased government spending substantially: the rate of non-defense discretionary spending growth during the first term of his Presidency was over 3,500% greater than it was under President Clinton’s first term, and over 230% higher than President Carter. This was in following his father’s footsteps: George HW Bush increased spending over 6,800% faster than President Reagan. When it comes to “small government” and fiscal prudence, the Republican Party has lost, entirely, any ability to differentiate from the Democrats: for the period 1988 – 2004, Bush 43 (a Republican) grew government spending the fastest, followed by Clinton’s (a Democrat) second term, then Bush 42 (a Republican), and finally Clinton’s (a Democrat) first term. Going back a bit farther, President Nixon increased spending at a rate five times faster than President Carter did. There is no difference between the parties, and this undermines the Republican brand significantly (it doesn’t damage the Democrats nearly as much, as their branding has not often made fiscal prudence a brand promise).

On the issue of liberty and freedom, there is likewise little to differentiate the party brands: President George W Bush substantially reduced individual freedom by way of (among other things) authorizing warrantless wiretaps of citizens of the United States and effectively eliminated habeus corpus protection; President Obama (among other things) granted retroactive immunity to the telecommunications companies who went along with these wiretaps, and subsequently extended his interpretation of a President’s powers to include the assissination of United States’ citizens without charge, trial or conviction. A Republican and a Democrat, with little to distinguish their stances on personal freedom and liberty.

In more recent times, the Republican party has also come to be the home of the “social conservatives”: that part of the electorate most pre-occupied with issues such as abortion, gay marriage and “Christian values”, and often identified as the “religious right”. This segment of the party has significantly diluted the Republican brand, and in focusing on “social conservative” issues, has dimished the core differentiators of the Republican brand we mentioned earlier: small government, fiscal prudence, a free market and liberty. And while 78% of those Republicans aged fifty-eight or older described themselves as “social conservatives”, 46% of Republicans aged eighteen to thirty-seven describe themselves as “social moderates”. The “social conservative” aspect of the Republican brand is a losing proposition for the party in the medium to long term.

The rapid growth and substantial number of independent voters is the consequence of the parties’ diluted brands: if Coke and Pepsi and the no-name brand all taste exactly the same and are the same price, what compelling reason beyond inertia is there to make a person pick Coke over Pepsi, or Pepsi over Coke, or either over the no-name brand?  This is where the GOP finds itself in 2012. And things are going to get much worse for the Republican Party establishment: the younger the voter, the less likely that voter is to be a member of the Republican Party. 37% of the party’s members are fifty-eight or older, and 24% are between forty-eight and fifty-seven, but only 14%-15% of members are between the ages of twenty-eight and forty-seven, and just 6% are between eighteen and twenty-seven. The party is aging, and new voters do not find the brand compelling.

The conventional thinking is that the Republican Party is for people who have stuff (which they don’t want the government to take away), and the Democratic Party is for people who don’t have stuff (and want the government to give them stuff), and as people get stuff, they shift to the Republican Party. But that thinking is deeply flawed: the current generation of voters aged eighteen to twenty-seven have stuff, and they’re not joining the Republican fold (in 2008, 58% of voters aged eighteen to twenty-nine were either Democrats or leaned Democrat, while only 33% of that age group were, or leaned, Republican, a downward trend that has continued uninterrupted since at least 1992, when Republicans had a 47% to 46% edge in this age group).

The Republican Party has repeatedly betrayed its brand promise, and the party no longer has the core differentiators it once did. As such, it does not have a meaningful sales pitch for new customers – those people reaching voting age. The party’s brand has become “New Coke”.

What can the Republican Party do to reverse this slide and rebuild the party’s brand? And are they doing it?

Almost all the candidates currently competing for the Republican Presidential nomination are running on a platform based not upon the core Republican brand, but on relatively recent changes to that brand, which coincide with the dilution of party support among new voters – the “New Coke” of the Republican Party: social conservatism, military interventionism and big government. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum is considered “conservative” because he is staunchly “pro-life” and wants to bomb Iran (while his history in office shows him indistinguishable from a Democrat when it comes to the “Classic Coke” version of the Republican Party: he voted in favor of increasing the debt ceiling, consistently voted in favor of earmarks, backed Arlen Spector in his run for Presidential nominee of the Republican Party (Spector, a pro-choice, pro-gay rights, anti-gun rights and pro-affirmative action candidate, subsequently switched sides, becoming a Democrat in 2009), does not believe United States citizens enjoy privacy protection under the Constitution, and believes the government should involve itself in private enterprise by picking certain sectors for special treatment (Mr Santorum would like to eliminate the corporate tax on manufacturers, and only manufacturers)). Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney implemented a government health care program while Governor, increased state spending by over 32% in four years and, in an effort to appeal to the “New Coke” Republican brand, switched from “pro-choice” to “pro-life”. Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, believes the federal government should be responsible for finanically assisting citizens’ home purchases, has signed a “New Coke” document entitled a “Pledge of Fidelity” promising not to cheat on his current wife, and wants to remove more personal freedoms by strengthening the Patriot Act. Texas Governor Rick Perry, who increased spending over 82% in Texas, focuses on the “war on religion” the federal government is supposedly waging. These candidates all believe that “New Coke” is a winning formula, and they are doubling-down on it. And this lack of differentiation has resulted in a fractured field: no candidate received more than 25% of the vote in the Iowa caucuses.

The lone candidate seeking to rebrand the Republican Party, to bring back “Classic Coke”, is Texas Representative Ron Paul: he proposes cutting government spending by one trillion dollars in the first year, eliminating five federal departments, increasing personal liberties by doing away with things such as the Patriot Act and permitting states to decide issues such as gay marriage and abortion. Mr Paul’s foreign policy, which calls for non-interventionism and only Congressionally-authorized wars, is materially different from the Democrats and every other candidate. And that rebranding, that original formula, is resonating with customers: in the Iowa caucuses, 48% of caucus goers aged seventeen to twenty-nine voted for Mr Paul, as did 43% of independents. These are the very customers the Republican Party desperately needs in the years and decades ahead.

For those efforts to rebrand the Republican Party, Ron Paul has been alternately ignored or reviled. The Republican Party doggedly insists that “New Coke” is the winning formula, and any suggestions that “Classic Coke” should be reintroduced is met with open hostility. Mr Paul has been called “dangerous” and more recently “disgusting” by his fellow Republican, Rick Santorum. Mr Paul’s foreign policy is dismissed out of hand: a non-interventionist defense policy is not even permitted debate. But as we’ve seen already, independents are the largest share of the electorate, and they are demonstrating a genuine taste for “Classic Coke”. And in hypothetical match ups against President Obama, Mr Paul’s “Classic Coke” matches Mitt Romney’s chances for victory in a general election.

The Republican Party establishment ignores this erosion of its brand at its peril: with nearly twice as many young people leaning Democrat rather than Republican, and with independent voters the deciding factor in general elections, “New Coke” is a strategy for failure. The Republican Party’s brand is materially and demonstrably diluted, and the party is going to need to engage in a serious rebranding exercise, building meaningful differentiators and building trust with new customers. Those customers are waiting, and they seem to have a thirst for “Classic Coke”.

Written by westcoastsuccess

January 4, 2012 at 3:34 pm

CNN National Security Debate Revealing…

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The CNN National Security Debate between Republican Presidential nominee hopefuls, held at the DAR Constitution Hall in Washington, Tuesday, November 22, featured several important and revealing distinctions between the candidates. Moderator Wolf Blitzer did a superb job moderating the debate, giving each candidate roughly equal time (even Ron Paul had more than 89 seconds to make his positions known!) and, in several instances, followed up with candidates who didn’t answer questions directly by interjecting, “Just to be precise…” and attempted to pin down candidates on the questions. The event was held among members of the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, many of whom asked candidates questions directly.

One topic of particular interest was the candidates’ positions on cuts to military spending: the United States spends more money on their military than the next 17 countries combined, however several candidates came out against any meaningful cuts, and some candidates came out against any cuts whatsoever (most of the “cuts” which have been proposed are not, in fact, “cuts” but are instead reductions in the pace of growth: America’s Defense budget has about doubled in just the past nine years).

If you ask any insurance executive the best way to sell insurance, they’ll tell you in one word: fear. Scare the customer and they’ll buy. Many of the candidates in this debate were selling insurance, of the United States military variety.

There were some radical positions on display by the candidates. Here, then, is a summary:

Newt Gingrich

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich exhibited none of the animosity towards moderator Wolf Blitzer that he has previously unleashed against debate moderators, and presented himself well. Some of his positions, on the other hand, were surprising in some instances, disturbing in others, and flat out incorrect on at least one.

The first question of the debate was asked by Edwin Meese, former Attorney General of the United States under President Ronald Reagan, who asked whether the Patriot Act should be extended. Mr Gingrich was the first candidate to field the question, and he came out in favor of the Patriot Act and further stated he would expand it, again making a distinction between “crimes” (which should be dealt with by criminal courts) and “terrorism” (which should be dealt with however the government wishes to deal with it, which in prior debates has included torture and secret tribunals under Mr Gingrich’s vision). The most obvious problem with this notion that the protections of the Constitution do not apply to those the government deems “terrorists” is of course that the government could, at will, declare anyone a “terrorist” and thereby absolve the government of the restraints placed on it by the Constitution: the government becomes judge, jury and executioner in secret and without any restraint. That is not, of course, an example of the “rule of law”. Other countries have experimented with secret courts and arbitrary removal of citizen’s rights. It hasn’t gone well for the people of those same countries.

Wolf Blitzer, smartly, asked Texas Representative Ron Paul to comment next – smartly, because it brought out the enormous contrast between Paul and Gingrich. Ron Paul made a passionate argument against the Patriot Act, stating liberty needn’t be sacrificed for security and that the court system had worked in cases like the Timothy McVeigh bombing in Oklahoma. Mr Gingrich responded by pointing out that Mr McVeigh had succeeded in killing 168 people, and that the government should have the ability to pre-empt such attacks. Dr Paul responded by pointing out that each household could have a police officer and cameras placed inside it for the purposes of reducing child abuse and wife battering, and that a police state might reduce crime but in the process the government becomes the criminals. It was a telling exchange, and showed the vast differences between the candidates.

On the issue of oil, Newt Gingrich claimed that a different energy policy would allow the United States to produce enough oil to make up for all of Iran’s production and that as a result, global oil prices would plummet. Such an approach would require the United States to increase its oil production by about 50% and would require decades (and as one questioner pointed out, the United States hasn’t purchased oil from Iran for thirty years).

Mr Gingrich’s positions, evolved from his prior positions now that he is running for President (see too Mitt Romney for another example of positions of plasticity), are always conveyed with authority and plenty of (sometimes obscure) references and name dropping, but Newt Gingrich did a solid job of presenting those positions in this debate.

Overall score: A

Herman Cain

Former National Restaurant Association lobbyist Herman Cain had another poor showing, as he has in past debates on any foreign policy question. Here was a debate entirely focused on foreign policy, with nary a chance to trumpet his “9-9-9″ tax plan. There was nothing in Mr Cain’s performance in this debate which can be expected to reverse his sliding poll numbers (most recently at 14% nationally[PDF]).

Herman Cain never seemed at ease during the debate, and he had that “deer caught in the headlights” look, formerly so familiar on Rick Perry’s face, on multiple occassions.

Often, Mr Cain answers foreign policy questions by saying he will listen to other people and rely upon their judgement. It’s good to get opinions, particularly on matters as important as foreign policy. But it is also important to convey the notion that, while you will seek out advice, you are the ultimate decision maker.

Rarely did Mr Cain display any of the incredible charisma he once beamed at the audience.

Overall score: C-

Ron Paul

Texas Representative Ron Paul was easily the most differentiated candidate of all those present. Coming out strongly against the Patriot Act (“The Patriot Act is unpatriotic!”), the “war on drugs” (“Another war we ought to cancel!”; “I think the war on drugs is a total failure”; “Federal government is going in there and over-riding state laws”; “I fear the drug war because it undermines our civil liberties”) and in favor of Congressional approval for acts of war (which including a rebuttal to Mr Santorum, who kept talking about the “war on terror” – Mr Paul pointed out that “terrorism” is a tactic, not a nation or an enemy or a war).

Ron Paul, for once, got some air time, and it was an excellent decision on the part of CNN producers, because the contrast was, at times, shocking. On the issue of the extension of the Patriot Act, Mr Gingrich’s argument that pre-emptive and extra-judicial actions should be permitted the government was smartly rebutted by Dr Paul’s plea that liberty need not be sacrificed for security, calling on the Founding Fathers in the process. On the issue of defense cuts, Mr Paul put the other candidates to shame, pointing out the “cuts” were only reductions in the speed of increased spending, not real cuts.

Overall, it was Mr Paul’s strongest debate to date, and even amidst the deeply establishment Republican crowd, Ron Paul drew cheers and applause for his anti-war, anti-interventionist positions. With Paul in a dead heat in Iowa, his performance in this debate may put him on top with the anti-Romney crowd in the state.

Overall score: A

Mitt Romney

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney took the hawkish approach, bemoaning defense cuts, favoring intervention in Iran and backing Israel by stating his first foreign visit as President will be to Israel.

Where Mitt Romney has been playing it relatively slow and steady, and avoiding engaging the other candidates since the Las Vegas entanglements with Rick Perry, Jon Huntsman seemed to get under Mr Romney’s skin on the issue of troop levels in Afghanistan.

Mr Romney is in a difficult bind, despite being the “front runner” in most media circles: essentially three quarters of Republican voters want a candidate for President who is not Mitt Romney, and it doesn’t appear as though anything Mr Romney says or does, or the other candidates’ rises and falls, have any impact on that cruel fact.

Mitt Romney’s best chance to win the nomination, it seems, is to split the conservative votes among the other contenders. But again, here Mr Romney is in a bind, because the voters seems to flock en masse to the most prominent anti-Romney candidate of the moment (currently Newt Gingrich). Do his performances at these debates win him any new voters? Probably not, according to the polls. So for Mitt Romney, the debates are something to get through without any obvious gaffes. That he did.

Overall score: B-

Rick Perry

Texas Governor Rick Perry, while still occassionally tongue-tied and cursed with the intellectual gravitas of Pauly Shore on a bad day, nonetheless has now marked his third consecutive debate without a major embarrassment. Mr Perry’s policy ideas still seem half-baked (as in not really fully formed, and certainly not fully articulated), like his plan to impose a no-fly zone over Syria (to which Mitt Romney replied by pointing out the Syrian government is not attacking its people with aircraft but that they do have 5,000 tanks and therefore perhaps a “no-drive” zone would be more appropriate), or his solution to Pakistan, which seemed to be some concept of creating a trade zone among several countries and forcing them to work together.

Rick Perry continues to seem like the only kid on a stage of men, but at least it’s no longer so painful to watch, almost to the point that one feels a bit sorry for the man. It’s clear Mr Perry is much more comfortable speaking one-on-one, and he often turns to whichever candidate is beside him to address a point directly to another human, rather than the wider audience. But Mr Perry is at best a puppet with deep-pocketed string masters, and it shows. His greatest accomplishment in this race may be that he has held on as long as he has – his poll numbers are certainly stagnant.

Overall score: C+ (this is an “A” on the Perry Bell Curve).

Michele Bachmann

Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann, it is hard to believe now, was once considered a front-runner, after narrowly defeating Ron Paul in the Ames, Iowa straw poll. Since then, her poll numbers have plummeted, and she regularly polls in the low single digits. What’s a candidate to do?

Make odd statements and appear increasingly like a fringe candidate as you move towards the totalitarian territory where Rick Santorum lives, that’s what.

Some select statements:

“We won the peace in Iraq.” Yes. Iraq. That bastion of peaceful tranquility.

“Our CIA has no ability to have any form of interrogation for terrorists.” This in support of reinstating torture tactics against suspects who have never been formally charged and whose revelations while being tortured are of little to no use (CNN has an interesting fact-check on this statement).

“…most recent decision he [President Obama] made to cancel the Keystone Pipeline.” That pipeline has been delayed, not canceled, by the Obama administration.

Ms Bachmann, in short, did nothing to distinguish herself, and a few things to embarrass herself.

Overall score: D

Jon Huntsman

Former Utah Governor and Obama Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman had a strong night, in a debate focused on topics he’s most familiar with as a former Ambassador.

Mr Huntsman made well-articulated points on China and Pakistan, and at one point engaged with Mitt Romney on the issue of troop levels in Afghanistan (Mr Romney wants troops to remain longer in that country; Mr Huntsman wants to bring them home but leave a small contingent behind).

All Mr Huntsman’s marbles are on New Hampshire, and unfortunately for him, he is not polling in the top two there (positions held by Mr Romney and Mr Paul).

Overall score: A-

Rick Santorum

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum opined that people should be treated differently (read: more harshly) depending upon the religious beliefs they hold, by way of applying different standards to Muslims in security screenings and other state intrusions. Hitler, too, believed people of different religious beliefs should be treated differently. On the other hand, The Founding Fathers of the United States, most notably did not, enshrining freedom of belief in the Constitution. Mr Santorum, throughout these debates, has never shied away from the more fascist side of the spectrum, and later applauded Lincoln for “trampling on the civil rights” of Americans. It is deeply reassuring that Mr Santorum has never polled much above 1% – his positions on foreign policy, and his almost viceral disgust for civil liberties, is truly frightening.

Overall score: F (The world becomes a safer and saner place once Mr Santorum retires from politics).

4 Things to Watch For in CNN National Security Debate of GOP Presidential Hopefuls…

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Tomorrow’s (Tuesday, November 22, 2011) debate between Republican Presidential nominee hopefuls at the DAR Constitution Hall in Washington DC, and produced by CNN, will focus on National Security. Here, then, are four things to watch for in this, the final debate of November:

  1. Can Herman Cain stop the bleeding?

    Former National Restaurant Assocation lobbyist Herman Cain has seen his support plummet dramatically: the latest CNN poll [PDF] shows support for Mr Cain down almost half between October and November (from 25% to 14%). Is there any way for Mr Cain to stop the slide, or reverse the trend? There are really just three options for Herman Cain: hope one of his rivals (most likely former House Speaker Newt Gingrich) sees a substantial drop and further hope to fill the void that leaves, or hope the voting public’s memories are short and both the allegations of sexual harassment, and perhaps more importantly Mr Cain’s seemingly shallow grasp of issues outside the realm of his proposed tax plan, are forgotten, or make a bold move and attempt to recapture the lead. Notably, security/foreign policy has been a real weakness for candidate Cain.

  2. Will Texas Governor Rick Perry continue his largely gaffe-free recent debate performances?

    In the two debates since his now-famous “oops” moment in Michigan, Rick Perry has performed without any overt failures and less of struggles to articulate himself which were a hallmark of every prior debate. Still, with just 12% support in that same CNN poll, a history of heavy spending as Governor of Texas and a platform he has yet to fully articulate, it may be an awfully steep hill for Mr Perry to climb (and Perry is polling around 3% in New Hampshire, according to Bloomberg).

  3. Can Texas Representative Ron Paul, currently in a four-way tie for the lead in Iowa and in a distant second place in New Hampshire, change the perception of his security policies?

    Virtually every media account of Dr Paul’s foreign and national security policies includes the word “isolationist”. Will Ron Paul be able to successfully argue that the presence of the United States’ military in 150 countries around the globe, and the interventionist foreign policy of the past 60 years, is a cause of threats to America’s security? Will Mr Paul’s message (effectively, “If we go to other people’s sandboxes and kick down their sand castles, they will want to come to our sandbox and kick down our sand castles”) resonate with voters in the midst of six far more “hawkish” candidates (former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman’s views are similar to Ron Paul’s; the rest of the candidates are all in favor of interventionism and nation building, particularly former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum and Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann).

  4. Will other candidates label Newt Gingrich a “flip-flopper” in light of his new web site?

    The New York Times published an article about Mr Gingrich’s new web site, on which the candidate explains his reasons for changing his position on seven issues (among them, the personal mandate for health care, which Mr Gingrich used to be in favor of but now considers unconstitutional). Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has been the favored target of “flip-flopping” accusations to date; will the candidates attempt to bestow Mr Gingrich with similar accusations?

The debate begins at 8pm ET on CNN. (Note: for the complete schedule of upcoming Republican debates, as well as links to all previously aired debates, visit 2012 Election Central).

Des Moines, Iowa GOP Debate Features Tears from Multiple Candidates…

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The November 19, 2011 debate between hopefuls for the Republican Presidential nomination at First Federated Church in Des Moines, Iowa was at least as noteworthy for the odd sight of multiple Presidential hopefuls breaking down in tears, and the absence of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, as it was for any answers elicited from the candidates. It often had the feel of a daytime talk show more than a serious debate, with multiple candidates choosing to bare their souls for the cameras. Religious themes were prevelant throughout the debate.

Rather than our usual candidate performance overview, for this article we’ll outline the themes covered, and then we’ll address how the candidates performed against our list of five things to look for:

The Crying

The waterworks began during the second hour, with former National Restaurant Association lobbyist Herman Cain, as he struggled to recall his battle with cancer, and paused for long stretches in attempts to collect himself. Mr Cain’s tale of his stage four cancer diagnosis, his will to battle through it and his ultimate triumph were moving, and set the tone for what followed.

And what followed sometimes felt like a contest between the candidates to one-up each other with stories of tragedy and heartache and battles fought and sometimes won. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum used an extraordinarily lengthy story about his youngest daughter’s life and death struggle to argue against government health care. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich did likewise with a dramatic story of a child who is a friend of his, and who suffered from numerous medical challenges, over which he ultimately triumphed, and also a tale of Mr Gingrich’s former feelings of “emptiness”. Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann told the story of her parents’ divorce and her family’s struggle to survive thereafter. The tears flowed, heart strings were pulled (in often rather calculated ways, a cynic might say). Only Texas Governor Rick Perry and Texas Representative Ron Paul kept things upbeat, in Perry’s case recounting his rise from humble beginnings in a very small town, and in Paul’s case stating that, while he has had some difficulties, the life he’s been blessed with makes those difficulties trivial (although Ron Paul later added that he hates seeing himself on television and had a promising athletic career cut short for medical reasons).

Whether inducing pity translates successfully into votes remains to be seen – some viewers no doubt feel it “humanizes” the candidates, while others may be more inclined to think, “Ya, we all have our problems”. In any case, it was odd, unexpected, sometimes touching and at other times painful to watch.

The Comedy

Rick Perry had perhaps the best lines of the evening, starting during his story about growing up in small town Texas (“I think there were about thirteen kids in my graduating class, and I’m happy to tell you I graduated in the top ten!”) and continuing with his quips referencing his “oops moment” (As Ron Paul discussed cutting the Education Department, Mr Perry added, “And energy too!”, referring to the department he was famously unable to recall during the Michigan debate. The moderator quipped, “Governor, is there a third Department you’d like to cut?”).

Another funny line came after Rick Santorum explained how he considered it a “miracle” that he won the race for Pennsylvania Senator and that God had put him there. The moderator responded with: “What message did God have for you when you lost the last race?”

Newt Gingrich, on the “Occupy Wall Street” protestors, said, “That is why you have to tell them: go get a job, right after you go have a bath”.

When health care came up, the moderator chimed in with: “If only Mitt Romney were here.” Herman Cain responded with, “Mitt who?”

The Religion

The debate was heavy with religious topics, with candidates asked to describe when they were “called by God” and asked to reveal their personal struggles in “this sanctuary” of the First Federated Church. The first question asked candidates to elaborate on their feelings about what the words “so help me God” in the Oath of Office of the President mean to them (notably, unlike Oaths of Office for the judiciary, military, Congress and others, this is not part of the Constitutionally prescribed oath, although it has been traditionally included by Presidents). However important distinctions emerged:

  • Rick Santorum declared Muslims must “modernize” their religion as it is “stuck in the seventh century”. It is unclear if Muslims are looking to Mr Santorum for guidance on reforming their belief system;
  • Newt Gingrich argued that the United States Constitution is predicated upon Judeo-Christian principles and that the “pursuit of happiness” mentioned in the United States Declaration of Independence in fact means “the pursuit of wisdom”, and further seemed to argue that “liberty” leads to “libertines”;
  • Michele Bachmann cited a law passed by Lyndon Johnson which prohibits preachers from discussing politics (the Internal Revenue Service, which is charged with enforcing that law, has been challenged repeatedly by churches);
  • Ron Paul made the point that (contrary to Mr Gingrich’s argument) “liberty” is not the same as being “libertine” and that “liberty” comes with the consequences of decisions;
  • Michele Bachmann stated that she has a “biblical world view” and that God “created government”, and that she would like to “see what he [God] has to say about it”;
  • Rick Santorum argued that “liberty” is not “what you want to do but what you ought to do”, in comportment with God’s law.
  • Newt Gingrich argued the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution gives Congress the right, with a simple majority of Congress, to declare life begins at conception. Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment (which is presumably what Mr Gingrich is referring to) deals with citizenship.

The Courts

Perhaps the most revealing opinions came on the topic of what to do with the Supreme Court in instances whereby the Court rules in a way which does not satisfy the candidate’s point of view. The issue arose in the context of both gay marriage and abortion. Newt Gingrich, rather shockingly, called for the government to remove the Court’s power to rule on the constitutionality of certain issues. Such a plan, of course, would have profound implications: a federal government no longer bound by the Constitution where it deems itself above the scrutiny of the court. Mr Gingrich no doubt views this in light of court interference with items he supports, but such a stance would have equal power under a different administration, which might pass laws antithetical to Mr Gingrich’s views, and Mr Gingrich would have no recourse whatsoever to challenge the validity of such a law. On this issue, Mr Gingrich seems to share the view point of Minority House Leader Nancy Pelosi, who appears to believe the government can pass any law, and is not constrained by the Constitution. It was a shocking revelation by Mr Gingrich.

Rick Perry reiterated his argument that the terms of Supreme Court Justices should be limited (the issue of the Constitutional Amendment this would require, and whether it would pass, did not arise).

Rick Santorum would like to abolish the Ninth Circuit Courts, which he stated after Newt Gingrich declared that he would abolish the court of Federal District Judge Fred Biery of San Antonio.

The Wars

Candidates fell into their now-predictable stances on war: Mr Santorum seemed, as usual, almost eager to go to war; Ms Bachmann lamented the lack of access by the government to waterboarding and other torture methods; Mr Gingrich trumpeted his “big-government Republican” world view; Dr Paul argued for the Congressional approval required for war, and then only in defense.

The Five Things We Suggested Viewers Look For

  1. Did Herman Cain have something to offer beyond “9-9-9″? Mr Cain continued to lack the confidence and charisma which he exudes (in buckets) when on the topic of his “9-9-9″ tax plan. The debate did not showcase any new planks for Mr Cain to showcase his personality with.
  2. Will the surging Ron Paul solidify recent gains with a strong performance? Dr Paul’s performance was solid. He did nothing to “hit it out of the park” but also remained consistent throughout, and drew applause often. The most important distinction Ron Paul made probably came on the topic of whether government should attempt to force a particular cultural perspective on the populace: all the other candidates seemed to favor the government peddling cultural values; Ron Paul instead argued the government should not be in the business of enforcing culture. It’s an important distinction, because the other candidates argue that the “left” is forcing a cultural viewpoint, and argue not that it is not government’s place to do so, but rather that government should instead push a different cultural agenda.
  3. How will Newt Gingrich handle his recent surge in national polls? Mr Gingrich was more subdued and less combative than he usually is in these debates, and his points were well received by the crowd.
  4. Will Mitt Romney’s absence sway Iowa voters, where Mr Romney is in a dead heat? This remains to be seen, but in a caucus state, it’s hard to imagine Mr Romney’s absence won’t have an impact.
  5. Will any of the other candidates be able to suprise with a strong showing? Rick Santorum clearly savored the opportunity to get more speaking time, and got a good opportunity to show how his candidacy is different than the others. Viewership was particularly low for this debate, however (it was only streamed online and not broadcast on television – you can find it archived here), therefore it’s unclear if Mr Santorum’s increased air time will result in a bump in the polls in Iowa. Rick Perry, too, had his best debate to date, generally articulate and didn’t exhibit the “deer in the headlights” syndrome he has so commonly demonstrated in these debates.

5 Things to Watch For in Tonight’s GOP Debate…

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The latest in the long series of debates between hopefuls for the Republican Presidential nomination takes place at 5pm ET tonight, Saturday November 19th at First Federated Church in Des Moines, Iowa (live stream available here). Here are five things to keep an eye on during the debate:

  1. Does Herman Cain have something to offer beyond “9-9-9″?

    Former lobbyist Herman Cain (who, interestingly, supported Mitt Romney in the 2008 race) has shown great appeal with voters when a question can be answered by working in his “9-9-9″ tax plan, but has seemed far out of his depth when issues stray to things like foreign policy (where he’s made several odd statements about China and Libya and other topics). With poll numbers heading south, and Mr Cain’s “9-9-9″ mantra growing repetitive, will Herman Cain find another winning line?

  2. Will the surging Ron Paul solidify recent gains with a strong performance?

    Recent polls show Texas Representative Ron Paul in a four way tie for first place in Iowa and in second place in New Hampshire. With a strong ground game and poll numbers higher than Perry, Bachmann and Santorum, but disproprotinately less media coverage (an alternate title to this point could easily have been, “Will Ron Paul get more than 89 seconds in this debate?”), Dr Paul has a chance to solidify recent gains with another strong performance.

  3. How will Newt Gingrich handle his recent surge in national polls?

    With a new spotlight shining on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, given his recent rise in the polls, the debate will be a chance for Mr Gingrich to consolidate his standing. However amusing his often flippant responses are (the alternative title for this point might well have been, “How long will it take Mr Gingrich to attack the moderators or avoid answering an unfavorable question by employing sarcasm?”), he’ll now have to answer questions about his dealings with Freddie Mac and other potential skeletons in his closet (as did Mr Cain upon his time in the spotlight amidst surging poll numbers).

  4. Will Mitt Romney’s absence sway Iowa voters, where Mr Romney is in a dead heat?

    Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney hasn’t spent much effort or money in Iowa, and his poll numbers reflect that fact. This debate, in Iowa, won’t feature Mitt Romney. Will his absence give his fellow contenders the chance to pull away?

  5. Will any of the other candidates be able to suprise with a strong showing?

    The rest of the field is hanging on by a thread, with the exception of Texas Governor Rick Perry, who would be out of the running entirely but for his rich campaign chest. With less than seven weeks until voting begins, will any of the candidates on the margins go for a game changing performance?

Is There a Path for Ron Paul to the Republican Presidential Nomination?

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House Representative Ron Paul of Texas, currently running for the Republican Presidential nomination, presents an unusual case: here is a candidate who gets the third largest amount of campaign contributions among GOP Presidential hopefuls (behind former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Texas Governor Rick Perry), who spoke to the causes of the Tea Party long before the modern Tea Party was born (and when doing so often meant being a lone voice, and frequently ridiculed), who consistently polls higher than former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum combined (and consistently higher than Rick Perry, but for Perry’s initial surge) and who has been consistent about his positions throughout his twenty-two years in public office, rather than adopting positions for the sake of popularity among voters of the moment. Ron Paul also polls well against President Obama in theoretical head-to-head match ups, beating every other candidate except Mitt Romney (and Ron Paul beats Obama among independent voters by 48% to 39%, according to this Public Policy Poll). At the same time, Dr Paul gets an inordinately low amount of media coverage: witness his eighty-nine seconds of air time at the South Carolina candidates debate on foreign policy, or, as we previously reported, his lack of coverage after finishing second in the Ames, Iowa straw poll (missing first place by just 152 votes out of 16,892 total votes cast). This is a candidate the media, and the establishment, clearly dismisses (see too the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism study of media coverage of candidate Paul).

Most “pundits” are of the opinion that Mr Paul’s support is “a mile deep but an inch wide”. In other words, his supporters are few but passionate. It is also assumed that Representative Paul has a “ceiling” on his support, somewhere around 10%, above which he cannot climb.

But multiple recent polls show Ron Paul in a virtual tie in Iowa and in second place in New Hampshire (trailing Mitt Romney). So today we ask: are there a set of circumstances whereby Representative Paul could win the Republican Presidential nomination?

So far, the course of the nomination campaign has made clear that there are really only two votes: Mitt Romney or someone not Mitt Romney. Consider this: Mr Romney consistently polled around 23% when Rick Perry entered the race with polling numbers in the forties. After Mr Perry’s numbers receded dramatically (down to the high single digits currently), where was Mr Romney left? Around 23%. The same thing happened while former lobbyist Herman Cain experienced a significant surge and subsequent decline (thought Mr Cain’s decline appears not yet finished): as voters’ support left Mr Cain, it did not go to Mr Romney. The latest “anti-Romney” candidate has been former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has seen his poll numbers rise dramatically as Mr Cain’s have fallen (and as Mr Perry’s continue to fall). But Mr Gingrich’s period in the spotlight as the “anti-Romney” is as fragile as was Mr Cain’s, and Mr Perry’s before him: new revelations that Newt Gingrich accepted between $1.6 million and $1.7 million from Freddie Mac (the amount was previously thought to be $300,000, the figure used in the Michigan debate) could seriously harm Mr Gingrich (who claims these funds were not for lobbying purposes but rather for “historical consultation”). The former Speaker also has a style which, while initially appearing amusingly acerbic, often reveals itself to be more akin to a method of deflecting some inconvenient truths – witness Gingrich’s response when pressed by Mitt Romney about Mr Gingrich’s support of a personal mandate for health care coverage (“We got the idea [for a personal mandate in Massachusetts] from Newt Gingrich”): Mr Gingrich denied he favored a personal mandate several times, before, finally, conceding that he was indeed in favor of an individual mandate for health care (for the record, Newt Gingrich had this to say in 1993: “I am for people, individuals — exactly like automobile insurance — individuals having health insurance and being required to have health insurance.”). If Newt Gingrich’s polling numbers collapse like Rick Perry’s did and like Herman Cain’s are, where does that leave the “anti-Romney” voters?

Michele Bachmann, who won the Ames, Iowa straw poll, but who has seen her polling numbers shrink dramatically since, doesn’t seem a viable alternative to Mitt Romney. Statements like this one, from the South Carolina debate, don’t help: “It seems like the world is gearing up for a world wide nuclear war against Israel.”

Jon Huntsman, former Ambassador to China under President Obama, is running on a platform somewhere to the left of Mitt Romney. That’s hardly going to appeal to that significant portion of Republicans who are opposed to Mr Romney for being too far to the left.

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum hasn’t often polled above 1%, and when he lost his re-election bid for the senate, he lost it very convincingly: his loss to Democrat Bob Casey Jr. was by the largest margin of defeat ever for an incumbent Republican Senator in Pennsylvania (which makes Mr Santorum’s statement at the Las Vegas debate particularly amusing: “I can win Pennsylvania, and if we win Pennsylvania, we win the election!”).

That brings us back to Representative Ron Paul.

There are currently somewhere around three quarters of Republicans who do not wish to see Mitt Romney as their candidate for President. Many of those same Republicans do not wish to see Ron Paul as the candidate. If the only real options come down to Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, the race will be decided by three things:

  • Will the “anti-Romney” Republicans be more likely to hold their noses and vote for Mitt Romney, or similarly hold their noses and vote for Ron Paul?
  • Will other “anti-Romney” candidates like Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich siphon off enough votes from Mitt Romney to allow Ron Paul to squeak out a win with 20% to 25% of the vote (it seems far easier to imagine a Romney supporter switching to Gingrich or Cain than it is to imagine a Paul supporter making that same switch)?
  • What role will independents play?

If, as it increasingly looks like, Tea Party supporters are left with a choice between Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, and the remaining candidates take votes from Romney but not Paul, and enough “anti-war” independents register as Republicans and support Ron Paul, there may indeed be a path for Dr Paul to the nomination.

Largely, this race has come down to “establishment versus anti-establishment”, with Mitt Romney firmly representing the “establishment” and other candidates temporarily (but ultimately unsatisfactorily) representing the “anti-establishment”, except for candidate Ron Paul, who has been “anti-establishment” for over two decades now (with about 99% of his campaign contributions coming from individuals, versus 56% for Mr Romney).

Can Ron Paul pull off a surpise upset? We’ll start to find out in less than seven weeks.

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