As Allahpundit thinks I am being too bullish on Rick Perry’s campaign, it is probably time to repeat my standard disclaimer and collect some of the analysis I have done not only in blog posts, but in comments and tweets. First, the disclaimer: I am currently not supporting Perry or any of the other candidates. Perhaps I am overly cynical, but I have not been excited about a presidential candidate since Reagan — and that was as likely the result of youthful exuberance as it was Reagan’s merits.
When other people were starting to call Perry the front-runner, I was still analyzing the race as Romney vs. Not Romney. In analyzing comments from Romney back Justin Hart (who is likely feeling vindicated these days), I wrote:
At the outset, I want to stress that his point about vetting is important. There is a reason why the GOP tends to nominate the person who is “next in line.” Running for president is not an easy thing. Having done it before means you have built a network of grassroots contacts, donors, consultants, and so on. Presumably, the candidate may have learned lessons about not only strategy and tactics, but about our complex country and the people whose votes must be won. And yes, having already run a gauntlet of vetting from opponents and the media is valuable to a candidate.
Romney has benefitted from his experience, while Perry has handed his rivals at least one club in his debate comment suggesting opponents of illegal immigration are racist. How big a club it is depends on how Perry deals with it in the next few days. (Romney’s recent Democrat-sounding comments about entitlements may become a club for Perry, but they are not as emotionally egregious as playing the race card.)
Aside from that comment, I remain of the opinion that the debates themselves are not all that significant. Rather, they are parts of the overall vetting of a new candidate. The general media coverage of the campaign illustrates this point.
The 2012 campaign was barely covered from mid-July through early August, as public and media attention was focused on the debt ceiling debate. However, Perry was the most covered GOP candidate every single week since he entered the race. He was the only GOP candidate to receive significant coverage in a number of those weeks. In the week the debates started, Perry was featured in more than 3 times as many stories as either Romney or Bachmann. Thus, it is not surprising that Perry’s ups and downs have been magnified, relative to other candidates.
A look at the RCP poll average for the GOP nomination tells roughly the same story. Although Romney, Cain and Bachmann had their bumps at different times, their overall numbers declined from mid-July through early August; Perry, despite not being in the race, was the exception to the overall trend. Moreover, Romney’s turnaround started after the Labor Day weekend, while Perry was still rising, and a week and a half before Perry appeared in a debate. As the two most popular candidates, Perry and Romney appear to have benefitted from increased public attention to the campaign at the traditional moment. Notably, Romney is just now back to roughly where he stood in the polls on the day Perry entered the race.
Of course, given Perry’s current stumbles, some are straight-line projecting that Romney will continue to gain while Perry will continue to fall. That is also the impression you would get from the odds at Intrade. If Perry’s aura of invincibility is shattered, what is left?
What is left, for starters, are the things which caused me to conclude Perry is the likely GOP nominee in the first place. He remains the largely successful governor of a major state in one of the party’s base regions. He remains — despite his various deviations — more conservative than Romney, which is a bit of an advantage in the more conservative major party.
Moreover, assuming for the sake of argument that the campaign reverts to the dynamic of Romney vs Not Romney, Perry remains the only candidate in the race who has shown the ability to beat Romney. Other candidates could make a late entry. However, an entry by Chris Christie would be just as likely to hurt Romney as Perry. An entry by Sarah Palin would split the Not Romney vote, carrying a significant likelihood of helping Romney more than Not Romney. Perry is currently the most viable Not Romney and the one best positioned financially to wage a long campaign against Romney, if necessary.
Indeed, most of the criticism of Perry’s debate performances from the right have been that Perry has failed to effectively attack Romney’s weaknesses. It is a criticism which — like Perry’s sudden rise in general — underscores that Romney himself has exploitable flaws as a candidate. The tendency by Romney’s supporters is to dismiss them as priced into his stock. However, it seems unlikely to me that those flaws will not become a focus of the campaign going forward, especially if Romney is perceived as regaining the lead.
In short, Perry’s hockey-stick ascent is broken and he could play himself out of the campaign. The GOP electorate may conclude that there is no viable alternative to Romney. But there are currently big reasons to conclude that Perry is far from done. Straight-line projections about the campaign remain as hazardous now as they were when Perry’s numbers were skyrocketing.