There’s nothing veteran journalists like better than to share their insights about the political process with those less-versed. This is what I learned shortly before hitting the trail back in September, keen to cover my first presidential campaign.
Let me tell you how it is, cub, they said. We’ve done this once or twice.
Yet over the past six months, the Republican nominating contest has defied logic and precedent. Starting with predictions that the primaries would be a quick and boring romp for Mitt Romney, it’s astonishing how many times the veterans and conventional wisdom have been wrong. Seven times so far, in fact, with an outside chance of eight:
1. If someone wins Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s over.
The GOP nomination process typically follows a well-worn path. One candidate wins the Iowa caucuses, with their heavy participation by Christian conservatives, while another captures the primary in New Hampshire, home to more moderate Republicans. No non-incumbent had ever won both states since 1976, when they began to host their first-in-the-nation contests. So anybody who managed to win the two -- well, game over. Mitt Romney seemed poised to do just that. Then, more than two weeks after Iowa (and long after Romney’s triumph in New Hampshire), came the results of an Iowa recount. It turned out that Rick Santorum – not Romney – had actually won.
2. South Carolina is the great decider.
If New Hampshire and Iowa produce two different winners, the two move on to the more demographically and ideologically diverse South Carolina primary – and the winner continues on to win the nomination. South Carolina had accurately picked the eventual GOP candidate since 1980. This year, the Palmetto State primary results brought anything but clarity to the contest. Newt Gingrich had placed a disappointing fourth in both Iowa and New Hampshire, but South Carolina handed him a resounding victory.
3. It’ll be over after Florida.
A blowout win for Romney in this crucial general-election battleground was supposed to reestablish the former Massachusetts governor as the front-runner, allowing him to again paint his nomination as inevitable. That strategy didn’t account for Santorum roaring back to life by unexpectedly sweeping three contests just a week later in Colorado, Missouri, and Minnesota.
4. It’ll really, really be over after Super Tuesday.
A strong showing in the 10 contests on Super Tuesday across a geographically and ideologically diverse cross-section of the country can typically lock it down for a strong candidate. In 2008, GOP nominee John McCain expanded his yawning lead over his rivals by winning seven Super Tuesday states. But this year, Romney was forced to share the glory with Santorum. Romney bagged six states and the most delegates, but Santorum took three and Gingrich won his home state of Georgia. The results did more to highlight the fragile front-runner’s weaknesses than his strengths.
5. Money is everything.
In presidential years past, weak war chests could spell a premature death for White House ambitions and fearsome fundraising bona fides could cement one’s status as a real-deal candidate. But in 2012, perpetually cash-starved campaigns have managed to keep their aspirations alive, with the advent of super PACs and a jam-packed debate schedule that allowed some candidates to shine. Moreover, ample amounts of money weren’t enough to keep deep-pocketed contenders from stinging rebukes at the polls. Just ask Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who torched over $16 million on his way to fifth- and sixth-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, respectively, before bowing out a few days before the South Carolina primary.
6. Organization is everything.
Nuts and bolts are usually the heart of an operation. How many field offices do you have? How many paid staff? How many door-knockers? How many printers? How many phones? The answers for many of the campaigns this year: not that many. But candidates like Gingrich and Santorum have ended up doing remarkably well without an army of staffers or glitzy headquarters.
7. It’s just the economy, stupid.
With unemployment hovering around 9 percent until recently, most pundits believed that the economy would be the overriding issue in the primaries and in the general election. And indeed, a Feb. 29 Gallup survey found that nine out of 10 registered voters rated the economy as extremely or very important to their decision in November. Yet, social issues have sprung up numerous times over the course of the last few months, dominating headlines, as the GOP presidential candidates weigh in on everything from contraception and prenatal testing to the role of religion in the public square. Then there’s Gingrich’s memorable proposal, at a campaign stop in Florida, to build a moon base. Meanwhile, most GOP voters have failed to warm up to Romney, who has staked his entire campaign on the economy and his business chops.
8. Republicans always anoint the next in line.
Republicans have a tendency to nominate the candidate that’s been around the block before and has earned the right to be their standard-bearer. McCain ran unsuccessfully in 2000, losing to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, before securing the nomination in 2008. Former Sen. Bob Dole ran twice — in 1980 and 1988 — before winning his party’s nod in 1996. George H.W. Bush lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980 before going on to win the nomination and the presidency in 1988. Romney fits that bill as well — his first White House run was in 2008 and most of the GOP establishment is firmly behind him. Though he appears likely to prevail in this roller-coaster race, the verdict’s still out.