It has been a very telling few days in the race for the White House. President Obama admits what many of us have been saying—that he now starts out the underdog in this race, while also adding in the rather bizarre assertion that Americans are not better off than they were four years ago. The governor of New Jersey, Republican Chris Christie, pushed and prodded to get in the race, declares unequivocally that he isn’t ready to run or serve and he will finish out his current term as governor. The next day, in a decision that surprises virtually no one, Sarah Palin follows suit. And Herman Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza executive, rises dramatically in the polls; he is second in most and actually tied for the lead in one.
There continues to be a lot of noise out there, and sometimes it’s tough to find the frequency of this race. So let’s again step back and figure out what this might be telling us broadly and see if we can tune into the frequency.
As the president himself readily admits, he is in a very vulnerable and precarious political situation. His Gallup approval numbers over the last few months have not risen above 42 percent, and there seems to be no indication they will rise in a faltering economy. No president has won reelection with approval numbers that low. (Many see his only hope in a significant third-party candidate running, which would allow him to win states with less than a majority vote.) Republicans understand this and are worried about giving the race away by nominating a flawed candidate.
The pursuit of Christie was a sure sign of dissatisfaction with the current Republican field, especially front-runner Mitt Romney. Romney has put together a stellar organization, raised the most money, and has the most national campaign experience of all the candidates, but can’t seem to rise above a quarter of the vote. This ceiling has existed for a few years and continues to be his biggest hurdle. I believe it is primarily driven by the perception that he doesn’t come across as authentic and genuine. Valid or not, it is a perception that taken hold in a big part of the Republican electorate.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry came into this race with huge fanfare and surged to the lead, but did not meet expectations in his performance as a candidate. He faltered in each of the debates and now the pressure is really on. He posted very good fundraising numbers, and the upcoming Bloomberg/Washington Post debate in New Hampshire on the economy gives him a chance to recover, but he needs to do so soon. Otherwise, his revealed flaws will stick and be hard to recover from.
An interesting story is Rep. Michele Bachmann and her trajectory. The Minnesota Republican, like Perry, came into this race with a meteoric rise and was leading in Iowa. She did very well in the Ames debate and won the straw vote. After that, she lost all momentum because of her own performances and Perry stepping on her trajectory with his entrance. She too needs to do well in the next debate, because otherwise she will just be a spoiler.
So now Herman Cain. Here is a guy with no organization, no real campaign plan, no significant money, and who is on a book tour in the midst of the nominating process—and who has risen the most dramatically in the polls of late. It shows the traditional way we measure what’s important in a campaign no longer really applies. Cain has captured what many were fascinated by in Bachmann and Perry: He comes across as authentic and genuine, he has a simple answer (probably not plausible, though) on the economy, he seems willing to take on Obama with passion, and he seems to enjoy the fight. How long—or if—he can maintain his growth is an open question and will be determined by how he now handles front-runner status.
The bottom line to all this right now is that Romney is a very weak front-runner; the field is still very fluid; the five primary caucus events likely to be held in January could easily be won by four different candidates; debates and performance really matter; and Republican voters are still open to playing the field for a while.
One thing is certain: The winning candidate will need to be authentic, a fighter who has a simple anti-Washington and economic message and who can look at his or her campaign untraditionally. So drop the 50-point plans; find your core values and display them day to day; be ready to perform well in key moments like debates; and show that you enjoy the process and have some fun. Who wants to date someone that doesn’t know who they are and isn’t fun?
Now on to Dartmouth—location of the next debate and an inspiration for the classic movie National Lampoon’s Animal House, which may be a fitting symbol for this process so far. The Republican establishment is unsuccessfully trying to play Dean Wormer and control the process, and we are now figuring out the Delta fraternity has turned the whole thing upside down.