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NJ Daily / OFF TO THE RACES

A Marathon or a Sprint

How long will this GOP presidential primary season last? History offers a guide.

Mr. Right? After playing the field, GOP voters may embrace Romney.(AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

photo of Charlie Cook
December 12, 2011

Last time I checked, the final Republican presidential primaries were scheduled for June. In fact, my favorite resource for primary and caucus dates, Frontloading HQ, shows California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, and North Dakota all slated for June 5. Ohio and Utah are scheduled for June 12 and 26, respectively. (Many think that Ohio date may end up sooner.) But in this new over-caffeinated cable- and blog-driven campaign-media culture, one would never know that the nomination will not be settled in three weeks. Between now and final primaries, there will be more than 150 mornings of daily newspaper front pages and evenings of nightly news programs. The temptation to extrapolate the end result from whatever seems to be happening today seems to be pervasive.

It’s pretty safe to assume that many of those currently involved in or covering American politics never read—or if they did, certainly didn’t take to heart—Jules Witcover’s amazing chronicle of the 1976 campaign, Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency 1972-1976. If they did, they probably wouldn’t be treating this current point in the race for much more than it is: a snapshot, indeed one taken just before the starting gun fires.

The important thing to watch is not who has a lead in the polls in mid-December, before the individual contests begin, or even who specifically places first in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. The focus should more appropriately be placed on who will likely be standing at the end of the race and on who will be standing at the podium on the night of Aug. 30 in Tampa accepting the Republican nomination.

 

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that, just as in a marathon, things like stamina, preparation, discipline, and focus matter. To win this marathon of a presidential nomination contest, one might add money, organization, depth, and layers of campaign expertise and skilled manpower to the list of what actually matters in this race. Even the grassroots efforts of George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, and Howard Dean had some degree of infrastructure. Each of them also had a brain trust that existed beyond what resides under one head of hair and between two ears. That’s why I remain very skeptical that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich will end up being the nominee, and will be pretty surprised if former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney doesn’t. Exciting or not, Romney is the only one who has carefully put together the building blocks necessary to construct a winning nomination campaign.

But even putting aside the organizational headwinds that Gingrich faces (the phones in his Iowa headquarters were installed just last week), he would be the first presidential candidate in modern history to win a nomination without that infrastructure. Can a candidate who carries the baggage that Gingrich brings into the race be successful? That’s asking a lot to believe. Maybe it happens, but I remain skeptical.

The most common counterpoint to my argument is that Romney seems stuck with between 20 and 25 percent of the vote. This suggests that there is a ceiling on his support, that opposition to him is so great that he can’t move beyond that point. A differing interpretation is that in what is now, with Herman Cain’s demise, a seven-way race, getting much above that point isn’t realistic. It could also be that the real reason might not be outright opposition to Romney as a person, but rather a preference for a completely different style of nominee. The more moderate style has had problems catching on this year. Some recent polling shows that Romney is the second-place choice of many current Gingrich supporters. This underscores that point.

Being one of ample girth and more of a fondness for food than my internist and cardiologist would prefer me to have, I will offer a gastronomical analogy. Let’s say 10 friends are planning to go out for dinner on a Saturday night. Six or seven are in the mood for something really spicy like a Mexican, Cajun, or Indian restaurant. Three are leaning more toward a diner or blander American cuisine. Maybe they are in the mood for meatloaf or comfort food. One or two others are fairly ambivalent. Where do they end up going? The majority favors more exciting options. But let’s now say that as they look at the actual restaurant options for that zestier fare, reviews are a bit underwhelming. There seem to be shortcomings, causing some to have reservations about bolder choices. Where do they end up?

In a Republican Party where almost two-thirds are supporters of, or at least sympathetic with, the tea party movement, they clearly are in the mood for something spicier, something bolder or more exciting than Tim Pawlenty was or Romney or Jon Huntsman are. If there were a well-funded, well-organized, and less-flawed conservative running in this field, the situation might very well be different. But there isn’t.

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