History, Politics, and the Republican Primary

Let’s talk about history. First, a little of my history. I have a Ph.D in it, and teach at a large public university in the State of Texas. I also research and occasionally publish. My field is not American political history, but it is a passion for me. I didn’t choose that field because it is nigh on impossible to get a job these days with that sort of focus. Oh for the 1950s in the academy! Still, I believe I am qualified to at least offer a few observations on history and how it may or may not matter to this year’s Republican primary.

I will also be up front here about my candidate leanings. I am 100% behind Texas governor Rick Perry. If pressed to choose a second candidate, it would be former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, and bringing up the rear in the short list is former history professor and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. I have little time or use for Ron Paul (though I confess to having been a dues paying member of the Libertarian party for the better part of a decade), Rick Santorum, or Mitt Romney. With that disclosure out of the way (not that I think it matters to the larger point, but . . .) I’ll get to the heart of this (overly) lengthy missive.

It is fashionable to quote or paraphrase the Spanish philosopher George Santayana’s statement that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” While I will not claim to possess even a tenth of Santayana’s intellect, this sentiment is problematic on a number of levels. It is not my intention here to digress into a lengthy discussion of the philosophy of history, but rather to take Santayana’s dictum, apply it to our current GOP primary, see how well it holds up, and suggest why it may not matter after all.

First, I defy any GOP voter to tell me that the party doesn’t remember the past. The annals of Republican party history are filled with electoral disaster at the Presidential level after 1928. I point to Hoover’s second term bid, Alf Landon, Wendell Wilkie, Thomas Dewey (twice), Richard Nixon (1960), Barry Goldwater, George H.W. Bush’s second term bid, Bob Dole, and John McCain. Which  of these things is not the like the other (to paraphrase Sesame Street)?  That’s right, Goldwater and Nixon. With the exception of Nixon in 1960, all the others were wipeout losses. With the exception of Goldwater, all the losing candidates were not conservatives, (at least not on enough issues to count).  The GOP remembers its history well, but more often than not, chooses to repeat the mistake. While we often hear that the GOP is afraid to nominate another Goldwater (no memory problems there!) for fear of a landslide loss, they have seldom fared any better at the end of the voting day with their reasonable, moderate candidates. Ronald Reagan, a conservative in the mold of Goldwater won two landslide victories. That makes the truly conservative nominee for the GOP 2-1, while their moderates have compiled a far more modest 6-9 record (I count Nixon’s 2 victories in 68 and 72, Bush 41 in 84, and G.W. Bush in 00 and 04). If I were a betting man, I would take 2-1 odds over 6-9 odds any day of the week for the same payoff.

What does this tell us? Simply that history might matter a little bit, and taken on face value, why would the GOP ever nominate a moderate presidential candidate? After all, history seems to imply that conservatism is a winner more often than not. Yet the thoughtful observer will (rightly) point out that every single election mentioned above had special dynamics that made each different from the other. The variable at play are countless and include, but are not limited to, foreign events, domestic economics, gaffes, incumbent strength, campaign finances, and personal appearance. When all factors are taken into account, no past election can be a true model for future elections. There are simply too many differences from cycle to cycle. This would in part explain why the GOP can remember its past and yet persist in nominating the middle-of-the-road moderate. After all, just because it didn’t work out in 2008 doesn’t mean a a similar approach can’t work in 2012.  History can be an interesting guide to the past, and can certainly serve to highlight some general themes or trends, but cannot be reliably used as a predictive model for the future. Why? Because no two events are ever exactly the same. At best they can claim similarity, but beyond a surface resemblance, in-depth exploration of any event will reveal a myriad of differences.

So, what does this mean for the 2012 GOP primary? It means that we can throw out, if not with complete confidence, then at least without much fear, past primaries as a model. (Sorry political science guys, but this is where our disciplines part ways). Conventional wisdom, meaning thought that places faith in the past as a predictor of the future, tells us that Iowa and NH mean a great deal in selecting a presidential nominee. This has often been true, but is it true simply on the basis of history (this is what has always happened therefore . . .), or true because circumstances surrounding each primary contest have led to future events that ended up making these primaries important? It is plausible that a candidate can lose both NH and Iowa and yet win a major party nomination? Based on a superficial application of history, probably not. Based on an understanding that each event is unique in its time and circumstances, then absolutely. The states with the four largest delegate counts come later in the process (NY, FLA, CA, TX) when most primary contests are all but over. Logically this is absurd. It’s only because history (that is, what passes for history in this case) makes it so. To use an illustrative example, what is the usual problem for candidates that don’t do well in the Iowa and NH primaries? It’s money. The general reality is that if a candidate fails to show significant momentum coming out of the early states, the funding begins to dry up, and meaningful, effective campaigning is impossible. This leads to knock-on effects: when the money goes away, so does the needed media exposure to sustain a viable campaign, and so on.  Thus, Iowa and NH play a disproportionally large role in the nominating process.

But what if a candidate is not immediately shackled by funding problems? What if there are number of candidates continuing to pursue the same block of voters? These are but two of the many variables that are unknown at the start of a primary season yet make each one different from the others. This is where history becomes less of a reliable guide and more of a starting point from which to develop meaningful analysis. In this 2012 primary, history doesn’t matter, at least not in the predictive sense, because of variables.

Let me explain. This primary season has been odd in the polling dynamics, and the rise and fall of various candidates. I do not recall, in my lifetime, at least (the first election I voted in was 1988), anything close to this many drastic ups and downs spread out among so many candidates. That alone is different. Many things might be read or inferred from this, but it is still different. Secondly, we have one candidate in Mitt Romney, with a stable core of support that has not changed much in 6+ years. He has failed, in two election cycles now, to convince a majority of primary voters that he is the one to choose. This is not a knock on Romney, simply a statement of fact. 25-30% seems to be Mitt’s primary ceiling while there are more than two competitors in the running. This leaves 70-75% of GOP primary voters split among several candidates, with no one of them emerging as a solid (at least for long) alternative to Romney. The media calls these various people “Anti-Romneys.” Crude, and simplistic, but okay.

The conventional wisdom would then run like the following. Four of these “anti-Romneys” were damaged in Iowa to the point that one (Bachmann) dropped out. Two of the remaining three (Perry, and Gingrich) are not expected to do well in NH, with only Huntsman poised for a credible showing. History, or conventional wisdom would suggest to us Perry and Gingrich should be done. Poor showings in both Iowa and NH historically have done that. We are then left with Paul, Santorum, and Romney. History would further tell us that Santorum, having won (essentially) Iowa by courting the social conservative/evangelical vote that Iowa is famous for, will not play well at all in NH, and thus lose the all-important momentum, which for him is critical given his lack of funding. This will then leave Mitt Romney in the driver’s seat. note: I discount Paul’s insurgent campaign  for now, believing it will not be sustainable for long and has probably peaked, and his voters are probably not likely to add much to other candidates if he drops out.

If Santayana’s view, and all of the permutations it takes, is correct, Mitt Romney will be our default nominee. But we must now take into account the variables. Romney is not an exciting candidate for the majority of GOP voters. However, we have remaining four candidates (Perry, Santorum, Huntsman, Gingrich) with the potential to excite the majority, particularly if the support of all four eventually coalesces behind a single one of them. If it is true that Romney generates 25% support, then 75% are willing to look elsewhere as long as there is an elsewhere to look. Which brings us to another variable that makes this primary season different. Perry still has funding. He amassed a sizable war chest that has not been exhausted by Iowa, and given his commitment to remaining in the race for the long haul, has apparently been assured of funds to continue on for a time. Gingrich has shown that massive campaign funds are not always critical to a good showing. Newt, as a personality, generates enough interest on his own to receive important media exposure, debates well, and manages to secure just enough funding to hang around. It seems apparent that his methods and advantages will keep him going for a while yet. Santorum should enjoy a boost coming out of Iowa, even with a poor NH showing. His problem, however, is that nowhere else in this primary season will he be able to do what he did in Iowa. That is, he will not have several weeks in each state to visit all the counties and shake all the hands and do the retail politicking that made Iowa a winner for him. Money will not completely make up for this constraint on his campaign success, because money cannot buy time. Huntsman threw all his eggs into a NH basket, and only time (a short time) will tell us whether that will make or break him. If he does well, it might make him.

The end of this speculative essay is simply this: history is no real guide here. It ‘s possible that the GOP primary will go as others have gone, with Mitt Romney winning the battle of attrition and becoming the nominee. However, Santorum may have more surprises up his sleeve; how many pundits and analysts even two weeks ago had him winning or even competing well in Iowa? Perry has money, and goes to Perry country (the South) where his style, accent, and record will play well and where a resurgence is entirely possible. Gingrich has the methods and savvy to sustain a weakly-funded operation over a long period and could really damage Romney in the masterfully cutting way that only Newt can. Huntsman may well pummel Romney in NH, and finally position himself to credibly go after other states with more than a wing and a prayer.

As a historian, I am not much good at prognosticating, and especially not in an area that is as complex and variable as politics, but I will venture a scenario that should give hope to Perry supporters, or indeed, all who subscribe to the “anyone but Romney” philosophy. One, perhaps two, of the four remaining “anti-Romneys” will be left standing after Super Tuesday. I can’t and won’t predict who. Drop Paul’s 10% hardcore followers, and you have 90% of the electorate up for grabs. Drop Romney’s 25% and you will have one taking the 65% remainder or two men fighting for it. Romney will no doubt pick up some supporters from those that continue to drop out, but he still has a real fight ahead to become the nominee, and is infinitely beatable when the remaining candidate or candidates take their 60% (or 30% if there are two) support to the winner-take-all states. I hope Perry is the last man standing, but I could live with Huntsman , or Newt being that man.

At the end of the day, history is not our guide, nor are we doomed to repeat anything, memory or not. We have the facts at hand, and the variables that make this year different from any past or future election year, and anything can happen. Just because it hasn’t before doesn’t mean it ever will, or isn’t possible.