I’m getting enough email about Perry that I want to, again, clarify something: I’m not in the tank for the guy. I’m not even sure I like him and I’m certainly not sure that he’d be a good president. Let me put it this way: I was never very impressed by George W. Bush and the best line about Perry is that he’s the guy W. was always pretending to be.
People seem to confuse what I think about Perry’s prospects with what I, personally, want to see happen. (In much the same way some people thought that I was a Federer hater just because I realized his eclipse had begun. I doubt you’ll find anyone who loves Federer more than I do, and I hate watching him in decline. But that doesn’t mean that he’s not declining.)
And so: Despite everything, I still like Perry’s chances.
Now, one big thing happened, which I certainly didn’t expect: I thought Perry would unite the insurgent and establishment wings of the party. Not only has that not taken place (yet?), but the opposite occurred. The establishment pushed back against Perry, hard. Like, Palin-in-2009 hard.
But the big question is whether establishment types (both in the actual establishment and the voters who reflect their thinking) are enough to win the nomination today. I think that’s also a very open question.
I’d remind people that for the last two cycles, everything we knew about the nomination fight changed drastically and quickly in the lead up to the actual voting. Dean imploded. Kerry used Iowa to catapult himself away from the entire field. (It helped that he had the money and organization to take advantage of the win.) Huckabee came out of nowhere in Iowa, and Romney was never able to make the sale in any of the other important early states. Obama used the split anti-Hillary vote in Iowa to drive the early part of his march through the caucuses. (If he loses Iowa, I think it’s an open question whether or not he wins the nomination.)
I mention all of this not to say that Perry is Kerry (or Obama, or anyone else) but just to remind people that with three months before the voting, I think fundamentals are more important considerations than a tight-grouping in the polls.
So what are the fundamentals of the race that (for now) we know?
* Romney has firmly secured the GOP establishment, as he did in 2008.
* Romney is an improved candidate, but is still the guy with a very poor electoral record. This doesn’t mean voters will never warm to him. But I’d like to see it happen before I’ll believe in it.
* Supporting the idea that voters are resisting Romney is the pinging around of poll numbers among the other candidates. First Bachman. Then Perry. Now Cain. Clearly there is a substantial anti-Romney vote that’s coalescing, breaking up, and then re-forming around other candidates.
* The question is, will these voters give up the ghost and sign up with Romney at some point? Maybe. But maybe not. In 2003 people thought, My God, the Democrats can’t be crazy enough to nominate someone like Dean! And despite Dean’s lead, they were right. It seems entirely possible that, like the anti-Dean votes in 2004, the anti-Romney votes are eventually going to stop being split among Santorum, Bachman, Gingrich, Perry, and Cain and coagulate around one of them. Of that group, Perry has the money and the infrastructure to best take advantage of such a move.
* That doesn’t mean it will happen, of course. But I keep coming back to this: There must be a reason why Republican voters haven’t rallied around Romney the way they did George W. Bush in 1999. Remember, there was an anti-Bush vote then, too. But it was never substantial enough to challenge the front-runner. Bush was up over the 40 percent mark by summer of 1999 and was at 62 percent by October 1999. If Romney had those kinds of numbers, he’d be unassailable. But I think it’s telling that, despite his money, his organization, his establishment backing, and the fact that he’s been running the longest–he hasn’t been able to get over the mid-20s. If you like Romney’s chances, you have to have an explanation for why this is.
* Remember: Even Bush, with his 40-point lead, got dragged into a dogfight with John McCain–who was in third place until late fall of 1999. Why? Because one of the axioms of American politics is this: All races tighten.
* None of this means that I want Perry to win or that I want Romney to lose. (The only thing I really want is for Mitch Daniels to suddenly jump in and ride to the nomination. And that ain’t happening.) What it means is that I believe Romney has structural weaknesses and has not been seriously challenged by his opponents yet; that early momentum from Iowa has proved very powerful; that Perry has positional and political strengths (to go along with his obvious weaknesses in the debates and on immigration); and that a 7-point gap between lead candidates right now is not dispositive.
* I still think it more than an even-money proposition that someone other than Romney will be the nominee; and of those alternatives, I’d give Perry the best odds. (Though probably all of them–even Santorum and Huntsman–will get a second look by the time New Hampshire rolls around.)