Round Trip Rick
Perhaps no other Republican presidential hopeful seems closer to launching a full-fledged bid for the nomination at this point than former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. With multiple trips to New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina already under his belt (and more scheduled), Santorum seems to be unabashedly enjoying his participation in the tradition of the invisible primary. He even spiced things up recently by taking a direct swing at potential primary opponent Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty for some comments he made about economic class divisions within the Republican Party.
I recently wrote about former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s use of a potential presidential bid as a way to feed his compulsive need for media attention. In contrast, Santorum seems genuinely thrilled (and a little surprised) that anyone is paying attention to him again. He has been quite open in admitting that jumping on the invisible primary circuit has been a rejuvenating experience in offering him a fresh opportunity to be politically relevant again, and he is clearly making the most of the renewed attention.
I stand by my earlier posts suggesting that Santorum has no chance of winning the Republican nomination. That hasn’t (and won’t) change. But I have also noted that he could potentially complicate the field for other social conservatives, especially in Iowa and South Carolina. Still, in an era where most other presidential hopefuls are tediously coy about their intentions, I find Santorum’s approach to testing the waters almost old-fashioned and, dare I say it, refreshing.
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Hope for Hodes?
I usually tell anyone who will listen to avoid pinning your hopes on a single poll, or even a couple of polls. It’s human nature to selectively affirm poll numbers that reinforce your candidate or party preferences, while discounting those that do not. I see this behavior all the time among the voters, party elites, and campaign staffs who closely follow political contests. You are better off looking at how the averages move over time, in order to get a realistic sense of how the race is progressing (for example, aggregates polls for lots of key races).
Still, I don’t want to deprive the many New Hampshire Democrats who have been starved for some positive campaign news of an opportunity to feel a bit better about their candidate for U.S. Senate, Rep. Paul Hodes. As we’ve seen this week in new polling results from Public Policy Polling (despite the confusing press releases) and WMUR-TV's Granite State Poll, Hodes has made up some ground against various potential general election opponents. I have been arguing since last February that Hodes will get his best opportunity to close the gap after the Republican primary in September, and my guess is that he will need to do it primarily with the help of a large turnout of our state’s Democratic voters.
While it is possible that Gov. Sarah Palin’s recent endorsement of Kelly Ayotte could be a drag on Ayotte’s ability to attract independents in the general election, the Granite State Poll data suggest that Ayotte could still be pretty strong with that group of voters in November. So, Hodes will need to continue bringing heretofore ambivalent Democrats back into the fold. After this week, perhaps a few more of these voters will think he can do it.
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Calling Newt's Bluff
I’ve written previously on several occasions about how tiresome I find former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s endless public flirtation with a presidential bid. For all of his political and personal machinations, Gingrich is just as likely to bow out as a potential candidate when other first-tier presidential hopefuls begin their campaigns in earnest next winter. Nonetheless, the media feels compelled to document Gingrich’s every reflection on all of the variables driving his decision, just in case.
While Gingrich probably knows he has no chance of being the Republican nominee for president, he engages in this very public dance with the idea of a run because it helps him in several ways. Maybe it helps him sell books and line up paid speaking gigs, but I think his real motivation is that it keeps him relevant to the national political discourse (at least as perceived by the media), which is something I can’t imagine Gingrich living without.
So, you can guess how thrilled I was to see a national media figure finally call Gingrich out on this issue in his own backyard, Fox News. Chris Wallace, host of Fox News Sunday, asked Gingrich whether he was playing the candidate card to get more attention. I couldn’t have put the question to Gingrich more succinctly myself. He of course replied that he’s never been more serious about a presidential bid, which should be enough to keep the media along on the ride for now. But it was at least momentarily gratifying to see someone call him on it publicly and face-to-face. Unfortunately for me, Gingrich may now feel the need to appear even more likely to run. As I said in one of my previous posts on the subject, just run already!
Note: Back posting on Thursday. -Dean
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Purplish Politics
You can catch me as a guest on New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange tomorrow morning. We’ll discuss the changing (or is it?) partisan demography of the Granite State, and speculate a bit about what our state’s political complexion might look like for the 2010 midterm elections and beyond. You can listen live here (top menu) at 9 a.m., or check out the podcast later here.
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Party Planner
For the past few weeks, I have commented in various media outlets that the candidates in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate would soon turn on each other (and especially on Kelly Ayotte) in an attempt to shake up what has been a fairly static race up to this point. Well, from everything I’m seeing and hearing now, that finally appears to be happening in earnest. On a related note, a journalist recently asked me whether the reason the race had previously been so tame was because party chairman John H. Sununu was keeping a lid on any intra-party attacks.
While I don’t have any particular inside knowledge on what Sununu is doing behind the scenes, I would suggest that there are limits to what he can do to influence campaign behavior. According to a John DiStaso source in the Union Leader (scroll down to A STERN LOOK), Sununu recently mentioned that he was unhappy with the new tone of the Republican campaigns and planned to reach out to the candidates. But the reality is that party chairs typically don’t have a great deal of control over the tactical decisions of these largely decentralized campaign organizations.
The issue here is that thus far the four major candidates have all sounded largely indistinguishable from each other, a common problem in a primary where most of the negativity is directed at the other party. So, the only way for the campaigns to draw distinctions now is to argue that the similar positions of their competitors (especially the frontrunner) are wholly inauthentic. That’s what I expected would happen, and that is what we have seen over the past week. My guess is that it will only intensify as we get closer to the primary, even if Gov. Sununu wishes it were otherwise.
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Mr. Popularity
Here’s one for my burgeoning file of pointless opinion poll stories. This one talks about new Gallup data showing that former President Bill Clinton is currently more popular than President Obama, who is himself trailed by former president George W. Bush. So, perhaps we should repeal the Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution (presidential term limits), as I can’t think of much else we can do with this particular tidbit of information, and we already know from Clinton that he would have liked to run for (and probably would have won) a third term.
These kinds of presidential comparison polls get a lot of extra attention in the media when a sitting president’s numbers are down (as are Obama's), and they typically feed into the buyer’s remorse meme often pushed by his opponents. The reality is that like virtually all former presidents, Clinton has benefited from the passage of time. He’s just further down the road to redemption than former President Bush. For my readers who can’t fathom an eventual Bush rehabilitation, check back with me in about 10 years, and you just might be surprised.
The appropriate comparison is of course to look at public approval at the same moment in time across all three presidencies, so just before the respective first midterm election for each of the three men (1994, 2002, and 2010). I can tell you without even looking at the data that President Bush wins that popularity contest hands down, as the 2002 midterm elections were in some respects the apex of his popularity and power in office. I recently wrote about why I don’t find these sorts of contemporary comparisons to be especially useful.
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Bear Claw
I have always been somewhat ambivalent about the power of political endorsements. They may serve as a useful signal among political elites about where political loyalties reside, and they can potentially provide lesser known candidates with desperately needed credibility. But like a lot of political scientists, I am skeptical about their ability to ultimately drive voters to pull the lever for specific individuals.
So, what about Gov. Sarah Palin’s endorsement of former New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte’s bid for the U.S. Senate? I can’t say that it comes as a big surprise to me. The move fits with Palin’s desire to build a network of up-and-coming female Republican leaders, and Ayotte is sufficiently viable as a candidate that the move doesn’t represent a huge risk for Palin.
As for how it might affect the race, I guess it could give Ayotte some much-needed conservative cred among primary voters, but it’s probably more problematic for Ovide Lamontagne, who has worked hard to position himself as the true movement conservative in the primary race. A Palin endorsement of Lamontagne over Ayotte certainly would have spiced things up a bit.
But Palin’s blessing is the proverbial double-edged sword. If she were to insert herself more fully into the race, her polarizing nature could potentially hurt Ayotte with moderates and independents in the general election. Also, I can think of few things more likely to mobilize Democrats to turn out for Congressman Paul Hodes in November, who will gladly hammer away at this on a daily basis from now until Election Day.
In the end, the Palin endorsement is likely to quietly fade away by November, as Ayotte positions herself more centrally for the general election. I’ve written previously about the limitations of Palin as a political force in New Hampshire. I will say that I felt bad watching Ayotte (who ostensibly wanted this endorsement) on television last night having to say that she too is a proud Mama Grizzly. She seemed to take to the task with good humor and a relatively straight face.
Note:  Back posting on Thursday. -Dean
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(Almost) No More Mr. Nice Guy
If you have been paying attention to New Hampshire’s electoral politics over the past week, you’ve probably noticed the remarkable amount of attention being given to Republican Senate candidate Bill Binnie’s new television ad, Jail or Jobs, which mentions former New Hampshire Attorney General and primary opponent Kelly Ayotte by name.
I can’t really call the spot a negative ad, since it doesn’t actually say anything bad about Ayotte. It’s more of a true contrast ad, which attempts to paint Binnie’s strength as job creation, and thus as more appropriate for the current economic climate than Ayotte’s strength, which would be putting people in jail. So, it’s really an extension of Binnie’s earlier biographical ads in its essential claim that his background in business makes him best suited for the job at hand, but at least someone is finally moving to directly engage others within the primary field.
That the ad has gotten so much attention underscores just how tame this particular party primary has been thus far. With less than two months left before the September 14th vote, almost no sharp elbows have been thrown among the group of Republican competitors. Whether this is a result of the candidates” personalities or intentional campaign strategies, the tenor of the race (with its relentless focus on President Obama and Congressional Democrats) makes it difficult for primary voters to draw distinctions between the candidates on any dimension other than personality.
Perhaps that is sufficient for voters to make up their minds, but Binnie’s ad suggests that at least he knows a continuation of the status quo campaign environment would favor Ayotte, who is still the nominal frontrunner. We’ll see if the other candidates come to the same realization and finally engage Ayotte and each other, while they still have a little time left to act.
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Pondering Pawlenty
With over a year and a half to go before the New Hampshire Primary, the eyes of the political world are not yet fixed upon our state. But the good people of Minnesota are already paying attention to what goes on here. That’s because their Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty, who leaves office later this year, has already made three political trips to the Granite State since November. Pawlenty also recently established a fundraising PAC here, and will likely have additional visits to New Hampshire in the not-too-distant future. As you’d expect, Pawlenty is noncommittal about a presidential bid at this point, saying he will decide on a run sometime next winter.
In the meantime, we can certainly speculate. So, I spent an hour earlier today on Minnesota Public Radio talking with listeners about the New Hampshire Primary and how a Pawlenty roadmap to the nomination might run through our state. You can listen to the Midday with Gary Eichten podcast here.
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Gibbs Gets Grounded
No sooner do I poke a little fun at White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs for something he said (repeatedly) on Meet the Press last Sunday, than I am compelled to defend him for something else he said in the same interview. I am of course referring to his comments on the potential for Republicans to take control of the House in November, and the scolding he subsequently received from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for making that suggestion on national television.
If you read the transcript carefully, you will see that Gibbs didn’t actually say that the House would go Republican, or even that it was likely to change hands in November. He simply acknowledged that enough seats are in play so that it could happen. This is an accurate statement with which any Congressional race handicapper would agree. Yet Gibbs was forced to backpedal on Tuesday and say that he ultimately thinks the House will stay in Democratic control.
It is unclear whether Gibbs was speaking candidly or strategically on Sunday. If it was the latter, then surely he knows there is a fine line between motivating your core supporters and discouraging them. My guess is that this was Pelosi’s main concern in criticizing the press secretary. But this episode also highlights the reality that Congress and the presidency are in the end two separate institutions, each with its own strategic imperatives for political self-preservation, despite the potential for shared partisan goals. This wouldn’t be the first time the two institutions seem poised to go their separate ways electorally. In any event, Pelosi must realize that the president’s press secretary needs to speak credibly to be an effective spokesperson for the administration. To have answered the midterm election question otherwise would have been to call that credibility (and grasp of reality) into question.
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As many of you know, I occasionally like to raise a political pet peeve of mine for your consideration. I consume so much political coverage on a daily basis that over time I inevitably notice all sorts of interesting behavioral patterns (as a social scientist should) among elected officials, policymakers, and political elites. Sometimes these behavioral quirks afflict the Washington political class as a whole, and other times they are the provenance of a particular party or ideological group. In keeping with the spirit of this website, I try to spread my irritation around in bipartisan fashion, lest the folks on one side or the other feel like they are being unfairly put upon. But today it is the Democrats toward whom I turn my attention.
I have noticed in recent years that Democratic elected officials, policymakers, and political elites frequently preface their explanations of particular policies or political phenomena with the imperative command, understand, as in, “Understand, we inherited the worst depression in a generation from the previous administration.” I have found this progressive verbal tic to be mildly irritating for quite some time, but it was elevated to a full-blown pet peeve for me over the weekend, when I watched back-to-back Sunday morning interviews with White House Senior Advisor David Axelrod and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
While Axelrod slipped in a few soft understands during his interview with ABC’s Jake Tapper, Gibbs elevated its usage to the level of stylistic crutch on Meet the Press with roughly a half-dozen repetitions of the word (transcripts here and here). I’ve heard President Obama, a variety of Democratic Members of Congress, and some Democratic political analysts also use the word in the same way on a number of occasions. It appears to cut across geographical lines and job descriptions, but I have yet to hear a Republican on television or radio preface an explanation with the command, understand.
I’ve been trying to figure out the origins of this particular verbal tic, and I think it may have something to do with the progressive preference for nuanced explanations in response to pointed political questions. While there is nothing wrong with wanting nuance, it’s often difficult to tease out effectively in a rhetorically stark partisan environment. As a result, I find myself predisposed to ignore when commanded to understand what otherwise might be a reasonable explanation. Regardless of the speaker's intentions, it just comes across as sounding a little too patronizing and defensive for my taste.
Note: I’ll be away tomorrow and back posting on Thursday. -Dean
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Mark Your Calendars (For Now)
For the time being at least, it appears that the two national political parties are moving to restore a bit of sanity to the next presidential primary cycle. On Friday, a Democratic National Committee rules panel voted to keep Iowa and New Hampshire in the two leadoff spots, while pushing the entire primary schedule back into February, closer on the calendar to where it was in 1996 and 2000. We are still a good 18 months or so away from New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner officially setting a date, but at least in the eyes of the DNC, our primary should take place on February 14, 2012 (as opposed to January 8, 2008). The Republican National Committee is likely to follow suit on these scheduling matters in short order.
So, does this mean the assault on New Hampshire’ presidential primary tradition is finally over? Not likely. Keep in mind that the big challenge to the schedule in 2008 was launched from within the Democratic Party. With President Obama likely to run for reelection in 2012, there won’t be the same suspense or opportunity for king-making within the states on the Democratic side this time around. But were Obama to lose his reelection bid in 2012, or a sitting Vice President Biden decide not to run for president in 2016 (at age 73), my guess is that an open seat on the Democratic side at that time would trigger another calendar free-for-all.
As we already know, these scheduling battles are exhausting and cyclical, which means that after an occasional pause they will inevitably pop up again in the future. So, here’s to enjoying the relative leisure of the proposed 2012 calendar, as it may not last for long.
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Ovide's Opening?
You may have caught me doing some analysis of the Republican primary to replace retiring U.S. Senator Judd Gregg on WMUR-TV last night. Back in November 2009, on the occasion of Ovide Lamontagne’s entrance into the race, I wrote about the potential impact his conservative candidacy might have on former New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte’s ability to stake out a fairly centrist ideological position in the primary, one which could serve her well with moderates and independents in the general election.
Many Republican primaries around the country this year have followed a predictable pattern, in which institutional elites are challenged by movement (social) conservatives on the right. With the help of Tea Party-infused political mobilization, these challengers have often gone on to upend the presumptive favorites on primary day. It was pretty clear to me early on that Lamontagne hoped his candidacy would follow the same script, but I was never quite sure that this political discourse would play out the same way in the Granite State.
Since then, Lamontagne has clearly done the most to capture the movement conservative energy percolating around the country, but it just doesn’t seem to have given him the same pop that it might have were he running for the Senate in other parts of the country. I think it is fair to say that many political analysts around the country view him as the true social conservative in the race, but New Hampshire has stayed true to form in its preference for a campaign discourse focused primarily on fiscal matters, with a good dose of foreign policy sprinkled in. The Tea Party ethos just hasn’t resonated here the way it has elsewhere, which may make Lamontagne’s capturing of the movement conservative crown a somewhat hollow victory.
p.s. For those of you who would argue that I am erring in conflating social conservatism with the Tea Party movement, you can read my rationale for doing so here and here.
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A Ranking Sure to Rankle
Whether we are talking about movies, restaurants, or athletes, Americans love to rank virtually all aspects of our culture, including our presidents. So, this article on a new Siena College poll ranking presidential greatness caught my attention just before the Fourth of July holiday. The results are pretty much guaranteed to make conservatives apoplectic, as a group of university professors have ranked President Obama 15th overall, and in particular, higher than President Reagan. I can already hear the criticism that this ranking is a function of the liberal biases of left-leaning academics.
During my years teaching presidential politics, I was regularly asked to participate in various surveys of presidential greatness, and I typically declined the invitation. This was in part because I was concerned that my research focus on the modern presidency meant that I couldn’t give some of our more obscure nineteenth century presidents their due. But I also genuinely believe that understanding a president’s true legacy requires a historical perspective that only comes with time, and lots of it.
The idea of ranking President Obama’s relative greatness as a president after only 18 months in office strikes me as a somewhat pointless intellectual exercise. If you’ve ever done research at a presidential archive, you know that the papers and oral histories (exit interviews) of key administration players are often sealed for as long as 50 years. I’ve thought on occasion that if these surveys excluded the five or six most recent presidents, I might have been more willing to participate in them. While most of us can probably agree on Presidents Washington, Lincoln, and both of the Roosevelts, it’s just too soon to know where any of the more recent presidents will fit it in.
Note: I'll be away tomorrow, and back posting on Friday. -Dean
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A Civic Celebration
The Fourth of July holiday offers a wonderful opportunity to celebrate and reflect upon our remarkable civic heritage, so I like to think of it as our premiere political holiday. I would put Election Day close behind, since it doesn’t enjoy quite the same status as a national holiday. As such, the Fourth also serves as an official kickoff weekend for the summer campaign season. You can bet that coming to an Old Home Day and backyard barbeque near you are a wide variety of candidates for statewide office. With several primaries chock full of party hopefuls, there should be plenty of hand-shaking and political chatter to go around this weekend.
New Hampshire’s small towns and rural communities provide an unparalleled opportunity to meet these candidates one-on-one, so don’t pass up the chance to engage them on issues that are important to you. I find that even talking to candidates who don’t stand much of a chance of winning can help crystallize your own thinking about the September primaries and November election. For those candidates who don’t get much traction this summer, you can expect a final campaign reboot over Labor Day weekend in September, but by then it will probably be too late for them.
Have a safe and enjoyable (and maybe even a little political) Fourth of July weekend. I’ll see you back here next week to continue our conversation about the summer campaign season.
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Address Correction Requested
If you have ever worked on a political campaign, you know that it often feels like you are engaged in a long siege made up of an ongoing series of pitched battles with the opposition, in which each side constantly looks for a leg up and attacks with a sustained ferocity aimed at exploiting perceived weaknesses both big and small. So it goes with the Rep. Carol Shea-Porter congratulatory letter brouhaha, as detailed in John DiStaso’s useful tick tock account of this latest pitched battle.
It is true that school districts should probably have a clearly articulated policy about the release of student addresses, and it is reasonable to expect a straightforward explanation from Shea-Porter’s staff as to how it acquired the information. But infusing this relatively harmless episode with the same partisan bitterness and suspicion that characterizes so much of our national political discourse these days just seems like a waste of energy on both sides. Yes, there are probably some conservative parents out there who aren’t thrilled with the idea of their child being congratulated by Rep. Shea-Porter, but I’m guessing that the vast majority of families were fine with it.
And I’m sure the Shea-Porter campaign is smart enough to know that it shouldn’t use the family information for any other type of communication. But let’s keep this in perspective. When I was a high school senior, I would have been thrilled to receive an official letter of congratulations from my Member of Congress, Republican or Democratic. So, why spoil the moment for our current graduates?
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