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Romney vs. Perry: How the Numbers (and the Calendar) Stack Up

Romney vs. Perry: How the Numbers (and the Calendar) Stack Up

By Sean Trende - August 16, 2011


I haven't written much on this primary season, and with good reason. When researching my forthcoming book ("The Lost Majority," due Jan. 3, 2012), I was struck by just how wrong most primary commentary has tended to be, even fairly late in the game. Around this time in 2003, it was a given that Howard Dean would be the Democrats' nominee, and that John Kerry's campaign was on life support. In 2007, people were already writing the postmortems on the Obama and McCain campaigns, dissecting what had gone wrong. In all three cases, it wasn’t until November that the eventual nominees began to show some signs of life. My former colleague Jay Cost is fond of saying that pollsters right now are polling a bunch of people who just aren’t paying attention. He’s right, and that’s important to keep in mind.

Nevertheless, the entry of Rick Perry into the GOP primary battle demands some attention, although the above history suggests we should tread lightly with our pronouncements. At this point, I offer one observation, followed by four key questions that I think will determine how this nomination battle will play out.

Observation: The GOP Nominee Will Have to Demonstrate Broad Regional Appeal.

Most pundits, especially in the MSM, still stand by the post-2008 consensus that the GOP is a party dominated by the South. But while the South may well be the largest bloc in the GOP, it doesn’t dominate the party. The following chart shows the percentage of GOP delegates to the 2012 convention from each region of the country, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau (data courtesy of The Green Papers): 

Southern delegates will make up just over a third of the total GOP convention -- and this is using the Census Bureau definition of the “South,” which includes border states like Maryland and Kentucky. Note that the Northeast and West combine for as many delegates as the South, while the West and Midwest can combine to trump it. Tuck this away in the back of your mind as we proceed to our questions.

Question 1: How Does Mitt Romney Play?

Most analysts have spent the past 48 hours explaining how Rick Perry might fare as a candidate. Let’s be clear, he has some very real strengths, but also some very real weaknesses. He could turn out to be this year’s Wesley Clark or Fred Thompson, though I think it is equally likely that he’ll unify the various wings of the GOP and put this to bed early; his 718 write-in votes in the Ames Straw Poll suggest that he’ll at least be a player in Iowa.

Regardless, this type of analysis is one-sided -- and reminiscent of a lot of the shoddy examinations of the race that dominated the first half of this year. Pundits expended thousands of keystrokes detailing the problems with the GOP field, seemingly oblivious to the fact that President Obama couldn’t get his approval rating much above 52 percent even after killing America’s public enemy number one; that he had no broadly popular initiative to run on; and that he is presiding over a weak economy. In other words, while the Republican candidates might have had some problems, those don’t matter as much if the eventual nominee is set to run against a very weak incumbent.

Likewise, the questions flying about regarding what type of candidate Rick Perry will be overlook the very real weaknesses of his opposition. In particular, we haven’t heard too much from Mitt Romney lately. He’s spent the past few debates largely hovering above the fray, stayed mostly out of the debate on the debt ceiling, and hasn’t offered much in the way of specific policy prescriptions.

That Rose Garden strategy may have worked well against Michele Bachmann in August, but it won’t work against Perry in November. And that brings us to the real question: What happens when Romney does join the fray? He has always been 100 times better on paper than in reality -- has that changed? Has Romney really solved the problems from his 2008 race? Can he come across as convincing and personable, or will he always seem insincere and robotic? Can he withstand the barrage over RomneyCare when it comes, or does he have a glass jaw (as he did in 2008)? To my mind, those questions are as important, if not more so, than questions about Perry’s ability to campaign.

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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