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By Jay Cost

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The Giuliani Campaign, RIP

It is easy to criticize the Giuliani campaign, but it is also easy to overdo it. Rudy did not play the hand he was dealt very well, but the fact is that he was not dealt a terribly strong hand.

First, the criticism. Late last year, the Giuliani campaign pinned its hopes on no single candidate emerging from the early contests as a clear frontrunner. It got exactly what it wanted. Huckabee checked Romney in Iowa. McCain checked Romney in New Hampshire. Romney returned the favor in Michigan and Nevada. McCain checked Huckabee in South Carolina. Five states. Three winners. This was basically what Rudy wanted (though he might have preferred a Huckabee win in South Carolina).

So, what happened?

The Giuliani campaign correctly figured that this scenario would not give a single candidate overwhelming momentum. This in turn meant that there was not a prohibitive favorite going into Florida. However, Rudy's operation ostensibly failed to understand that momentum works in the other direction, too. Viability, likability, and vote choice move together - in both ways. Voters flock to winners, and they flee losers. Loss after loss after loss - and Rudy started to look like a loser. As he seemed less viable, his numbers nationwide (and in his "firewall" of Florida) dropped.

This account is as relevant as the media's (somewhat self-serving) explanation that his numbers dropped because he was not in the news. While there is much truth to this, it fails to account for the fact that, insofar as he was in the news, it was negative coverage of him withdrawing from race after race. There were also many opinion pieces that questioned the wisdom of this strategy. Stories like these damage a candidate's viability. The Giuliani campaign thus experienced the awful process of negative momentum that Larry Bartels outlines. Voters come to see the candidate as a loser, they like him less, and they start to abandon his candidacy, thus making him look like a loser all the more.

The Giuliani campaign had other problems. Bernard Kerik was indicted on November 8, 2007 - and an examination of the GOP national chart shows that shortly after this event Giulaini's numbers began to fall. In fact, if you look at his trend line, you see two distinct periods when his numbers dropped. The first is this post-Kerik fall in November. He fell from the high twenties to the low twenties. The second occurred in January, after the start of the early contests, when he fell from the low twenties to the tweens (presumably) because of the negative momentum. So, I think it is reasonable to argue that Kerik's legal troubles contributed to Giuliani's political troubles.

Speaking impressionistically, my sense is that the Giuliani campaign had message difficulties, too. Good campaigns begin with good biographies. Rudy has an impressive professional biography. However, good campaigns use these biographies to develop coherent, compelling messages. For the best campaigns - there is a point at which biography and message become indistinguishable. We saw this with Clinton-Gore '92. We are also seeing something like this with Obama. I do not think the Giuliani campaign ever approached this level. It never had a message that emanated forcefully from its candidate's biography. It surely tried to create one. That is what its "Twelve Commitments" were all about. So also was its rather silly line, "I don't hope for miracles. I expect them." But none of these attempts caught on.

Rudy probably had to do more work with message than other candidates. Consider that nobody has ever won the presidency having most recently been mayor of a city. This is important. Forty years ago, Joseph Schlesinger argued that there is an "opportunity structure" to American political careers. In Ambition and Politics he asserts, "American political careers do not proceed chaotically. There is a pattern of movement from office to office." Holding a given office yields opportunities for promotions to some higher offices, but not others. To date, a mayoralty has never yielded the presidency. So, in a sense, Giuliani was jumping the line.

Did this have an effect? Perhaps. Like everything in electoral politics - the structure of opportunities influences and is influenced by voter perceptions. I know a few voters who looked at Giuliani and said, "He was mayor of New York. How does that qualify him to be president?" I am not sure if this was a widely held opinion, but I reckon that it might have been. And if it was - it was a problem. I think he could have mitigated it with a more compelling message, one that vividly connected his success in New York to his agenda for Washington. He never developed this. His attempts to do so seemed rote, uninspired, and based on the assumption that voters would make the connection themselves. So, perhaps it is unsurprising that more Florida voters saw McCain and Romney as better prepared to be commander-in-chief.

That's enough picking on Rudy for me. Like I said, it is easy to take this too far. For Giuliani had a real disadvantage that most (including myself) failed to perceive until afterwards. Simply put, the early states were on friendly territory for Huckabee, McCain, and Romney - but not really for Giuliani. The three winners could make niche appeals that Rudy could not. Huckabee has a connection with evangelicals, who made up a large chunk of the Iowa electorate. Romney and McCain have connections with New Hampshire. Romney grew up in Michigan, and he could rely on strong Mormon turnout in Nevada. As Tom Bevan has pointed out, each victor won his respective state by running as a candidate for "governor." At best, Rudy had an angle in New Hampshire - but it was a relatively slight one, given McCain and Romney's ties to the state.

Also, we must remember that Giuliani's Florida firewall plan was a strategy borne of necessity. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Rudy competed in Iowa early on. He made 43 appearances there. He spent money there. He pulled out in August - when it became clear he could not win. That goes double for New Hampshire, where he held 87 events (almost as many as he held in Florida) and spent loads of cash on advertisements. He pulled the plug when it appeared he could not win, and perhaps did not want to impede McCain from beating the well-heeled Romney. So, it is simply wrong to suggest that his Florida strategy was his first choice. It was, in fact, a fall back.

All in all, Giuliani was not in nearly as strong a position as last year's polls implied. Instead, he had some real disadvantages vis-à-vis the early schedule. Unfortunately, his campaign did very little to help itself. It wrongly thought it could abstain from the early states without suffering a penalty. It never found a way to handle the Kerik indictment. It never developed a compelling message - something of great importance for a candidate with Giuliani's particular biography.

-Jay Cost