In a talk at the U of M’s Humphrey School on Friday, Vin Weber said the next 90 days will put the presidential race into its ultimate shape, on both sides of the partisan divide.
Although Weber is much smarter than me about such things, I’m skeptical, mostly because three months doesn’t even get us to through Iowa. My experience is that the outcome of a wide-open nomination battle like the one on the Repub side doesn’t get settled until well after Iowa and New Hampshire. The time we spend trying to predict the primary season ball bounces is mostly a waste of brain cells.
Weber said a party with no incumbent often goes through the early stages of a presidential nominating contest falling in love with someone with strong ideological appeal to the party activists. In 2004, for the Dems, it was Howard Dean with his strong anti-Iraq War stance, who was positioned to the left of the Dem field. At the moment, for the Repubs, it’s Rick Perry on the right.
Weber, who is a Mitt Romney backer, concedes that the early deciders have made Perry “strong frontrunner” for the nomination. But the early deciders don’t really decide anything, he said. Ultimately, there has to be a rethink based on the logic of electability.
The Romney camp has been emphasizing the electability analysis, for obvious reasons. Weber said the Dems hope the Repubs nominate Perry.
According to Weber, basically, 90 days from now, either the ideologues will have settled on Rick Perry as the carrier of the hard right message on which the (Tea) party base will insist, or the pragmatists will have won the argument in favor of Mitt Romney based on an electability logic that says: if you really, really want to get rid of Obama, you need someone who can attract votes among independents and centrists.
Weber is a very nice guy and I’ve been quoting him for decades. He is among the world leaders at being able to set aside his own strong partisan views and talk to liberals and Dems with respect. He is a former congressman and now a top lobbyist, plus a member of several do-gooder outfits like the National Endowment for Democracy and lots of others. He signed on with the Tim Pawlenty presidential campaign this year and has now plighted his political troth to Romney (whom he also supported in 2008). Weber said that he did not agree with Pawlenty’s decision to drop out immediately after the Ames vote, but added that he was not consulted on that decision, which suggests he was not such a key member of the TPaw circle.
Obama running out of time
When Weber says the next 90 days are key for the Democratic side, he doesn’t mean that there will be any serious challenge to Obama for renomination . But Weber says Obama is beginning to run out of time to convince the country that he has what it takes to turn the economy around. If Obama hasn’t started winning that argument within about the next 90 days, he will be set up to lose his reelection bid, says Weber.
Weber said Obama should still be viewed as the favorite to win re-election.
Michele Bachmann was “cheated out of a bounce” by all the distractions (the entry of Perry and the withdrawal of Pawlenty) that occurred the weekend she won the Ames straw poll, Pawlenty, and she is now struggling to remain relevant in the race.
Stu Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report, by the way, also adopted the Howard Dean vs. John Kerry metaphor and included a solid overview of the transition from the period in 2004 when Dean seemed unbeatable to the point that Kerry overtook him in the late stages of the Iowa Caucuses. I was in Iowa for that campaign and still find it hard to believe how quickly Dean’s situation fell apart, although I do believe that Kerry had the best two weeks of his life in terms of his passion and likeability. If he could have kept that up, he would’ve won the election. Talent matters. Timing matters.
Apropos the point at the top of this post: Dean’s demise wasn’t determined by mid-December. It occurred in the last days of the Iowa campaign and he wasn’t really finished until later. And the ’04 nomination fight continued past Iowa with John Edwards Kerry’s main opponent. Kerry didn’t lock up the nomination until maybe Super Tuesday in March.
And one last throw in. It’s astonishing how many people still say that Howard Dean was destroyed by the “the scream.” Small problem. He screamed the night of the Iowa Caucus results. He had already collapsed. It’s one of the great examples of people not wanting to let the facts get in the way of a good story.