Mitt Romney’s support and his negatives are baked into the GOP primary. To Romney’s supporters, either his various contradictory policy and issue positions don’t matter or they’re outweighed by his “electability.” They think he is best positioned to defeat President Obama, and so far nothing seems capable of dissuading them. His air of inevitability is gone, but his support remains steady in the 20s. He isn’t going up, and he isn’t going down.
To Romney’s detractors, his various and contradictory policy and issue positions render him unacceptable. But they don’t need those flaws pointed out. They already know them. That’s why there is a large Anybody But Romney faction in the primary. And that’s why despite his having been campaigning for the GOP nomination for about five years now, and having built an experienced national staff and raised a ton of money and launched effective attacks on President Obama’s economic record, and his being “next in line” because he came in second last time, Romney remains stuck in the 20s. He isn’t going up, and he isn’t going down.
Rick Perry came into the race as a frontrunner for the Anybody But Romney vote, and is paying the price for that early success. As a frontrunner, he attracted attacks from the second and third tier candidates who also wanted the Anybody But Romney crown when his campaign was still getting off the ground. Those attacks didn’t help Rick Santorum, and Michele Bachmann ended up destroying her own candidacy, while Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich didn’t engage in them at all. They stuck to their own game plans, and have benefited from the damage that Bachmann did to herself and to Perry at the same time, and from the damage Perry did to himself in the debates.
So now, the Perry campaign is doing three things to get back on track. One, he is rolling out his energy and jobs plans. Two, he is floating the idea of skipping debates. And three, he is launching attacks on Mitt Romney. The attacks are fair — accusations that RomneyCare includes illegal aliens, which it does, and that he’s unreliable to conservative voters, which he is; and that he has flipped on everything from gun rights to abortion to global warming, all of which are true — but are they likely to help Perry? And is skipping the debates the right idea?
Taken on their own, these are reasonable tactics to take. There are too many debates, and Perry is right that they have mostly been centered on tearing the candidates down. But they have also built two candidates up, Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, and vaulted Bachmann’s candidacy for a while. Attacking Romney is also reasonable, since he is a very problematic candidate and he’s a frontrunner. But I doubt either tactic will help, and both are distracting from Perry’s core economic message. The debate skip idea makes him look weak, despite the fact that the 21 or so debates still on the schedule do in fact get in the way of retail politicking that’s crucial to winning in Iowa and South Carolina.
Aside: I omitted New Hampshire because, like Romney’s problems as a candidate, it’s baked in. Romney will win it. So the other campaigns should plan accordingly.
If you’re the Perry campaign, what’s the path to victory? You have a real record and a strong, simple economic plan to run on. You have a lot of campaign cash, the ability to raise a lot more, and a true ground game where you need it. But you’re fourth or fifth in the polls behind Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, neither of whom are serious contenders, and time is getting short. Primary polls at this point don’t tell us where votes will be but they can create and reinforce public perceptions that a campaign is rising or dying, which will impact fundraising.
Rick Perry excels at retail politics and in one-on-ones with local and national media. His past campaigns have also excelled at social media. They have also excelled at attacking past opponents very effectively, but the current opponents, Mitt Romney and Herman Cain, aren’t likely to succumb to normal political opposition attacks. Romney’s known knowns are baked in. Everyone knows he’s a flip-flopper, but most Republicans are willing to vote for him against Obama if they have to. Herman Cain is too likeable and he’s made of Teflon right now. Nothing is sticking to him. Attacks on Cain will blow back on whoever launches them.
So I don’t think Perry can effectively attack either one without damaging himself. Bachmann is a good object lesson here. She went so negative so fast that she ended up destroying her own campaign. There’s a very real risk that while Perry won’t say the ridiculous things that Bachmann said to accelerate her downfall, he could nevertheless similarly damage himself in a sustained attack on Romney. Gingrich and Cain have stayed positive, and risen in the polls. But both Gingrich and Cain have questionable staying power.
The solution? Perry needs to go retail and talk radio/online media in a big way. Perry should forget the attacks on Romney, just deliver his message and explain his record in a disciplined and relentless way. Do multiple daily appearances in Iowa explaining his plans and message to everyday voters, get those appearances captured and posted on YouTube and moved on blogs and social media. Get them in the local newscasts. Run positive issue ads in Iowa and South Carolina. Attack Obama often, get under his skin and make him respond directly to you. Hit the president on specifics and show where, for instance, Perry’s energy plan will undo the damage Obama is doing and thereby create jobs. As for the debates, attend some, skip some, as the schedule allows, but don’t make an issue of skipping them and don’t let them control the campaign schedule.
The Perry campaign has been a bit snakebit ever since the first debates he participated in. Time is short, but a moment can turn a campaign around. Creating some effective moments can shift the momentum very quickly.