Not Toast Yet (More on Perry)

TPM Reader JR says I’m wrong to (kinda) count Rick Perry out …

I read Josh’s piece today on “what happened” with Rick Perry.

And I agree with almost all of it.

But the part I disagree with is the most important part in the campaign, where Josh writes, “[a]nd it’s too soon to say Rick Perry’s done, though it’s pretty hard to figure how he’s not.”

I think it’s quite easy to see how he’s not done.

Most Republicans simply don’t want Mitt Romney. The MSNBC First Read blog again this morning pointed out that fact, noting that Romney’s polling doesn’t improve despite the competition soiling itself.

The issue becomes whether the enormous non-Romney vote in early states, which is large majority in every January caucus/primary state except perhaps New Hampshire, coalesces mostly around one candidate or divides among many. Romney obviously is banking on the latter, and it’s a plausible scenario.

But whether to expect any one candidate to draw most of the conservative vote in the early states requires closely examining the individual candidates and campaigns. And doing that reveals, for several reasons, that Perry still stands out above the rest. First, Perry raised $17 million in 7 weeks in August and September, and banked $15 million of it. And almost all of it is primary money, not combined with general election dollars that can’t be spent pre-convention. This can’t be overstated, that is a really big deal. Romney’s burn rate has been about one-third of his haul, and that’s not bad at all for a major Presidential candidate even early on. For Perry to hoard close to 80% of his money is stunning, and critical. Second, Perry is reported to have superpacs just like Romney has, presumably able to raise millions of dollars to fund media campaigns. These two things alone distinguish Perry from the field. Perry also has a serious campaign organization that so far has remained intact and is very well-staffed particularly in Iowa. Perry’s in-person campaign skills and organizational abilities have proven real good, and distinguished positively in particular from Bachmann’s. So on all these fundamentals of campaigning, Perry has things going for him that no one else does.

Looking at the competition, it doesn’t need explanation at this point that people like Bachmann and Gingrich are just trainwrecks no longer worth taking seriously. Santorum actually has worked hard in Iowa, but his traction has remained very limited, and he’s sucking fumes financially.

That leaves Herman Cain. Cain has no organization to speak of in Iowa or elsewhere. He’s on a book tour, not even campaigning, and his book tour schedule doesn’t even include Iowa or New Hampshire. His financial reports have been poor, and although he claims his fundraising improved the past couple weeks, he appears to be getting mostly online and other low-dollar donations, he’s not putting in “call time” to raise money from rich people as is required for a serious campaign. There are a couple ways candidates have waged winning campaigns for high office without having their own strong campaigns. Four years ago Huckabee won Iowa with little money on the strength of evangelicals and home-schoolers organizing for him; he was able to parlay his Iowa win into lasting support from similarly-minded cultural conservatives in Southern states. But those evangelicals/hoe-schoolers in Iowae aren’t helping Cain or signaling that they will do so at any point. The other way to establish a serious campaign is for outside groups like well-funded tea party front groups or Club for Growth to swoop in and run an independent campaign for you. That’s how people like Christine O’Donnell and Joe Miller won primaries last year, and how conservative Doug Hoffman supplanted Republican nominee DeDe Scozzafava in the NY-23 special election in 2009. But no outside group is signaling it will do anything like that for Cain.

So while Cain enjoys a boomlet in polling, there’s no way it can translate into actual votes in January without the above facts changing.

That leaves a void on the right.

And Perry is the only candidate who can fill it.

It will be filled. And it won’t be by Romney, at least not in January.

I don’t discount that Romney is properly labeled the “frontrunner” at this point. And his odds of winning the nomination are no worse than 50-50. But in all seriousness, I don’t think they’re any better than 50-50 unless someone other than Perry has some kind of serious campaign get into full swing. Cain is the flavor of the month, but he’s showing no signs of having a campaign that can translate that into actual votes.

I note that four years ago, Romney as late as Thanksgiving had been the months-long clear frontrunner in both Iowa and New Hampshire. And only after Thanksgiving did it all unravel. Only in December, barely a month before Iowa and New Hampshire voted, did Huck surge in Iowa polling as McCain surged in NH, with Romney falling off in both states.

Similarly, with the same calendar as last time in place, I don’t think we’ll know with any confidence where Republicans are headed until after Thanksgiving. But I would bet a lot of money that sometime in December, Perry surges in Iowa, and by the end of January he’ll have won Iowa and South Carolina and we’ll have a legitimate two-man dogfight.

The divided field scenario that lets Romney slip through more easily, even perhaps winning Iowa, is still possible if Cain or someone else has a campaign infrastructure built for them, like I said above either by Iowa activists or by outside monied groups. But absent that, Perry will have a real campaign and no one else will.

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