Sunday, February 13, 2011

Mitt Romney's already got trouble in Nevada?

Is it already time to poke holes in the chances of a nominal frontrunner for one of the parties' presidential nominations? Who had February 13th in the pool?

FHQ could deride the story on Romney in Nevada that appeared on the Boston Globe's Political Intelligence blog for coming way too early, but on a weekend when CPAC straw poll results are being overhyped, it is actually in the right place (see full item below). The take-home is that Romney will likely find it difficult to repeat his Silver state performance from 2008. Matt Viser attributes that to Ron Paul/Tea Party support in the Nevada leftover from 2008 and 2010 (more on Paul's supporters and the impact they had on the 2008 Nevada Republican convention here), and while that is not off the mark, it misses one very important piece of the puzzle from the last cycle.

The former Massachusetts governor was able to exploit the Nevada caucuses for a number of reasons (a general popularity in the west, religion, organization -- especially in western caucus states), but the fact that most of Romney's opponents were focused on the South Carolina Republican primary on the same day had as much of an influence on the results in both those states as anything else. If, given the rules changes nationally (Republican rules placing the Nevada caucuses third in the process) and within the state (the party making the first step of the caucus binding in terms of delegate allocation -- a change from 2008), Nevada has the spotlight to itself, then it should not only likely be understood that the 2012 candidates will pay more attention to the Silver state, but that Mitt Romney will find it difficult to crack the 50% barrier in the 2012 Nevada caucuses.

As for FHQ, we are still skeptical that the South Carolina Republican Party will actually cede its traditional third in line position in the Republican nomination process for Nevada. It should be noted that the Republican rules, unlike the Democratic rules, provide no dates for any of the exempt nominating contests; only that they should have a position in February ahead of all the other contests that are supposed to begin in March. But that's a story for another time.

by Matt Viser, Globe staff
LAS VEGAS — Mitt Romney has a lot riding on Nevada as he readies his early-state strategy for a possible Republican primary campaign, but changes in the state’s caucus rules and surge of Tea Party activism will make the state a tougher environment for him than 2008, when Romney romped with more than 50 percent of the vote.

Nevada falls third in the tentative primary schedule, and it holds outsized importance for the former Massachusetts governor. If he runs for president, as appears likely, he would not be expected to win the early states of Iowa or South Carolina.

Under almost any scenario, that means he must win in New Hampshire. And Nevada, falling just after the Granite State, would present the second key test of his strength.
By the numbers, Romney — who is scheduled to visit Las Vegas on Monday — should perform strongly in the Silver State. An estimated 7.5 percent of Nevada residents share Romney’s Mormon faith, and exit polls showed Mormons accounted for one in four caucus voters in 2008.

But while he would start the 2012 Nevada contest with a formidable organization and as the overwhelming favorite, the landscape in this Western state is more hostile.

Seeking to become more than a primary backwater bypassed by most candidates, Nevada changed its caucus rules for next year’s campaign to make the outcome binding on its delegates to the Republican National Convention.

The intent was to increase the state’s prominence in the primaries, and it’s working. Nevada is attracting stronger interest from such would-be candidates as Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty, who have made early visits and are planning more.

The rightward tug of insurgents in the Republican Party, meanwhile, has added a measure of anti-establishment volatility to the Nevada electorate that was largely absent four years ago and could seriously hurt Romney, whose health care plan in Massachusetts, used as the model for the national overhaul last year, is widely despised by conservatives.

‘‘Mitt Romney has a strong Mormon base of support in Nevada that will continue,’’ said Chuck Muth, a conservative activist who is planning to host candidate forums at a bar with a mechanical bull, just south of the Vegas strip. ‘‘The biggest hurdle for Mitt Romney to overcome is RomneyCare.’’

Romney, who is expected to announce his candidacy in the spring, declined requests for an interview. Like most other potential candidates, Romney has been quietly testing the waters for a run. He appeared Sunday in Washington at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual event that attracts many presidential aspirants. He will travel to Las Vegas on Monday to speak at a business convention on the strip.

Romney is ahead in the polls in Nevada and his supporters maintain he can attract Tea Party support by talking about fiscal conservatism and other issues important to the party’s right wing.

‘‘No one candidate is going to get every Tea Party vote in Nevada,’’ said Ryan Erwin, a top political consultant in the state who is prepared to lead Romney’s state operation. ‘‘But regardless of whether we are talking about activists in the Tea Party movement or those who simply share the philosophy, voters focused on balanced budgets and fiscal restraint in Nevada are largely Romney people.’’

Romney has been defending the 2006 Massachusetts health plan, the signature accomplishment of his gubernatorial administration, as an example of a state exercising its powers to solve problems within its borders. He criticizes the Obama plan, by contrast, as a federal overreach that usurps states’ rights.

That argument has yet to appease Tea Party activists.

Sharron Angle, the Tea Party candidate who stunned the GOP by winning Nevada’s Senate primary last year before losing to Majority Leader Harry Reid, would not criticize Romney directly in an interview. But she said the Massachusetts health plan will be a factor in the Nevada election.

‘‘It failed, and we know that this Obamacare is unconstitutional,’’ she said. ‘‘I think that those kinds of things are going to come into play during the presidential election.’’
Surveys of Republican Nevada voters have shown Romney with a moderate lead. A poll conducted last month by Public Policy Polling put Romney at 31 percent, compared to Sarah Palin (19 percent), Gingrich (18 percent), and Mike Huckabee (14 percent).

‘‘The 800-pound gorilla in Republican politics is Mitt Romney,’’ said David Damore, a political science professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. ‘‘You’re going to see him run the traditional top down organization and count on his religious affiliation. But he’s got a lot of issues to overcome.’’

While the mood is uncertain a year before the Nevada caucus (tentatively scheduled for Feb. 18, 2012), a billboard on I-215 leaving Las Vegas warns of the some of the dangers for establishment candidates like Romney: ‘‘Ron Paul 2012.’’ The Texas Republican congressman finished second behind Romney four years ago, and conservative activists want him back in the race.

Paul’s last high-profile trip to the state was in 2009. But several Tea Party favorites — Representative Michele Bachmann, of Minnesota, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, and former Godfather’s Pizza executive Herman Cain — have made multiple visits to the state in recent months. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, a Mormon who is resigning as US ambassador to China and weighing a run for president, could cut into Romney’s church support.

High unemployment, which at 14 percent was the worst in the country in December, and foreclosures are big issues in Nevada and helped fuel voter anger in 2010.
With few formally declared candidates and a year to go, voters have yet to seriously tune in to presidential politics. In a dozen interviews with Nevada Republicans, support for Romney was mixed.

‘‘The key issue here is jobs, jobs, jobs,’’ said Robert Sulliman, a security services manager. ‘‘Who better to make things happen than Mitt Romney?’’

But those who identified themselves as aligned with the Tea Party tended to oppose him.
‘‘I’m not a fan,’’ said Bettye Gilmour, a 67-year-old retired social worker. ‘‘He’s very presidential looking, but he’s too much of a politician.’’

Romney’s organization has not yet geared up in Nevada — but it is ready to go on short notice, said his supporters. His team still has its database of voter identification files — called ‘‘Romney Connect’’ — that will give him a big head start. Romney’s son Josh has been staying in touch with former campaign workers.


astrojob said...

"As for FHQ, we are still skeptical that the South Carolina Republican Party will actually cede its traditional third in line position in the Republican nomination process for Nevada."

Why not? They ceded their third in line position to Michigan in 2008. They ceded it to several other states like AZ in 1996.

The SC GOP has insisted for decades that they go "first in the South". They seem to be fine with non-southern states going before them. My guess is that they will assume that, as in 2008, they'll command a lot more attention than NV will, and not worry too much about whether NV is voting before them, after them, or on the same day.

Of course, like in 2008, they also won't care what the RNC rules say. They'll just position themselves a week or so ahead of any other southern state, regardless of whether that puts them in January or February.

Anonymous said...

What's wrong with the premise that Romney is in trouble in Nevada?

He's at 31% in the Daily Kos poll. He won 55% in 2008. That means he has bled over 40% of his support from 2008.

In order for Romney to have a chance at winning overall, he needs to keep most of his 2008 support. If the trends in Nevada are repeated elsewhere, Romney's pretty much toast if not in Nevada but elsewhere.

I'd also that the Palin/Huckabee percentage is the one to look for in polls. Since it's extremely likely that only one will run, Romney should probably be worried whenever that percentage exceeds his percentage. It did in Nevada.

And keep in mind too that Romney needs to put up a big win in Nevada. When the electorate is over a quarter Mormon, there really is no excuse for Romney to not win the state by at least 10 points. If he wins by less or even outright loses, then he might as well write his concession speech.

So the Boston Globe is right in a sense. The Paul stuff is a joke. But the Globe is correct that Romney is dramatically underperforming given that at least 25% of electorate is Mormon. The Utah poll was a little better for him today but even that poll showed him bleeding 15% of his Mormon support from 2008 against Palin in a one-on-one.

If he's bleeding support in states with high Mormon electorates, the bleeding will be worse elsewhere.

Josh Putnam said...

I think that is a fair point of clarification. South Carolina's GOP didn't complain about the 2008 calendar until Florida jumped onto the Palmetto state's turf.

That said, there was enough uncertainty about Michigan in 2008 (court challenges as to whether the state could hold the primary then for instance), that the GOP in South Carolina didn't care one way or the other. But I think you pinpoint the actual reasoning with your comment about attention. South Carolina, as you said, would command the attention of all of the candidates -- or at least all of the viable candidates. Some of these other states would potentially see more fragmented attention from the candidates as they try to pick and choose where to focus their efforts. Looking back on 2008, Florida posed more of a threat to South Carolina in terms of gaining full candidate attention than Michigan did (Romney's "home state" advantage, McCain's performance there in 2000, etc.).

The question, then, may be one of attention rather than region. That'll be something to look at. If, as the Nevada GOP hopes, the move toward making the first step of the caucus process binding on delegate allocation attracts more candidates, then South Carolina may make a move to jump them (or go on the same day again). The South Carolina GOP knows what it is doing as far as the timing of the contest is concerned. I don't know that the Nevada GOP is quite there yet. Having already selected a date for their 2012 caucuses, as opposed to holding out until everyone else has settled on a date, is some evidence of amateurism on the issue of timing. Nevada is still new to this after all.

Josh Putnam said...

There's nothing wrong with the premise, per se. I think that it is still a little early and that the Globe item doesn't provide a full picture of what is actually going on.

It is fine to talk about Romney not doing as well compared to 2008, but the proper context needs to be offered. That there was no mention of Romney basically having been ceded the Nevada caucuses by the other candidates in lieu of South Carolina should probably have been mentioned. In essence, that inflated his performance in the Silver state then. It should be expected, then, that in a scenario where there is a more competitive and crowded field in the state in 2012, a candidate who won 51% (out of less than 45000 votes cast) in 2008 would see a drop in his "support".

But it isn't support so much as it is a share of that particular caucus vote. Romney played in the state when others didn't and subsequently had an organization advantage in 2008. That gap will understandably close in 2012 if other candidates compete there.

Romney's religious background helped him in the state in 2008, I suspect, from an organizational standpoint, but I don't know what percentage of the caucusgoers were Mormon then. The church estimates the Mormon population of Nevada to be in the 7% range, but the extent to which that factors into a proportion of a caucus vote is tough to calculate. My hunch is that the Mormon percentage of the vote will decrease in 2012 with higher turnout in an assumed more highly competitive race. But let's not overstate that impact.

If it is competitive in Nevada, Romney's support will go down.

Josh Putnam said...

Oops. I hit enter before I was done.

Here's the link to the Mormon population numbers and a blurb from that article:

"Mormons make up 7 percent of the Nevada population, according to the church. Leaders stress civic engagement and voting as sacred responsibilities, so turnout among church members is expected to be high. In the 2008 Republican presidential caucus, Mormons made up a quarter of the vote. Mitt Romney, a Mormon, captured 94 percent of their support."