Now that the official baseball season is ended, the NBA season has been postponed, and the end of Daylight Savings Time is only a few days away, it is time to throw a few coals on the fire and convene the political Hot Stove league once more. In the off moments when I have not been brooding about Marcuse or Weber, I have been trying to make sense of what is surely the most bizarre presidential primary race in living memory. My overseas readers will perhaps find these musings considerably more arcane than the subtleties of the relationship between religious faith and the advent of capitalism, but as the late, great Tip O'Neill of Massachusetts famously observed, all politics are local. [I think he actually said "is," but I have regularized his grammar so as not to tarnish his memory.]
At the moment, all attention is focused on the charges of past acts of sexual harassment leveled against front-runner Herman Cain. However, as a registered, certified, credentialed intellectual, I am of course obliged to look beneath this surface appearance to reveal deeper trends and structural realities. Had I been trained in Literary Criticism rather than Philosophy, I would refer to my idle remarks as an "intervention" and several times describe myself as "gesturing at" the political scene. I might even be moved to place the initial letters of words in parentheses, as though astonished at the fact that some English words have prefixes. Oh well, I am too old to change, so I shall simply offer these observations for your amusement, rather than for your edification. I figure I have done enough edifying for a while.
On the surface, the race for the Republican presidential nomination gives the appearance of constant flux. Trump is up. Trump is out. Bachmann soars. Bachmann crashes. Perry inflates like a soufflé. Perry collapses. Cain is able. Cain is disabled. But the polls, taken more frequently than a hypochondriac takes his pulse, reveal an unexpected stability. The seemingly unchanging reality can be described simply as 25-25-50. For upwards of a year now, roughly a quarter of Republican voters polled have expressed a preference for Romney, roughly a quarter have described themselves as undecided, and the remaining fifty percent have opted for Trump, Pawlenty, Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Paul, Santorum, Gingrich, or Huntsman.
The ceaseless flux in the distribution of that fifty percent has captured all the media attention, but the overall shape of the race has remained surprisingly constant. Sometimes Romney slides to 21%, at other times he claws his way up to 29%, but with impressive homeostatic constancy, his numbers keep returning to the roughly 25% mark. Sometimes, too, the undecideds shrink a bit, although there too, the size of the officially uncertain seems pretty stable.
I am going to make an assumption for which I have no actual evidence, but which seems to me to be very likely true, namely that it is the same quarter of the probable Republican primary voters who name Romney as their choice each time a poll is taken. [Not the same individuals, of course, since the sample is different each time, but rather that the group of the voters represented in the sample by the Romney supporters is stable.] It just strikes me as intuitively unlikely that people who say "Romney" today would have said "Cain" or "Bachmann" a week earlier, or would say "Perry" or "Paul" a week later. In other words, I think there really is a stable quarter of the Republican primary electorate who are Romney voters.
The same cannot, I think, be said of the quarter who in any poll are undecided. Many of them, I would imagine, supported Bachmann or Trump or Perry during their brief moments of glory and now are hanging back, saying "undecided" when asked. And of course the poll numbers make it obvious that most of the 50% have shifting allegiances, backing first one darling of the Right Wing and now another. The exception to this generalization is the loyal, devoted, unmovable claque of Ron Paul acolytes. They will be with him to the end, I am sure.
I predict that this situation will continue at least for another month, and perhaps longer, until right before the real delegate selection begins on January 3rd with the Iowa Caucuses. Cain may swoon [although he does not yet show any signs of doing so] and Gingrich may benefit from Cain's discomfiture [appalling and inconceivable as that may be]. Perry may rise again. Even the egregious Santorum, victim of the most cruelly brilliant internet joke ever played on a political candidate, may experience an ego-soothing bump. Only poor old Huntsman will, in all likelihood, never see so much as a blip in his level of support, which at the moment is within the margin of error of zero.
But it is an indisputable truth that once the voting starts, one hundred percent of those who show up at the polls or caucuses will choose somebody. "None of the above" is not on the ballot in any of the primaries, so far as I have been able to ascertain. At that time, there are really only three plausible outcomes. Here they are:
1. Romney picks up most of the "undecided" voters, and begins to collect close to 50% of the votes. Paul gets his reliable 10%, and the remaining 40% is distributed in some way or other among the other six candidates. If that happens, Romney wins, and the presidential race will be an Obama/Romney contest.
2. Romney snags maybe two-fifths of the undecideds, or even half of them, and sees his share of the votes rise to 35-40%. Paul gets his 10%, and the remaining 50% go to the rest of the field. In this case, I think, pretty quickly one of that group of six will emerge as the candidate of the non-Romney non-Paul voters, and will start getting as much as 40% or even more in this or that state. There will be states, especially in the South, in which this person gets an absolute majority, while Romney is lucky to hold his original 25%. As the primary season rolls on, Romney and this non-Romney -- maybe Perry, maybe Cain, probably not Gingrich, almost certainly not Bachmann or Huntsman or Santorum -- keep splitting the delegates as they are selected. Since Paul will win delegates under the new Republican rules [which call for some measure of proportional allocation], it is not clear whether anyone will have an actual majority when the primary season is over.
At this point, the group of unelected delegates [Governors, Reps, Senators, Party chairpersons, and so forth] may try to decide the race one way or the other by throwing all their votes to either Romney or the emergent non-Romney. If they choose Romney [because, perhaps, the non-Romney is Cain, whom they consider unelectable], this will very possibly trigger a revolt at the Convention from the majority of delegates who are really unhappy at the thought of Romney being the nominee.
3. Romney manages to hold his 25% but gets very few additional votes as the primaries begin. In this case, Romney and Paul between them account for perhaps 40% of the votes, and 60% are up for grabs. Once again, one of the non-Romney non-Paul candidates will emerge as the real vote-getter, maybe Perry, maybe Cain, and that person will be on a glide path to the nomination. If the non-Romney is Cain, all hell will break loose, as the wise old heads in the Republican Party stare at an Obama victory of Reaganesque proportions in a year when they should have been able to waltz into the White House. Their efforts to derail Cain will trigger a split in the Republican ranks that will transform the party. If the non-Romney is Perry, my best guess is that the Party will fall in line, and the race will be between Obama and Perry.
Which of these three futures is most likely? The mainstream media commentators who are all confidently predicting a smooth Romney victory must be assuming that Number One is the odds-on favorite, and yet I really do not think that is true. Remember, for that scenario to play out, Romney must snag all or most of the undecideds, and I see no evidence that he will do so. If that were the case, you would expect his numbers to have started to rise already. My own view is that Scenario Number Two is actually the most likely, although Number Three is also surely a genuine possibility.
In any case, there are going to be a great many disappointed, even bitter, Republican voters if Romney somehow manages to get the nomination.
If this analysis is correct, Obama's chances for reelection may be brighter than the unemployment numbers suggest.