Well, while Governor Romney was flipping pork chops in Ames–and, in the course of invoking the Five Second Rule, devastating the media stereotype that he’s a robot–EFM was fairly low key. David, I’m sure, was busy being a dad; my wife and I had just found out that her grandmother has breast cancer, so we had some visiting to do; and Steve, being an English major, generally keeps his posts to one sentence or less. But now we’re back, and here’s my effort to make some sense of the straw poll. I suspect David will weigh in shortly with something much more intelligent.
It strikes me that so far in this campaign, there have been two real tests of the candidates’ ability not just to talk, but to get something done. Coming up with a good debate soundbite is nice, but real campaigns are not just about debates–they’re about getting real people to get off their real butts and cast real votes in real places. The first test came in Memphis in March 2006. Here is how MSNBC described what happened there:
The shocker of the evening was that Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney placed second, besting far better-known rivals Arizona Sen. John McCain and Virginia Sen. George Allen. Romney finished with 14 percent of the vote.
Third place was shared by Allen and President Bush, each of whom won 10.3 percent of the ballots cast. Bush, who of course is not eligible to run again for president, was the write-in candidate that McCain was pushing through the weekend.
The results of the GOP straw poll were announced live at 9pm Eastern Time on MSNBC’s Hardball.
“We’re excited about the grassroots being here. We’re excited about the energy,” said Frist spokeswoman Amy Call, who then started high-fiving with other Frist aides.
Romney spoke to the Memphis gathering on Friday afternoon – the first of the contenders to address the gathering.
Nancy French, who said she writes political humor for a living and organized the Romney volunteer effort in Tennessee, told reporters that she and other volunteers had spent three weeks preparing for the Memphis event. “If we had twice that, we could have taken the whole thing,” an exuberant French told reporters.
Asked if she – like Romney – was a Mormon, French said, “No, I’m a Presbyterian. Everybody keeps coming over to me and saying, ‘Way to go, Sister French,’ and I’m – like – ‘thanks.’ I feel like I don’t know what to say.”
Bottom line: Governor Romney proved the critics wrong, outworked all his rivals, and garnered the support of many of the evangelicals who dominated the event.
What does that have to do with Ames? Everything. In Ames, he did it again–with even more on the table. First, he laid so much key groundwork that none of the other frontrunners even wanted to take him on. They pulled out. Second, he blew all the other candidates who were left out of the water. His margin of victory was greater than President Bush’s in 1999–even though President Bush was the obvious front-runner with the surname to match and Governor Romney is still not well known nationally. And in racking up that margin of victory, he once again attracted significant evangelical support.
Of course, he didn’t get every evangelical in the place to vote for him. A few voted for Governor Huckabee, a few more voted for Senator Brownback, and a couple even claimed they knew how Jesus would vote. But that wasn’t the point. The point was to do again what he did in Memphis–win the thing convincingly with support from evangelicals, but not just from evangelicals. And he did it.
What else is notable about Ames? For one thing, Governor Thompson is quitting the race on account of his poor showing. Having one less candidate will help make the debates a little less painful. For another, the negative attacks of another candidate from a neighboring state didn’t work out too well; despite the sum he spent, Governor Huckabee beat him. (Let that be a lesson to those who chalk up Governor Romney’s victory to money. Not even money can help you when your message is negative and unattractive.) Finally, Governor Huckabee thinks his showing–second place–combined with his good debate work will vault him into the first tier.
I have two things to say about that. First, I don’t think there’s room for a candidate with his fiscal record in the first tier. Second, I hope his campaign doesn’t echo the subtle attacks his surrogates have made on others’ faiths. Leading up to Ames, one of his supporters went after Senator Brownback for his being a Catholic, and now an independent blog has morphed his tag line (“Proven leader. Authentic conservative.”) into “Authentic. Christian. Conservative.” You tryin’ to tell me that’s not a subtle slam on the Mormon who beat the pants off the Southern Baptist in Ames?