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Perry's Race to Win

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Oct 14, 2011

To paraphrase Yogi Berra, “the GOP nomination ain’t over ‘til it’s over.” Even after several poor debate performances, controversy over his hunting camp, and falling poll numbers, Texas Governor Rick Perry is the favorite for the nomination.

                First, the race is likely to come down between a conservative and Mitt Romney, and Perry is the only credible, conservative nominee who can put together a run at the nomination. Herman Cain’s inexperience will make it hard to withstand media scrutiny and to take advantage of his recent successes to build an organization and raise money. With no money, no experienced staff, and no organization, Cain has no chance. Michelle Bachman is a rabble rouser with no accomplishments. Newt Gingrich is undisciplined and character-challenged. Ron Paul has a narrow, intense group of supporters with no potential for growth. Rick Santorum has experience and is substantive but has limited appeal. By default, Perry is the conservative alternative to Romney.
Being the “credible conservative” is important because in every election parties must choose between their head and their heart. The head says choose the most conservative nominee who can win (Romney) while the heart says choose the one who most closely reflects your beliefs (Perry et al). With a flailing economy and unpopular president, Republicans think the election is theirs to win which reduces the danger from following their heart.
Moreover, Rick Perry has a politician’s best friend – campaign money. Perry has a strong track record of raising money as demonstrated by his raising $17 million in six weeks. Moreover, his $15 million cash on hand should be equal to that of all his conservative rivals combined. That money means that he can communicate his message and build an organization to get his vote out in the early states, unlike his conservative opponents.
                Just as important, the calendar favors the conservative. Iowa and Nevada are caucus states which brings out the most committed activists (i.e., the conservatives) while South Carolina is a very conservative state. If Perry wins those three while Romney wins New Hampshire, Perry has the momentum going into Florida and Super Tuesday. If Perry wins Florida and Super Tuesday, the race is, for all intents and purposes, over.
                Moving forward, Perry should be able to change his media narrative. In the debates, Perry’s uneven performances means people expect him to do poorly. If Perry exceeds his low expectations in the coming debates, the media storyline will change to one of a “new, more confident” Perry which will help him raise money and gain support.
The outcome is not ordained though. The other conservatives may go for the knockout blow against Perry to dry up his fundraising and harden his negative media image in the hope of becoming the alternative to Romney. Perry may not improve quickly enough to erase doubts among donors and voters that he can be president. A weakened Perry may lead to a split in the conservative vote allowing Romney to win the nomination.  Or the establishment may rally to Romney and fund his campaign so he can obliterate his opposition.  
But overall, who would you rather be? The well-known, substantive, polished candidate who can’t increase his poll numbers above 25% no matter what (Romney) or someone who can appeal to the other 75% of Republican voters? Advantage Perry.

This column originally appeared in the October 14th edition of The Jackson Sun