The Elusive Alternative: GOP Candidate Surges in 2011

Republicans surged toward Donald Trump, then Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry and now Herman Cain (for a second time). Support for each has risen sharply only to fall off rapidly. Why is the GOP finding it hard to settle on an alternative to Mitt Romney and why has Romney seemingly failed to move up after these alternatives slumped?

The New York Times’ Ross Douthat writes about the difficulty the GOP “populist” movement has had in finding a candidate this year.

Republican primary voters deserve a better class of right-wing populist, and the country does as well.

[The populist] critique accuses the Republican leadership of being too cavalier about illegal immigration, too forgiving of crony capitalism and Wall Street-Washington coziness, too promiscuous with overseas military interventions, and too willing to imitate Democrats and centralize power in Washington. Right-wing populists tend to argue that Beltway Republicans have lost touch with the party’s core constituencies: small-business owners, middle-class families and Main Street, U.S.A.

These arguments often have merit. The trouble is that no populist politician has been able to deliver an agenda to match. Having identified important problems, right-wing populists almost inevitably rally to unworkable solutions.

This is a very interesting argument about the necessity of serious policy proposals to match the critique of current establishment politics. While the media have focused heavily on Perry’s poor debate performance perhaps a larger problem is his lack of clearly articulated proposals. Social Security as Ponzi scheme and Bernanke as treasonous don’t count. As Douthat argues, a successful Republican populist candidate must offer plans that seem grounded in a realistic understanding of what policy changes are possible to address that critique without, as he says, “shoot[ing] financial markets in the head.”

Elites have been quicker to turn on Rick Perry than have GOP voters, with the polls falling rapidly but still at a higher level of support than anyone but Romney. I’ve argued that his fall is real and consequential but before writing his final political obituary it may be prudent to see if those who can’t embrace Romney find no alternative but Perry. Christie of course deliberates as the world waits.

Romney’s problem remains that while he is acceptable to the establishment, his “authenticity” deficit continues to trouble large segments of the GOP electorate who remain troubled by his numerous departures from conservative orthodoxy only to now claim to embrace those positions. As Douthat said of Romney in an earlier column

No one doubts Romney’s intelligence or competence, but he has managed to run for president for almost five years without taking a single courageous or even remotely interesting position.

There may yet be an alternative. Mitch Daniels might have been. Chris Christie may yet be. I think the strongest case is for a populist conservative who has served as governor, facing the discipline of being required to govern and shape policies true to conservative principles that are simultaneously practical. Of course Perry has not appeared to benefit from his experience as governor of Texas, so gubernatorial experience is no guarantee of a plausible policy platform. Perry, indeed, has suffered precisely because of his policy concerning in-state college tuition for undocumented students and his inability to articulate a defense of that plan that doesn’t offend anti-illegal immigrant conservatives in the party.

Still, the best hope for populist Republicans is found in the statehouses where ideology meets the practical requirements of governing. If not this year, then the crop of new GOP governors swept into office in 2010 offers bench strength in the future. (The same holds for Democrats, as the example of a long-shot Arkansas governor in 1991 demonstrates.)

The future for GOP conservatives is more likely found in statehouses than on Fox, another point Douthat makes

This is the irony of Fox’s impact on Republican politics. In a sense, the network’s shows have given right-wing populism a larger megaphone than it’s ever had before. But by turning populism into mass entertainment, they’ve made it less and less likely that a conservative populist will ever actually deserve to win.

I’d disagree with the last sentence. There will be strong future contenders, but they will come from the governors offices rather than cable studios.

Why Ames (apparently) doesn’t matter

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(Addendum: The New York Times’ Nate Silver posted a very lengthy response to this. By all means check his arguments which should always be taken seriously. But in light of the recent trend in Bachmann support, I think I’m happy with my claim that the straw poll says little about future performance.)

After yesterday’s excitement over the Ames straw poll let’s take a look at the history and consequences. With Tim Pawlenty’s withdrawal today, it seems Ames does indeed matter, at least for negative consequences, and Michele Bachmann’s appearances on Sunday morning shows also hints at the upside for visibility and seriousness.

Yesterday, Nate Silver of the New York Times, presented his analysis of why Ames matters. His approach is to link the Ames straw poll to performance in the Iowa caucuses, and the results show that the two are certainly correlated, whether or not they are causally connected.  The results convince Silver that Ames is an important signal about a candidate’s likely success in the caucuses.

But the caucus is only the first event of the nomination process and so an alternative approach is to focus on the brass ring: the nomination itself. Is there any evidence that performance in the Ames straw poll has an effect on winning the GOP presidential nomination?

The short answer is “no”. And the longer answer is “beware of statistical analysis with very few cases”.

The chart above shows the predicted probability of winning the nomination based on national polling in the month before in Ames straw poll and whether or not the candidate won the straw poll. There is a strong and statistically significant effect of national poll standing (which is why the curves rise rapidly to near certainty for those polling well.) But the estimated effect for winning Ames is not statistically significant, and in fact is estimated to have a negative effect, if any at all. That is why the black line for winners is below the red line for losers.  The best conclusion is “no effect at all”.

In the figure, solid dots represent nominees while open circles are those who failed to gain the nomination. Straw poll winners who went on to secure the nomination (solid black dots) are Bush ’99 and Dole ’95. Straw poll losers (solid red dots) who became nominees are Bush ’87, Reagan ’79 and McCain ’07.

The straw poll winners who failed to gain the nomination are also revealing: Romney ’07, Gramm ’95 (who tied with Dole at the straw poll), Robertson ’87 and Bush ’79. The common trait is these all won the straw poll while standing below 10% support in the national polls at the time.  McCain ’07 with 16% poll support holds the record for lowest poll support of an eventual nominee, and he lost the straw poll.

Perhaps what is most revealing here is that the straw poll occasionally ratifies front runners, as it did with Bush in ’99 and Dole in ’95. But it often gives the nod to relatively weak candidates (from a national polling perspective) who command very modest public support. While attractive within the party, and effective at organizing in Iowa, these candidates had limited appeal in subsequent contests (or faced powerful opponents, as Bush ’79 learned when taking his “big mo” against Reagan after Iowa.)

If we plug in the current national polling numbers to the model for Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Mitt Romney, we see that Bachmann is given little chance at the nomination, at least according to the model. Her predicted probability of winning the nomination, based on 13% in national polls and a straw poll win is .023, or 2.3%. (She has fluctuated in polling recently and fallen from her high point of the last month, so the current 13% may or may not adequately reflect her potential support. Her current trend estimate is actually lower, at 8.7%. All candidates in the model are measured by the same standard–the most recent available national poll taken before the straw poll.)

Rick Perry has, of course, only just entered the race so his polls may be highly variable. The latest put him at 17%, yielding an probability of nomination of .114, or 11.4%. Perry’s polling has been rising rapidly with a trend estimate at 16.4, essentially the same as his latest poll.

Finally, Mitt Romney remains the polling front runner with 24%, giving him an estimated .363 probability of nomination. His trend has turned down recently and now stands at 19%.

Both Perry and Romney outpace McCain ’07 at this point, but stand well behind Reagan ’79 or Bush ’87, two other straw poll losers, and far behind Dole ’95 or Bush ’99 who won the straw poll while also polling near or over 50%.

It is worth point out that national polls are no guarantee of success either. Ask Giuliani ’07 or Dole ’87.

The simple conclusion then is that there is no evidence that straw poll success increases the likelihood of winning the GOP presidential nomination. Strong polling among Republicans nationally is far more powerful, even if certainly not a guarantee.

If there is a straw poll effect it seems more likely to be short term and tactical rather than long term and of strategic value. Pawlenty has given up. Bachmann is and will be in the spotlight for a while. But the short term effects show little evidence of carrying over to long term success in the nomination chase.

(I find a slight improvement in prospects of winning the Iowa caucus among straw poll winners, which is consistent with Silver’s finding based on percentage votes. But when predicting nomination success with a model similar to the one presented here, winning the Iowa caucus has no effect on nomination probability, once national poll standing is incorporated in the model.)

Non-geeks may want to stop here.

The longer answer is to notice how poor the data are for answering the question at all. The black line for winners has no cases along it from Bachmann at 13% to Dole at 48%. In contrast, the red line for losers is pretty well populated in this range.  What that means statistically is we have no information for estimating the effect of  winning the straw poll for anyone between 10% and 48% national support. The black line then is estimated based on the four winners who all stood below 10% and the two winners who were over 48%. (Bachmann doesn’t count because we don’t know the nominee yet, obviously.) It is the mathematical shape of the curve that provides the leverage for estimating the black line between 10% and 48%, and that is thin gruel indeed. The red line in contrast enjoys several cases in this range, and while it too has substantial uncertainty in outcomes it is far better grounded in data than is the curve for straw poll winners.

Given these limitations of data which the real world has provided, the best conclusion remains that we don’t have any evidence that the straw poll provides a boost in likelihood of winning the nomination, once national polls are taken into account.  Anecdotally, it is revealing to ponder the division between straw poll winners who are very low in national polls and winners who are very high in poll, with no one in between. It seems dark horses have a real shot in the straw poll, but not so much at the nomination.

P.S. And Joshua Tucker cuts to the chase without making it excessively complicated with just two bars.