It’s messier in Iowa. Four years ago, Romney was able to buy an early lead in the state with $10 million of TV ads and gimmicks like a 99-county bus tour led by his son Josh. (This was before The Walking Dead; weeks spent exploring highways in RVs were less creepy.) Romney started the year in the teens in Iowa, gulping for air amid a bunch of fantasy candidates like Sarah Palin. He’s in the mid 20s now; he got 25 percent of the vote in the 2008 caucuses. Cain’s surge has pushed him ahead of Romney in Iowa for now. Gingrich’s big surge has put the former speaker and part-time book salesman roughly where he was eight months ago.
Romney’s slow, unnoticed progress in the polls has kept him out of the fray. He doesn’t pander to siphon away support from another candidate. Romney hasn’t changed any policies or promises in order to stave off one of the “anti-Romneys.” Cain, Huntsman, Perry, and to a lesser extent Gingrich have proposed massive, regressive tax reform packages. Romney has stuck to his modest, Bush-like tax plan from earlier this year. The only new ideas he’s absorbed have come from the House Republicans—the “Cut, Cap, and Balance” pledge that evolved out of the debt limit fight, the Ryan budget. Think of it like a solar system map. The House Republicans, with their visceral links to the GOP base, are the sun. Romney’s a planet rotating around it. The other candidates are meteors that keep plunking into each other.
You can see this in the televised debates, the forums where Cain and Gingrich keep thriving, and where Perry might have lost his shot to get into the race with Romney instead of the parallel campaign of the fringe. At Dartmouth, when he was offered up a chance to ask a candidate a question, Romney took the regular amount of flak on his health care plan, then tossed a puffball to Bachmann: “What do you do to help the American people get back to work, be able to make ends meet?” In the last debate, in Las Vegas, Romney took a different tack and punched down. The way he did it, though, revealed how little he had to fear from the parallel track candidates. Romney put a hold on Gingrich’s usual monologues about ideas and boldness to remind him that he once supported a mandate-based health care plan.
“Wait a second,” said Gingrich. “What you just said is not true. You did not get that from me. You got it from the Heritage Foundation.” Over the next 20 seconds, Romney got the great intellectual to reverse himself. Did he once support a plan with a mandate? “I absolutely did with the Heritage Foundation against Hillarycare.”
It was a minor moment, but it was a reminder of something: Gingrich has only improved in polls because he’s no longer getting (or deigning to answer) relevant questions about the campaign, or current policy. He’s running a campaign of Ideas, things like abolishing judgeships if the judges rule the wrong way on whether “under God” should be in the Pledge of Allegiance. Romney’s able to ignore this, completely. He’s able to ignore 9-9-9. He gets to spend another week out of the news as Republican voters think harder about nominating a candidate who can win. Michele Bachmann, the one Republican candidate who’s taken any kind of swing at Cain, said yesterday that the GOP can’t afford “any surprises” with its nominee. That’s an argument for the boring guy who came second in 2008, not an argument for her.
Exactly one year ago, Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism crunched the data on which candidates had gotten the most coverage in the midterms. The winner was not Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who would end up driving the Cut, Cap, and Balance plan that is now a plank of Romney’s platform. It wasn’t Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who is now the pivotal vote on the “supercommittee” who could propose tax hikes or gutted tax loopholes. It was Christine O’Donnell of Delaware, a perennial candidate who won a U.S. Senate primary in an upset and was set to lose the general election even before networks played and replayed a decade of dumb statements she’d made on TV.
There were parallel campaigns in 2010, too—one in which a few exploiters of the “Tea Party” brand bungled elections, and one in which hundreds of Republicans ran smart campaigns and won. The more interesting campaign, with the hilarious characters and the comebacks by has-beens— that’s not the one likely to produce a president.