Searching for the Anti-Romney
John Dickerson and David Weigel take your questions about the 2012 election and the GOP's first New Hampshire debate.
Posted Tuesday, June 14, 2011, at 3:31 PM
Slate political correspondents John Dickerson and David Weigel were on our Facebook page to chat with readers about last night's GOP presidential debate, the 2012 election, and the overall political landscape. Also, look out for a special cameo by Slate Editor David Plotz. This transcript has been edited for clarity.
Dave Weigel: Thanks for coming, everyone! Let's get going. My wrap on the debate was here.
John Dickerson: By the way, it's Flag Day. I hope everyone is wearing their flag.
Adam Francois Watkins: So why did T-Paw seem to back off his clever "Obamneycare" quip?
John Dickerson: Adam, I don't know why he backed off other than it is not uncommon (double negative!) for candidates to punch outside of the debate context and then when they're on stage look pleasing and upbeat. Most of the audience watching debates are seeing candidates for the first time (or at least looking at them as presidential for the first time) and so candidates don't want to come off as harsh. Still, even if Pawlenty didn't want to press the case he should have had a better answer prepared.
Dave Weigel: Adam – My impression is that Pawlenty just doesn't like to attack. Santorum can hardly live without it—he defines himself by what he believes and judges others based on what they believe. Pawlenty's generally go-along, get-along, and it was clear on the trail here that he did not want to attack Romney. How do you break out as a dark horse without attacking? Um, good question!
John Dickerson: Per David's good point. I was a little surprised that Santorum didn't take the chance he was given to go after Romney. Again, I think it's because they all want to look pleasing in that context.
Brian Foley: How long until Newt drops out?
John Dickerson: Brian, I bet Newt stays in. He may not have a chance to win but he can spread his ideas and fix his image, which has taken a pounding.
Dave Weigel: Let's see how fundraising looks in three weeks. The chattering class (i.e., all the folks in the media gym last night) expect him to pull in really paltry numbers, because as far as we know he didn't even have the money to compete in the Ames straw poll. That would be around $500,000, or 1/20 of what Romney hauled (in pledges) in one day.
Letitia Trent: (This question is really long—sorry!) The Republican candidates, when asked about job creation and economic recovery, all seemed to emphasize lower taxes (particularly cutting corporate taxes), ending oppressive government oversight, and repealing Obama's health care plan. Do you see this as a satisfying answer to Americans (or an effective response to the problems), or do Republicans have to come up with more concrete responses to these two important questions to be viable for the general election?
John Dickerson: Letitia, I think if people are as angry about the economy as they appear to be, the bar can be pretty low for a candidate. BUT if Democrats successfully define the GOP economic message as the destruction of Medicare and other popular programs, then a candidate has to get out from under that. The way to do that would be by being more specific, which is tricky because specificity winds up offending someone.
Eduardo Barrera Herrera: Is there any other candidate with a chance to get the Tea Party's support besides Bachmann?
Dave Weigel: The "Tea Party" is hard to define, but I'd caution against being impressed by any one endorsement by one group. (I'm on a lonely crusade to get reporters to stop jumping up and down when the powerless Tea Party Nation shoots a spitball.) Most TPers are partisan Republicans—convince them that you won't go against them and you can win a lot of their support.
Tonya Riley Who do you think came out of the debate looking the most moderate? Reactionary?
Brooke Bailey: As a follow up to Tonya's question: Do you think even the most moderate candidate could be moderate enough to beat Obama or will someone moderate enough have trouble keeping Tea Party voters.
Dave Weigel: Tonya and Brooke – I can answer both questions. I'd say Santorum and Bachmann came off as the most concerned with ideological purity, and Romney, Cain and Pawlenty the most concerned with results. Bachmann was all about what she'd repeal; Romney focused more on Obama's competence. But that said, did you hear much of a difference in the policy prescriptions? I didn't. The agreement is generally that tax cuts and regulation rollbacks will lead us to the promised land.
Eric Anderson: Is Pawlenty trying to appeal to evangelical voters or economic conservatives? What divergence is there?
Dave Weigel: Pawlenty's trying to appeal to both but he and Bachmann *should* have an inside track to social conservatives. Both are competing for Iowa; Huntsman isn't, Romney is lowering expectations. That tells you what you need to know about how they think they can do with those voters.
John Dickerson: Eric, he's trying to go for both evangelicals and economic conservatives (and anyone else he can find). This is a bit of a problem. He's trying to be all things to all people, say those in NH and IA who have reservations about him.
Dave Weigel: Oh, second part of your question; not much divergence. Many social conservatives are primarily concerned with economic issues. And even if they're not their leadership groups are.
David Sawyer: Seems like Perry or Christie may just wait for the media narrative to become "none of these Republicans can beat Obama" and then will swoop in as the "surprise dark horse" who can "really go toe-to-toe with Obama" and "energize the base." It's a storyline the press would love and would surely give instant momentum to the newcomer. Also, don't you think Ryan or Boehner would be instant frontrunners if they decided to run?
John Dickerson: David, the media narrative is only so powerful. Late starting candidates face massive hurdles. It's not easy to campaign, as Newt Gingrich, Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, and lots and lots of others have discovered. Chris Christie and Rick Perry will have their best day the day before they announce. After that it's all a grim slog that they don't really want to participate in.
Robert Berry: I felt like they were already debating Obama. They had no attacks on each other but saved everything for what BO is doing wrong.
John Dickerson: That's usually the way it goes in the early debates. The gloves don't come off for a while—though the pressure to show you're a contender could push candidates to show a little spark earlier.
Teresa Kopec: I was surprised that John King didn't try to get everyone on the record regarding the Ryan Medicare plan. That seemed like an obvious question. As much King bashing as is going on on conservative websites today, that was a big assist to the GOP field.
John Dickerson: Teresa, good point. I think questioning about the Ryan plan and the tradeoffs is a fertile area of questioning. On John King: It's a hell of a thing to manage two hours of seven candidates, producers in your ear, lots of remotes, etc. He did a good job.
Dave Weigel: Are you serious? If he'd done that, we'd never have known that Pawlenty prefers Coke to Pepsi.
Levi Novey: You will probably get to this question, but do you think once Jon Huntsman gets in the race he will be able to gain any traction and become a serious contender for the nomination?
John Dickerson: Huntsman has a long slow hill to climb. He's running the McCain strategy: Focus on New Hampshire independents. But he doesn't have McCain's story or flair for the public events. Also, if he really is going to rely on donations and not his personal money that will require a lot of time begging for dollars. Still, anything can happen; only three in 10 Romney supports say they'll stick with him in the latest Gallup. It's fluid.
Nicholas Wolf: What are Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman thinking in light of what they saw last night?
Dave Weigel: Good question about Huntsman/Perry. Let's remember, this was just a debate in New Hampshire, where Romney is expected to win big. And he did well as 1) Pawlenty failed to attack him and 2) Bachmann's credit rating rose as an alternative for social conservatives. So if I'm convinced I can rip the bark off of Romney and win Southern primaries, I'm more encouraged now. That's Perry. I am still bearish on Huntsman ... if we shook the media's fairy dust off him, he'd be 6 inches tall.
Dave Weigel: Obviously Huntsman sees an opportunity, but if I'm a Republican in NH, I either like Romney or I have a pretty good anti-Romney, with a good blue collar bio. Why do I go instead for a Mormon guy who grew up rich? Not saying he shouldn't run ... but what's his fresh appeal? I don't see it yet.
Dave Weigel: I mean that the good anti-Romney is Pawlenty.
Nicholas Wolf: Dave, New Hampshire voters respect a shoe-leather candidate. If Romney loses focus on pounding pavement in NH and spends a little too much time fundraising, Huntsman could maybe pull out a strong second, which the national press would go crazy over and give him momentum. Plausible?
Dave Weigel: Plausible! If Bachmann really grinds down Pawlenty and forces him to stay in Iowa, that's imaginable, but otherwise I think Pawlenty has the clearest path to second in NH.
John Dickerson: Nicholas, I don't think there's a chance Romney will take his eye off of New Hampshire or the way voters like to be stroked here.
Jeremy Addis-Mills: With the GOP presidential bid ramping up, no one really seems to be talking about Congress. How is the 2012 election expected to change or shift the balance in Congress? How might redistricting play a role if any?
Dave Weigel: Jeremy – Right now it's looking like Obama could win re-election while Democrats lose ground in Congress. Democrats who had locked down seats in North Dakota, Hawaii, and Wisconsin are retiring. In the House, I'd say redistricting gives Republicans a net of six to 10 safer seats. If the election were today I'd expect Obama to win fairly narrowly while Democrats lose the Senate and only pick up a net of five to six House seats.
Donna Roger Sauer: How would the debates change were, say, California and New York to have their primaries earlier in the cycle? The way the caucuses and primaries are set up plays to an increasingly right-wing electorate. Republican debates tend to resemble scorpions in a bottle though most kept their stingers up last night.
John Dickerson: Donna Roger Sauer, I'm not sure it would change a heaping lot because the primaries are still dominated by party activists who tend to be more conservative and ask for litmus-test-type positions.
Kevin Ransdell: Not about the debate ... Do you think Romney can survive the potential voter fraud scandal gaining traction? Republicans didn't mention much of their actual domestic agenda that they have been rolling out since January but Voter Registration as an extension of their paranoia of voter fraud seems to be a deal breaker for them.
Dave Weigel: Kevin – Is this "voter fraud scandal" the complaint against Romney for using his son's basement as a voting residence? I don't think it's going anywhere UNLESS—extremely unlikely—Romney voted somewhere else, too. It's not uncommon for people to vote in addresses they don't spend all year in. The Kennedys used to use the same apartment in Boston as a voting address. The complaint is a frivolous attention grab by the most boring fringe candidate of the cycle.
David Plotz: J and D – your Slate colleague Plotz here. You're out of the office, so I figured this was the easiest way to reach you. Can you tell me why the race isn't over? It appears to me that Romney will win this in a walk. It won't be competitive even for a few minutes. Why am I wrong?
David Sawyer: Since Plotz has made a cameo appearance, I'd like to know if Weigel will be back on the Gabfest soon?
John Dickerson: David Plotz, my dear editor, I hope you don't mind that Dave and I took the entire press corps out for drinks and to get fitted for custom-made suits last night. Your answer: Races always change. Front-runners stumble and are reborn. At this time in 2007 Clinton was up by an average of 12-13 points. Gallup had her up 16 a few days later and CBS had her up 23. McCain was up by similar margins but crashed and by November Huckabee was the front-runner. Bush looked invincible in 2000 until McCain nearly took him out in NH. Dole was the front-runner and then Forbes ate him down to size. It always changes, though I grant you it's hard to envision how that happens here, but I think the thing Romney needs to worry most about is that it looks like he'll win in a walk.
Dave Weigel: Mr. Plotz – What John said, but I'd add that Romney is stronger than the "de facto frontrunner" that he's portrayed as. His strength isn't just that it's his "turn," like Dole '96 or McCain '08. It's that the election is turning on the issue he's comfortable with: economics. Democrats are convinced they can beat up a Bain turnaround guy on that issue, but Republicans are barely trying.
John Dickerson: Dave makes the important point about Romney. For a tour of why it's the moment for his argument on economics and why there are obstacles to that argument in a general election context you can read my swing at it here.
John Dickerson: Hey David Plotz, more data for your answer: "Jimmy Carter, Michael Dukakis, and Bill Clinton all polled at 1% around this time in nomination campaigns they went on to win."
Ivan K. Freeman: John D – But were there strong presumptive front-runners in those races at this point?
John Dickerson: Ivan, there's not a strong presumptive front-runner now either.
Ivan K. Freeman: Well I guess the use of the adjective "strong" might be problematic. But if you Google "GOP frontrunner 2012" in the News section of the search engine, Romney appears to emerge as THE front-runner. (Not as scientific as a poll, I know.)
John Dickerson: Ivan, we're all searching for a word to use to modify Romney's front-runner status because it's soft. Momentary? Soft?
Ivan K. Freeman: Tenuous?
Robert Berry: Speaking of Flag Day, I noticed that several of the "candidates" were not wearing a flag pin on their lapel. What gives? I thought this was equal to slapping Jesus on Easter while eating a pork sandwich.
Dave Weigel: I'd compare it more to making an eagle cry while singing the Marine hymn backward.
Andrew Stebbins: Which candidate last night looked the most vice presidential? Will a "crazy" (Bachmann) need to balance the ticket with a more stable, boring candidate (of course I mean Pawlenty), and vice versa?
Dave Weigel: Andrew – Pawlenty looked the most vice presidential, given that he didn't want to bring down Romney. But to be really compelling you need to show some strength of your own with voters. Not there yet. I'd put the chances of Cain or Bachmann getting a veep slot at nil, but it'll be fun to see conservative activists demand it.
Jason Delaney: I feel like I would never believe an election season could be so dull with an electorate that was so polarized. The candidates refusing to attack each other just means everything stays the same. Are the dynamics really so entrenched that it's as foregone as it seems? Is this the preseason football it feels like?
John Dickerson: Jason Delaney, don't despair. The attacks are coming. Also, I think this election will actually have a big philosophical debate about the size and scope of government for anyone who wants to participate in it. That's not to say that we won't screw it up and cover shiny objects and tiny tin-pot railers who claim to speak for constituencies they don't really represent.
Scott Wike: The problem with Pawlenty is that he doesn't bring a constituency with him as VP. Bachmann brings the Tea Party and evangelicals. Rubio appeals to the Hispanic vote. Christie fires up the base.
John Dickerson: I think you're right. Who is he speaking for? What is his one-line explanation for existing? Bachmann is not likely to win but lots of people want someone with her talent for one-liners, her pleasing sense of conviction, in the race. She is the guest you want at the GOP party banquet. Pawlenty so far is not the guy you keep on the list when you have to make do with a smaller room. There is nothing vital about him yet. But that can change.
Scott Wike: Pawlenty would make a better RNC head after the election. He is well spoken without being outlandish (Steele) and he has a real name that people won't laugh at (Preibus).
Paul Hefferon: The entire Republican smorgasbord is a distraction from anything based in reality.
Dave Weigel: That's what you see. To me, it's a respite from talking about a skinny dude's penis.
John Dickerson: GOP strategist Mike Murphy on why Pawlenty's problem in the debate is more than just with voters. I link to this because it's the same point I make and I like to validate myself in public. I may even like this comment after I post it.
Eric Anderson: Is it really possible for any candidate to consider for VP someone other than a Hispanic, young, fresh, Tea Party-favorite senator from a swing state with 27 electoral votes?
John Dickerson: I don't know. We are so many miles away from the VP selection I have a hard time sorting out all the variables. We'll have to see how things shake out.
Dave Weigel: I sure wouldn't! Be ready for 10 or 11 million stories about Rubio and the veeplist next year. He's kept his head down and only spoken to popular issues and foreign policy (he's giving his FIRST Senate speech today!) so he knows what he could be teeing up.
Scott Wike: This may be my ignorance of the issue, but how would the fact Rubio is Cuban interact with other Hispanic constituencies? They are much less monolithic than African-Americans are.
Dave Weigel: This is a great point, but Rubio would only need to get the 2012 nominee back near to Bush 2004 levels of Hispanic support to win back Colorado, for example.
Lauren Houckwares: Why does the media try to ignore Ron Paul so much? Most articles barely mention him, yet the comments from voters show he actually has pretty substantial support. Not to mention HE won that debate last night, not Romney.
Dave Weigel: A lot of political coverage is horse race. I know: BREAKING NEWS. But one function of that is that candidates with locked-in support who don't seem poised to take anyone else's voters don't get covered as much. Paul is pretty obviously the most intellectually influential candidate in the race, but most coverage isn't about that stuff.
MisterJay Em: I keep hearing that even evangelical voters are in a "transactional mood" and would be willing to forego the social issues to back a candidate, like Mitt Romney, who purports to be strong on the economy. But this weekend, a couple of evangelical family members reiterated that they would NEVER vote for "a member of a cult" (LDS/Mormons) for president. Maybe the evangelicals in my family are particularly ... uhh ... "devout," but I strongly suspect that Mr. Romney will have a tougher time winning over evangelical Christians than is currently appreciated.
John Dickerson: There are always going to be evangelical voters who have an issue with Romney's faith but I think that group is pretty small when you think about the evangelicals who hold that opinion and are actually going to vote. He outpolls Palin among evangelicals in the Gallup poll putting him above all other candidates. He got 20 percent of the evangelical vote in the IA caucuses in 2008 against Huckabee. That was the second highest percentage.
Andrew Holt Williams: First off, thanks for doing this! Good easy way to participate in a discussion. Let's talk House elections in 2012. We know what's going to happen with the Illinois map and likely the NC map. Are there any other places where you think, in this election cycle, the Dems and Reps are in good enough political standing to make significant gains? I've heard Florida mentioned as a hotbed for that (of course).
Dave Weigel: Andrew – Democrats stand to gain a little in California, where they even romped in 2010 despite the awful economy. Republicans will keep gains in Ohio and Michigan and Pennsylvania, where they can nuke Democratic seats. Texas and Florida will be interesting, because they're both gaining big but are already gerrymandered as much as they possibly could be to elect a maximum number of Republicans.
Andrew Holt Williams: Also, how do you think possible cuts in defense spending might manifest themselves in this election?
John Dickerson: Great question. I am not sure how defense cuts will play out. Haley Barbour made the case when he was flirting with running that defense needed to be cut and he got a pretty good reception up here in NH. It will be a great debate to watch because there are lots of GOP pundits who are against the idea. The question is, what do the regular folk think. I think there's some data about this in the recent Globe poll of NH voters but the globe site is a mess to navigate so I can't find it.
Andrew Holt Williams: The context I think of defense cuts within is probably a bit different, being from a part of the south that was heavily dependent on military bases. What I wonder is whether or not one candidate would be so bold as to stick their neck out on it knowing the importance of NC, VA, and FL to this election, three states with large base presences. This makes me inclined to think that the only candidate who would stand out on this would be a shocker winner for the GOP who knows they'll lose à la Goldwater.
Scott Wike: But Goldwater has been lionized almost to the level of Reagan, so if a politician is playing the long game, they might be willing to invoke that legacy and take those risks. It is all a matter of framing.
Rodney Conley: Is this debate valuable in reaching voters or is it really about spinning the media narrative this early in the campaign?
John Dickerson: There are two audiences for the debate, [one being] voters who get impressions and hear stories about the debate. We're at the early stage, it's all soft impressions and distant from the final decision voters make—particularly up here in NH where they decide late. But the audience of insiders—press, party folk and donors—does matter a little more. That inside game helps give a candidate money but also helps turn people out at rallies. Michele Bachmann will have even more people at her rallies than she did before the debate (she was already popular enough) and that keeps a candidate going—it's not *just* about the money
Dave Weigel: Rodney asks: "Is this debate valuable in reaching voters or is it really about spinning the media narrative this early in the campaign?" The answer is yes.
Nate Kennedy: It's been an hour so I'll re-ask: Have the GOP candidates given Pres. Obama political cover to speed up the withdrawal from Afghanistan without looking defeated?
Dave Weigel: I think so. That's a good point. He'd already been getting cover from House Republicans who were balking at the commitment. But the issue is how Afghanistan looks in October 2012, not how it looks this year.
John Dickerson: Nate Kennedy thanks for re-asking. Probably some cover though public opinion gives him the most cover. That and shooting Bin Laden in the face.
Nate Kennedy: @John, thank you!
Nate Kennedy: And also Dave.
Toby Archer: As a non-American but close observer of U.S. politics, could you please assure me that there is no way that Santorum won't even be given the VP slot? With all his Muslim-baiting he looks like a scary conspiracy theorist rather than a serious political figure. Sad that within the GOP you can be both.
John Dickerson: If you are worried about Rick Santorum winning the nomination or getting the VP slot I think you should put your mind at ease. It is not going to happen.
Toby Archer: Good—someone on Diane Rehm was suggesting he was angling for the VP slot. I thought he always seemed too loony-tunes to be taken that seriously.
Dave Weigel: No chance whatsoever of VP Santorum. He is not well liked by Republican elites, he doesn't really help with Pennsylvania.
Toby Archer: Sticking on the Muslims-as-bogeypeople theme (see: here) does Cain being black make it less or more likely for people to call him out on the unpleasantness of his statement classifying American Muslims as good vs. those-that-want-to-kill-us?
Dave Weigel: I feel like Cain took a lot of fire for the Muslim comment, and kept taking it last night, so: No. He's getting as much heat as Santorum would get.
Michael Rogers: Why has everyone anointed TPaw as the sane alternative to Romney? His economic speech didn't seem to provide much in the way of grounds for that.
Dave Weigel: I think it's just a logic puzzle. He has the longest and least damaging record of any non-Romney candidate. He's an evangelical Christian. He's hired a strong staff, which reporters pay attention to.
John Dickerson: I'd add to Dave's answer that there doesn't seem to be an obvious obstacle to his candidacy. Even his tepid character thing which lots of people bring up is a bubble that can be popped.
John Dickerson: Internet Explorer keeps interrupting my answers to warn me that this material is not secure and asking me if it's okay to send it through. I think you've all been very polite and I don't know what IE is talking about—though I never really do.
John Dickerson: I was just looking at Sarah Palin's Facebook page. There aren't as many people asking me or Dave to run for president here and frankly I'm a little hurt.
Ivan K. Freeman: Too difficult to pick the top of the Dave/John, John/Dave ticket.
Toby Archer: I'd vote for you, John, but only if you pick Emily B. as your VP. Mr. Plotz will just have to be a Rahm Emanuel-esque chief of staff.
Dave Weigel: If nominated, I will not campaign. If elected, I will serve, but only on odd days.
Jared Mosher: Why are they scared of Gary Johnson and refused to allow him in the debate when he met the criteria?
Dave Weigel: If I'm a debate planner I certainly want Johnson in there. He's the only pro-choice, sort of pro-gay rights guy in there, and on economics he's very far to the right. Fascinating stuff, if you think debates should be about arguments and not canned statements.
Mitch Mitchell: John/Dave – Post-debate, does the Obama camp feel better or worse about their chances?
John Dickerson: I bet they feel about the same. The economy is weak. It's going to be a tough race.
David Frederick: I'd also like to know why the economy is better when rich people pay a fair share of the taxes.
Dave Weigel: Save that for the general election! I'm pretty obsessed with the orthodoxy of "tax cuts fix everything, always" theory in the GOP. It's especially odd now because polling STILL shows that tax increases on people making $250,000 or more are popular. There's a reason Obama campaigned on them.
John Dickerson: Okay gang I've got to go, the housekeeping knock on the door of the hotel room has gotten so loud I think they're going to bring in the battering ram. I have enjoyed this. Thanks everyone and Dave it was a pleasure chatting with you.
John Dickerson is Slate's chief political correspondent and author of On Her Trail. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read his series on the presidency and his series on risk. Follow him on Twitter.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Pawlenty and Bachmann by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images.