It's been two whole months since last we took a look over the landscape of the Republican presidential field, so we thought it was about time to do so again. A lot has happened in the past months of the race for the Republican nomination, to put it mildly.
The last time we wrote, Rick Perry had just jumped in the race. Since then, nobody else has gotten in, while two prominent names decided to sit this one out. Several candidates caught fire, and several also burned out (at least, poll-wise). So it goes, on the campaign merry-go-round.
Unlike the last time we took a look, there has been notable movement within our rankings. In the "Frontrunners" category, we had four names two months ago: Bachmann, Palin, Perry, and Romney. Two of these are gone, and one has risen to take their place, leaving us with three frontrunners (at least, for now).
As always, while we freely admit our criteria for ranking the candidates is completely arbitrary on our part; the order within the categories remains strictly alphabetical, to avoid showing any favoritism.
Chris Christie -- We probably haven't seen the last of Chris Christie, since people are already talking about him running in four (or perhaps eight) years. But -- as he said in his announcement that he wouldn't be running this time around -- New Jersey is now stuck with him for the time being. It'd be interesting to see him chosen as a 2012 running mate, but he's always said the odds are against such a thing happening -- and he's probably right. He also exited the stage in a big way, by almost immediately throwing his not-inconsiderable weight behind Romney -- possibly the most influential endorsement Romney has yet received. Christie would indeed have shaken up the GOP field in a major way, but by declining to do so right now he sets himself up perfectly for a run next time around.
Sarah Palin -- To the dismay of the entire Lefty press, Mama Grizzly declined to toss her fur cap into the ring. Palin played the "will-she-or-won't-she" game better than anyone else in the field this year, but is now virtually irrelevant to Republican politics from this point onwards. She has permanently placed herself in the Righty punditocracy, and will likely never run for office ever again. This was her one shot at getting back into politics, and she has now declined to do so. But you have to give her credit for the long tease -- on any given day, it was a complete tossup as to whether people thought she'd get in the race or not. Compare this to Rudy Giuliani, for example, who tried to pull off a similar tease with the media -- but utterly failed to generate the slightest interest by doing so. Conclusion: Sarah Palin can now safely be ignored, at least when it comes to the Republican Party in the 2012 election. Even her endorsement may not mean much, by the time she deigns to give it.
Two dark horses remain, exactly where they were two months ago. Jon Huntsman and Rick Santorum have been consistently polling in the very low single digits this entire race, and it looks like they will continue to do so right up until the point they realize how farfetched their campaigns are, and drop out of the race. This will likely come some time in January, unless they see the light sooner than the first caucuses and primaries. Other than that, though, there's not much to say about either one of them, so we'll just quickly move along.
The "B" Team
Our "B" Team has had quite a bit of movement in the past few months. One name moved up, and two names were added (one from below, and one from above). Only one candidate stayed consistent in this category this time around.
Michele Bachmann -- Michele Bachmann was doing so well. She was actually in second place in the polling for a while (behind Romney), and had turned in some solid debate performances. But then Rick Perry jumped in the race and Bachmann made a few comments (in an attempt to dethrone Perry from the second-place status he had stolen from her) which simultaneously did two things -- almost overnight, Bachmann went from media darling to media poison; and the voters started turning away from her in a severe way. Bachmann's poll numbers crashed from the high teens to where they sit at the present -- in the 3-7 percent range. Because of this fall from grace, Bachmann cannot be considered a frontrunner any longer, and now has to be considered a second-tier candidate. She could revive her chances (now that the field appears to be set), but only if one of the frontrunners seriously implodes. Or, she could just as likely fade even further, into Dark Horse territory. A bad sign for her -- she appears to be having money problems on the campaign trail. She won't quit the race until after the Iowa caucuses, however, as she's always pinned her best hope on what she calls her "home state."
Newt Gingrich -- What's this? Newt? According to the polls, yes! Newt Gingrich -- almost invisibly, as far as the media is concerned -- is enjoying a mini-resurgence. Even before Perry started to have problems, Newt started turning in poll numbers in the double digits. After Perry began sliding, Newt has fluctuated a bit, but still remains higher than Ron Paul -- a feat he hasn't managed since spring. Could Newt be on his way to frontrunner status? He's currently polling fourth, so it's entirely possible. But not entirely likely. Newt is a fun guy in the debates, which likely explains his bump in the polls (his bump started right around when the current group of debates started), but he's still somewhat of a longshot for the actual nomination.
Ron Paul -- Ron Paul is nothing if not consistent. His poll numbers have had minor ups and downs, but have largely remained the same. Paul's campaign will likely hit its high mark in the New Hampshire primaries, but he will likely also become irrelevant soon after. Republican voters know Ron Paul quite well by this point, and he's never managed to break out of his core 8-10 percent base support. He could stay in the race a long time (as Huckabee did in 2008), but it likely won't make a whole lot of difference in the end.
This category is where all the real action has been over the past two months. Palin and Bachmann are gone as frontrunners, and Herman Cain has jumped into the pack in a big way. Without further ado....
Herman Cain -- We're going to take a moment to pat ourselves on the back, here. Last time around, we prophetically wrote:
There's an argument to be made that Herman Cain is really a dark horse at this point in the race. But we're keeping him in the "B" team for now, mostly because he has been "flavor of the month" in the media once before in the race -- a claim some others cannot make. What this means is it is conceivable he could bounce back into the center ring again very easily.
Which he has now done. Cain seems to be the only one in the Republican field who is successful at projecting a positive image. He's upbeat, in an otherwise pretty gloomy bunch. He's entertaining, and always ready with a snappy line. When he gets himself into trouble, he knows how to walk scary statements back (compared to the gaffes of, for instance, Perry or Bachmann). And he certainly seems to be having a lot of fun in the debates. His "999" plan has the benefit of (1.) existing -- many other candidates don't have a plan at all, (2.) being easy to understand to most people, and (3.) has a snazzy name (unlike Mitt Romney's dozens-of-points plan, say). The math doesn't exactly add up, and he faces a real obstacle when Republican voters realize that the third "9" will mean a brand-new national sales tax (a concept Republicans were not-so-long-ago decrying as some sort of evil Democratic master plan). But, for now, he's been making good political hay with the "999" plan. Best comment I've heard yet is that Godfather's Pizza should immediately offer a special "$9.99 pizza" plan. Kidding aside, though, Herman Cain is now a solid frontrunner for the second time in the campaign, currently polling solidly in second place (in the high teens).
Rick Perry -- Poor Rick. He was doing so well... and then he opened his mouth. But while Perry is down, he is most decidedly not out -- not by a long shot. He is doing quite well in the fundraising race (the shadow race taking place behind the scenes of the 2012 campaign), and his poll numbers have fallen dramatically -- but they still remain better than just about everyone else in the race. While he has fallen to third place in the polling (behind Cain), he still consistently polls in the low-to-high teens. Perry's biggest problem is that he's apparently never been in a debate before, and it shows. He either says the wrong thing, or says precious little. His attacks against Romney have fallen flat (and, sometimes, mangled). His record in Texas has been mercilessly attacked by the other candidates, on all sorts of side issues, and he's never been able to center his campaign on what he considers his biggest asset -- his record on jobs and the Texas economy. But the campaign ad season has barely begun, and Perry has a lot more money than most of his rivals. If he could ever get his act together in the debates, he's got millions of dollars to convince voters that he is the true "Anti-Romney" candidate that they should be supporting. So while others are essentially making the case that Perry is an also-ran and should really be in our "B" team, we have not counted Perry out at all. He could indeed bounce back, and he's got quite a lot of money to help him do so.
Mitt Romney -- Romney had a bad few weeks there, as Rick Perry passed him in the polls -- something no other Republican candidate had yet managed to do. But what goes up (at least, when it comes to Perry's poll numbers) did indeed come crashing back down again -- while Romney stayed remarkably stable through it all, poll-wise. Romney is comfortably back in first place, the true frontrunner of almost the entire race. But Romney's problem is the same as his asset, here -- because those remarkably-stable poll numbers mean Romney has yet to catch fire with around three-fourths of the Republican electorate. Christie's endorsement may help, on this front, which we'll be able to see in the next few weeks (if it happens). Right now, Romney's got a second reason to be smiling, though (other than regaining his poll lead). The conventional wisdom throughout this entire campaign has been that there will be two candidates at the end of the road: Romney, and the "I'm Not Romney" candidate. Right now, there are two strong candidates vying for the Anti-Romney spot. Herman Cain's rise in the polls (coupled with Perry's fall) has just got to be delighting the Romney folks. If Romney can effectively split the Anti-Romney vote in the early caucuses and primaries, he may have a much easier path to the nomination than running against a sole strong opponent. Right now, the safe money is that Romney will lose Iowa and South Carolina, while winning New Hampshire and Nevada. What this means is we should all be examining the polling on Cain and Perry in Florida, to see whether Romney can effectively split the vote against his nomination or not.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant