Last week the political insiders and pundits following the Republicans running for president took notice of former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s decision to skip an upcoming straw poll in Ames, Iowa. And so the trials and tribulations of another frontrunner have begun.
The toughest thing to do in American politics is to run out front for your party’s nomination for president -- from the beginning of the campaign season all the way to victory at the nominating convention -- without faltering badly along the way.
Even Ronald Reagan stumbled badly in 1980, losing to George Herbert Walker Bush in the snows of Iowa that year. On the ropes, and in the New Hampshire debate that would spark his recovery – Reagan responded with the now famous line “I paid for that microphone” and came back to not only win the GOP nomination but defeat an incumbent president of the United States – arguably the second toughest thing to do in American politics.
Hillary Clinton’s frontrunner campaign made a valiant attempt but never really recovered from her shocking third place finish in Iowa to Barack Obama and John Edwards in 2008.
The question for Mitt Romney is not, will he falter? He almost certainly will. It's will he manage to recover when he does. Here are my thoughts on the road ahead for Mitt Romney:
Straw Polls, Iowa and Lessons Learned
Frontrunners and straw polls do not go well together. As someone who ran a series of hard fought straw poll victories for another frontrunner, Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984, I can attest to the futility of participating in these contests as well as the equally troubling conundrum of choosing to skip them. It turns out you can not win.
When a frontrunner wins a non-binding and meaningless straw poll the press and pundits proclaim “it is non-binding and meaningless and besides of course he won, he’s the frontrunner.”
Lose the same non-binding and meaningless straw poll after deciding to contest it as the frontrunner and it suddenly becomes “meaningful” as the headlines proclaim “Romney Humiliated in Important Straw Poll.”
Romney’s decision to skip straw polls was smart and the right decision for his campaign but even this can become a problem. As a frontrunner if you don’t participate and also win the straw poll it means someone else will win it.
And the winner of the straw poll in Ames, Iowa will grab some headlines and maybe even some momentum. Not playing can help create the candidate that gathers the momentum to defeat you. Still Romney learned the right lessons from his 2008 campaign and will take his chances.
Now to Romney and Iowa. By skipping the straw poll in Ames and repeatedly trumpeting the importance of New Hampshire the Romney campaign is trying to lower its own expectations in Iowa. Reagan lost Iowa and came back.
Romney knows he can lose Iowa and come back in New Hampshire. But this is a dangerous strategy for any frontrunner – again, just ask Hillary Clinton. The Clinton campaign argued back and forth about how strongly to contest the Iowa caucuses, her campaign just never really took hold in the state but her reluctance in Iowa unwittingly helped to launch Obama’s campaign to unheard of heights.
Again – if Romney loses Iowa – someone else will win it – and that candidate will become a household name and probably be the candidate Romney will have to defeat to win the nomination. Reagan did it. But can Romney? Iowa may turn out to be far more important than the Romney campaign thinks.
The Problem of New Hampshire
If anything bad happens to Romney in New Hampshire he is probably finished. If he loses the state, he is finished. If it gets too close, he is finished. And Romney’s problem is that every other candidate in the race knows it and their campaigns will spend every waking hour working to make his life miserable in the Granite State.
He is only in the very low 30's in New Hampshire in public polls in the state – no matter what the Romney campaign says about New Hampshire that number spells trouble.
The former governor of bordering state Massachusetts is very well known in New Hampshire and is barely above 30 percent against a field of relatively unknowns.
Make no mistake Romney is vulnerable in New Hampshire.
The state he hopes will save him, could just as likely be the place his campaign ends. He's the establishment candidate in an anti-establishment year. Will the GOP faithful flirt with other but marry Mitt?
The Problem of the Safe, Establishment Candidate
Finally the biggest threat to Romney’s wire to wire attempt at the GOP nomination may simply be that he is a decidedly safe and establishment candidate in a year when voters are in a decidedly anti-establishment mood.
In 2004 Democratic primary voters were upset with the establishment of our party. As Howard Dean’s campaign manager we ran an insurgent campaign that challenged the status quo in the party and nearly toppled the frontrunner, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry.
I would expect to see something similar occur in 2012 on the GOP side.
In 2004 Democratic primary voter’s hearts were captured by Howard Dean – but they so feared George W. Bush’s re-election that they became pragmatic and returned to safer and “more electable” John Kerry.
Kerry’s candidacy, which had been all but out of gas just months before the Iowa caucuses, suddenly gathered enough life to win the nomination but George W. Bush won the general election.
The Kerry campaign had a clever line that helped move primary voters to their cause – “Dated Dean – Married Kerry.”
Bottom line: Its going to be a long road for Mitt Romney. Good luck with that.
Joe Trippi is a Fox News contributor and political strategist who worked for Ted Kennedy, Walter Mondale and Gary Hart and turned Howard Dean into an unlikely front runner in 2004. For more visit JoeTrippi.com.