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American idiots

How did the campaign for the Republican 2012 presidential nomination turn into such a joke?

American idiots

Isaac Brekken/AP

“We are protecting Herman Cain,” announced a spokesman for the U.S. Secret Service on Nov. 18. The Godfather’s Pizza magnate became the first Republican candidate for U.S. president to request Secret Service protection in this election cycle, and a campaign spokesman told the Washington Post that Cain needed protection from reporters, who have been “trying to follow him with a lot of heavy equipment and cameras.” Cain later denied this, saying only that he needed the protection “because of the popularity of my campaign.” By the time he said that, though, his popularity was declining, with polls showing that his support was going to another candidate—Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker who resigned in disgrace in 1998 and spent most of the next few years reviewing spy novels on Amazon.com. It was a familiar step in a bizarre campaign season: reporters stop focusing on one transparently unelectable candidate, and move on to what historian Rick Perlstein calls “the next shiny object,” an equally unelectable candidate.

The Republican campaign season, from Donald Trump’s birtherism to Rick Perry’s inability to remember which government agency he wanted to cut, has been one of the wildest in recent memory. It drove apostate conservative David Frum to lament the effect the conservative movement was having on the presidential race: in a widely discussed article, he called the parade of Tea Party candidates “a series of humiliating fizzles and explosions that never achieved liftoff.” With Republican voters fired up to beat Barack Obama but also disillusioned with politics in general, any candidate who claims to be a political outsider can get a serious look. Doug Gross, an Iowa Republican operative and former gubernatorial candidate, told Maclean’s that candidates like Cain or Trump “are products of the voters’ concerns about the failure of the current system to produce leaders who can solve problems.”

There have always been freaky candidates in every election, of course. Cain, an amusing rich guy who got a lot of publicity and then flamed out, isn’t that different from Steve Forbes in the 1996 and 2000 elections—except that Forbes actually won a couple of primaries. But usually there are a few respectable candidates that the race can focus on: in 2000, it was mostly about George W. Bush and John McCain, and we could easily dismiss most of the fringe candidates. In this cycle, it’s the respectable Republicans who are getting dismissed, while the fringe candidates rise. Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, who had an impressive resumé and was taken seriously by the press, attracted no interest and was forced to drop out early.

The people who have led in the polls mostly aren’t the respectable types; they’re people like Cain, like Gingrich, like Michele Bachmann, a congresswoman who once delivered an entire televised speech while looking into the wrong camera; like Sarah Palin, who never actually entered the race; like Trump, who spent most of his campaign trying to bring anti-Obama conspiracy theories into the mainstream. It’s what Perlstein calls “this kind of clash of the titans, these third-tier figures fighting for an identity as the purest, the most extreme, the most Tea Party-friendly candidates.” Reporters sometimes rule out a candidate as being too extreme, like the aging pro-life libertarian Ron Paul. But this time, if they dismissed every implausible candidate, they’d have no race to cover. And so while Perlstein says “none of these guys have a chance,” Cain or Bachmann or Trump have to be covered as though they can win: “It’s a full employment program for political pundits and political reporters, not to mention political consultants.”

The problem with being a fringe candidate who gets taken seriously, though, is that fringe candidates usually aren’t prepared to handle the pressure—“They tend to wither under scrutiny,” Perlstein says, and the media moves on. No one has ever been less prepared for major media scrutiny than Herman Cain. Since he started winning straw polls and debates this fall, he’s been taken seriously as a candidate, including the increased scrutiny that comes with being a front-runner. Women who accused him of sexual harassment came forward to repeat their charges, which Cain declared to be a trick of the “Democrat machine.” Reporters tried to get him to talk about Libya and were told that he couldn’t remember what he thinks because “I got all this stuff twirling around in my head.” People made videos showcasing his comments about Muslims, like his vow to refuse to appoint a Muslim to cabinet. All of this was normal treatment for a first-tier candidate, but he seemed ill-equipped to deal with it; knowing that every anti-Muslim comment he made would turn up on YouTube, he still continued to tell a story about his fear when he found out his doctor’s name was “Abdallah.”

But Cain, like all the other wacky candidates, has an ace up his sleeve: with no real chance to win, he doesn’t have to run a serious campaign. He certainly doesn’t seem to be taking it seriously. In October, when he was riding high in the polls, reporters noticed that he wasn’t doing the things a candidate needs to do to take advantage of those poll numbers—like raising money and starting a campaign apparatus. “Cain’s got nothing,” a South Carolina GOP strategist told Talking Points Memo, while ABC News went to Cain’s Iowa campaign headquarters and found no one there. The New York Times looked at his calendar of campaign events and found that “19 of the 31 days of October are blank,” because he spent most of the month promoting his book, This is Herman Cain!, instead of, say, fundraising. In the key state of New Hampshire, he failed to show up for an interview with a newspaper whose endorsement he was supposedly looking for.

Some commentators started to suspect that the campaign was a fake. Liberal pundit Jonathan Chait wrote that Cain doesn’t have a campaign, but a business plan, which involves “raising his profile as a conservative personality, which he can monetize through motivational speaking, book sales, talk shows and other media.” Looked at from that point of view, the Cain train is a brilliant marketing strategy, a piece of political performance art done for a price.

Even some of Cain’s gaffes have a showbiz quality to them; he once was quoted as saying “we need a leader, not a reader,” which, it was pointed out, was an inadvertent swipe from president Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Simpsons Movie (“I was elected to lead, not to read”). Meanwhile, Perlstein says, Cain’s very presence in the race was “useful for the Republican party, because they’re always on the lookout for someone to prove that they’re not racist.” Intentionally or not, Cain has put together a campaign that fails as politics but succeeds as a branding strategy. The same goes for Bachmann, Gingrich and others; there has never been a better time, in terms of money or publicity, to be an improbable candidate.

Compared to these reality show contestants, it’s almost dull to watch the one “serious” candidate. That would be Mitt Romney, the former moderate who stepped down as governor of Massachusetts in 2006 and has been running for president ever since. “I would have put money on Mitt Romney 18 months ago,” says Perlstein, whose Before the Storm recounts the 1964 election that created the modern Republican party. In a party where Ronald Reagan got the nomination four years after losing to Gerald Ford, Romney is the natural choice after getting beaten by McCain in 2008. “Waiting your turn is a factor,” Gross says of his party, adding that “having run before and done relatively well helps in subsequent cycles because of the experience granted the candidate.”

That experience, the sense of knowing what works in a campaign, may explain why Romney is the only person not committing campaign-ending gaffes. Rick Perry, expected to be a serious conservative alternative to Romney, destroyed his credibility with the base when he argued that immigration hard-liners “don’t have a heart.” Romney has mastered the art of defending his unorthodox positions without offending anyone. When he defends his Massachusetts health care plan, so similar to the hated “Obamacare,” he always includes a nod to conservative concerns: “I’ll get rid of Obamacare. I know why it’s bad. I know how it’s different than what we did and why it needs to be taken off the books,” he told talk radio host Sean Hannity. If the other candidates will say anything to get attention, Romney will only say things that make him electable.

But the very fact that he makes so few mistakes may be what makes Romney so boring to Republican primary voters. In the last Real Clear Politics average of polls, Romney was stuck at 21 per cent, with most of Cain’s former support going to Gingrich. New front-runners keep popping up because voters don’t like Romney, and don’t like being told that they have to vote a certain way. William Kristol, the influential Fox News contributor and editor of The Weekly Standard, summed up the base’s thinking when he wrote that Romney is not inevitable and that “Here in America, we the people rule by electing. We don’t bow to those anointed by pundits.” The search for an anti-Romney goes on.

Perlstein thinks the search will eventually have to end as voters accept that there’s no one else but Romney: “Have you ever heard the expression ‘Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line?’ ” Gross hasn’t yet endorsed a candidate, but thinks electability matters most to voters: “Republican voters are looking for someone who can win.” But as the polls have shown, voters are also looking for ideological reinforcements, and most of the front-runners have offered it: Cain argued that he, not Obama, was the real post-racial candidate, while Gingrich has become a spokesman for the base’s dislike of the Occupy movement.

That’s why conservatives are still looking for a better alternative to Romney, even after the first caucuses begin. In his article, Kristol wistfully hoped for a run by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or Bush brother Jeb, and even contemplated the possibility of people who already said they aren’t running: “Hello, Mike Huckabee! Hello, Sarah Palin!” Herman Cain won’t be the next Republican nominee, but if it’s not Mitt Romney, it could be because he helped whet conservatives’ appetite for someone more exciting. Or at least more fun.