It’s been 10 days since Rick Perry announced his candidacy for President, and the Texas governor has already jumped to the top of the pack. Or, to use the term latched onto by the media, he’s moved into the Top Tier, where Perry, Michelle Bachman and Mitt Romney battle for the nomination. But while this manage-a-blah makes for a good media story, the notion of an even battle between these contenders is a far shot from the truth.
In reality, Mitt Romney is still the clear frontrunner for the nomination.
Just as in 2008, the media is putting far too much weight on national polls. These polls are notoriously “soft,” meaning most participants are uncommitted and likely basing their support on mere name recognition. More importantly, national polls do not reflect a critical fact: the nomination fight is largely determined by early state primaries.
With the exception of “Comeback Kid” Bill Clinton, no primary candidate has ever secured a major-party nomination without winning either Iowa or New Hampshire. A win in these early states brings in the money and media attention necessary to propel a candidate to subsequent victories. And for the 2012 election, Mitt Romney is positioned perfectly.
In New Hampshire, Romney is blowing the competition away. Polls show Romney with a double-digit lead. Even with Perry entering the race at a shockingly strong 18%, Romney doubles his support with 36%. Meanwhile, he’s also performing strongly in Iowa; aggregate polling shows Romney in a dogfight with Bachmann for the lead.
Every candidate who has won the first two contests has cruised to the nomination, so the best shot at beating Romney is to win Iowa, and use that to build momentum. With little time to build the critical grassroots organization to win a caucus, Perry’s chances are weak. Bachmann has led in recent polls, but even with an Iowa win she has a tough path to the nomination. The Republican establishment (wisely) views her as unviable, and if she wins Iowa they will likely unite behind Romney to crush her candidacy. The Tea Party doesn’t have the power to propel her to the nomination; most Republican voters care more about winning than anything else, and Michelle Bachmann doesn’t give them a good chance to do that. If Romney doesn’t lock up the nomination by winning Iowa, he’ll lock up the essential establishment support by making bizarre-Bachmann his main contender.
Some might say that Perry still has a chance by getting his own early state win in South Carolina, where he’s rapidly building support. This would be a big boost, but the problem is Perry has to get there first. Assuming Bachmann wins Iowa and Romney takes New Hampshire, the race will be labeled as a two-way contest. More importantly, Perry will be labeled as a loser; after dropping the first two races, Perry won’t appear viable and his support will flounder.
Romney’s nomination is not at all a certainty; there’s more than enough time for someone to make a Huckabee-like rise. But the media’s three-person Top Tier is ridiculous. Right now the Top Tier of the Republican field only includes one person, and that person is Mitt Romney.