A recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution political cartoon depicted Rudy Giuliani attempting to explain his campaign strategy: “The strategy is, lose every primary and become the Republican nominee.” To which his listeners replied: “So far so good.”
How the mighty have fallen! Throughout 2007, Rudy was the consistent leader in the polls, at times demonstrating leads of 20 percentage points and more over his closest competitor. As late as a month and a half ago, before the primaries began, a University of Georgia analysis of pre-primary polls showed Rudy amassing as many convention delegates as all his opponents combined. But that was before he embarked on a strategy that was unorthodox, to say the least.
In the early primaries, Rudy’s effort ranged from a half-hearted one in New Hampshire to merely maintaining a presence on the ballot, as in Nevada and South Carolina, where he got just two percent of the vote. Rudy’s campaign strategists made it clear they would go all out in the January 29 Florida primary (the first where the winner gets all the delegates), and that was supposed to give him vitally needed momentum going into “Super Tuesday” on Feb. 5, when Republican primaries were held in 21 states.
The strategy, decided on some time ago, was apparently based on the notion that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney would be Rudy’s only major competitor. Though Romney had governed Massachusetts as a moderate (he even introduced a statewide universal healthcare system), he changed his views on a number of issues, particularly abortion, and set out to position himself to the right of Rudy.
Rudy, on the other hand, wanted and needed to run on his record as New York’s mayor. Knowing he could not possibly compete with Romney’s personal wealth in terms of purchasing advertising, Rudy decided to conserve his money for Florida, where he felt had had an excellent chance of beating Romney.
What Rudy did not count on was the emergence of Sen. John McCain, who won in New Hampshire and South Carolina, and also Mike Huckabee.
Last July, while Rudy was way out in front, McCain’s campaign seemed all but dead. McCain fired his campaign manager, his chief strategist, and some 50 other campaign staffers. Contributions were just not coming in. Though he reorganized his staff, fundraising did not improve much.
Still, McCain was determined to press on, which he did. For one thing, the one-state-at-a-time early primaries really didn’t require huge expenditures of cash so much as holding rallies and getting interviews on the local news and radio talk shows. In other words, the main thing was to simply maintain a strong presence.
The emergence of Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and an ordained Baptist minister, was also a surprise as he was little known outside his home state and was originally expected to have about as much impact on the primaries as Congressmen Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter. But he proved to be an effective communicator in the debates and, though he had even less money than McCain, demonstrated a strong presence in Iowa with its first-in-the nation caucus and went on to win there. The fact that the majority of Iowa Republican voters are evangelical Christians obviously didn’t hurt.
The fifth and final major contender for the Republicans was former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson. With solid conservative credentials, Thompson was expected to have an impact as he tried to position himself as the heir apparent to Ronald Reagan’s legacy. But Thompson had wavered for quite a while before finally deciding to throw his hat in the ring in early September, and his campaign did not catch fire. He did finally connect with many voters in South Carolina, but his third place finish there was not enough and he dropped out. That was seen as benefiting Romney and Huckabee, but did nothing for Rudy, who was overwhelmed by McCain’s early victories and the media attention that came with them.
Why Rudy ignored the first six primary or caucus states (Iowa, Wyoming New Hampshire, Michigan, Nevada and South Carolina) – an unprecedented strategy by a committed candidate – will no doubt be analyzed for months, perhaps even years, to come.
In the past, candidates have avoided a few states where they felt they couldn’t compete with their one major opponent. Since the opponent would then win more or less “unopposed,” the media might not make much of that victory.