The Not-So Longshot
Last month, I wrote about why Chris Christie’s strategy of “aggressive truth-telling” about Social Security makes sense on the Right. (Again, I take no position here on the wisdom of the policy on the merits or the wisdom of his argument. It is one that resonates in certain corners.) Christie is the quintessential longshot candidate, who needs to take risks. His plan is unlikely to pay off, but a cautious campaign is a guaranteed defeat.
Meanwhile, there is a candidate in the Republican field who is being covered as a longshot, but actually has a fairly plausible path to the nomination: Rick Perry. His candidacy has several strengths that have not been covered at length.
1. Perry has been building a pretty solid, broad campaign team.
In the early going, Perry has been quite successful at building a broad team of individuals who have served on winning campaigns or on lots of campaigns. A few are listed below:
-- Avik Roy, a former Mitt Romney adviser, a Manhattan Institute fellow, and a prominent conservative writer on health care issues, is a “senior adviser” to RickPAC.
-- Abby McCloskey, the former Program Director of Economic Policy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), will be leading Perry’s national policy team.
Perry has not struggled to recruit a team in the early going. Most importantly, you’re seeing a pretty wide array of backgrounds. There is a Romney guy, a Santorum guy, and a McCain guy here. That implies that Perry has the potential to appeal to multiple segments of the party.
2. Perry has been open to new ideas about campaigning in the past.
Campaigning is certainly more art than science. But Perry has been incorporating experimentation into his campaigns for years, and it’s not clear that his rivals have been doing the same. From a New York Times profile in 2011, Perry leveraged experimentation to great effect in 2006, getting way out in front of the baseline for campaign strategy:
As the 2006 election season approached, the governor’s top strategist, Dave Carney, invited four political scientists into Perry’s war room and asked them to impose experimental controls on any aspect of the campaign budget that they could randomize and measure. Over the course of that year, the eggheads, as they were known within the campaign, ran experiments testing the effectiveness of all the things that political consultants do reflexively and we take for granted: candidate appearances, TV ads, robocalls, direct mail. These were basically the political world’s version of randomized drug trials, which had been used by academics but never from within a large-scale partisan campaign.
The findings from those 2006 tests dramatically changed how Carney prioritized the candidate’s time and the campaign’s money when Perry sought re-election again in 2010 and will inform the way he runs for president now.
Perry’s willingness to accept something unconventional (and yet obvious in retrospect) speaks well to how he handles the operations side of a campaign. Indeed, it wasn’t operations that foiled him in 2012. The potential quality of his operation is evident in some of the videos that he has already released. In particular, his “Live Free or Die” video is perfectly pitched to conservatives:
3. Perry’s gubernatorial record is strong.
Regardless of whether Perry’s policies were the source of Texas’ economic success, the state under Perry had fantastic economic growth that far outpaced the rest of the country. Jason Russell over at the Washington Examiner writes:
Since the recession began in December 2007, 1.2 million net jobs have been created in Texas. Only 700,000 net jobs have been created in the other 49 states combined.
The remarkable employment growth in Texas looks even bigger considering its size relative to the rest of the U.S. Total non-farm employment has grown by 11.5 percent in Texas since December 2007. Employment in the rest of the United States has grown only 0.6 percent. Until September 2014, total employment growth in the rest of the United States since December 2007 was still negative.
Perry’s record and policy positions may cause him some issues. He can lose on his Right on immigration, but he’ll probably be buffered a bit by the presence of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, who will present more open targets for “amnesty opponents.” He may also face some issues about Texas’ more aggressive industrial policy--a view that has largely gone out of fashion on the Right--but he has already begun to attempt to neutralize it. (I just finished journalist Erica Greider’s Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right, which discusses--among other things--Texas’s not-quite laissez faire approach to industrial policy.) But Texas’ economic success, combined with Perry’s down-the-line conservatism on a host of other issues: abortion; tort reform; military spending; federalism; free exercise; etc.--gives him a compelling foundation for a presidential campaign in an era of slow growth.
4. Perry will be underestimated.
The GOP field will have their fire trained on a few people ahead of Rick Perry: Jeb Bush is going to face the onslaught, considering how skeptical the base is of him (and considering how he will leverage his enormous war-chest into an aerial assault on Iowa and New Hampshire). Rand Paul will be hit on foreign policy. Scott Walker, as the early conservative frontrunner, will be facing the first round of attacks from his conservative rivals. Perry can linger in the background, avoiding friendly fire.
Perry will probably spend a fair bit of time having to deflect comments mocking him for his 2012 debacle. But knowing the questions in advance--and facing them a million times--will give him plenty of opportunities to come up with clever responses.
5. Perry might actually be an OK debater.
It has to be shared:
The modern campaign season is incredibly overcovered, and the media focuses on trivia, at the expense of things that are interesting and relevant. But Perry’s “three agencies” flub was a genuinely significant gaffe, because it bolstered an emerging narrative about Perry being “stupid” or unprepared. (If, say, Candidate Obama had made a similar gaffe in 2007, it would have been written off, less for bias than because Obama had established himself as an intellectual.)
Perry’s debates were terrible, and it was those performances that torpedoed his campaign in the weak 2012 field. His other major “gaffe” also came in a debate, this one about providing in-state tuition to undocumented migrants:
It’s not the substance of his position that matters there; it’s that he insults a huge swath of Republican voters by calling them heartless. He could hold his position without alienating those voters, but it would have required a defter approach.
What emerged after the campaign, though, was that Perry was recovering from major back surgery from early 2011. Longtime Perry aide Dave Carney refused to blame the debate performances on painkillers. But one could argue that Perry was unprepared because he could not study as much, or get up to speed as much.
Lots of folks spend their whole lives trying to be president; Perry doesn’t seem like one of them who has done the same. Perry’s run always felt somewhat opportunistic, like he hadn’t really considered it until he started gunning for a third gubernatorial term. That showed through in his campaign. Running for president is hard, as Perry found out, and he basically embarrassed himself in the process.
Since then, it is pretty clear that Perry has been targeting 2016. And now, he doesn’t have a job as governor, so he has all the time he wants or needs to prepare. He has every opportunity to be a much more informed candidate this time around.
There’s a second piece to this argument. Perry’s 2011 debates were obviously a disaster for him. But we have other debate evidence from Perry: his gubernatorial debates from the 2010 campaign against Kay Bailey Hutchison. Here’s him at 6:05, facing a question about accepting federal stimulus dollars:
He’s relaxed and casual in his response, but forceful. It’s a very effective tone for him here, and he is compelling. He deflects the hypocrisy charge and steers attention to federal inefficiency.
One other segment is worth showing, at about 40:40:
Perry is what I’d describe as “persuasively dismissive” towards Hutchison’s questions, and has a plausible response, again. The policy details are up for debate--indeed, the Cato Institute consistently gave Perry Bs and Cs on taxes and criticized Perry for the same tax hike that Hutchison was hitting him on--but Perry can always and everywhere deflect back to the business climate. Either way, his tone--folksy, matter-of-fact--really works for him.
That guy--the guy who defeated Hutchison in 2010--looks like a capable debater. He wasn’t great; if you watch the whole thing, you see that he stammers a lot and sometimes sort of fades out a bit. What we do not know now--and what we cannot know--is if the 2011 debater will be returning to the fold. If that guy campaigns, Perry will never top 10 percent, and he’ll be out of the race by Iowa. But if he handles the debates well, it’s a very different situation. We can make an educated guess based on his 2010 debate that the potential is there, at least, for Perry to handle the debates well.
6. Perry has a path to the nomination.
Perry’s key foe right now is Scott Walker. They’re both plainspoken and come from non-elite backgrounds, giving them a cultural affinity with the party’s current aesthetic. Walker’s campaign is currently being bolstered by his high-profile confrontation over unions.
Walker, however, has scuffled a bit in the early going. His handling of the hiring and firing of Liz Mair upset many conservative activists, who have begun to see him as only standing up to the “other guys.” He answered a question about ISIS indelicately, to say the least. And he was unprepared for a question about evolution; a punt is a missed opportunity.
These “gaffes” are largely irrelevant so far, but they may be a harbinger of future issues for Walker’s campaign. If Walker struggles, it will leave a gaping hole in the GOP field. Lots of candidates will attempt to fill it: Ted Cruz comes to mind, certainly, as well as fellow Midwestern governors Rick Snyder and John Kasich. But Perry is more electable than Cruz and more conservative than Kasich or Snyder. Perhaps most importantly, Perry has the record and the “cultural presentation” to fill the Walker space. Maybe one can’t imagine Perry talking about hunting for bargains at Kohl’s, but he certainly has a populist, folksy way of communicating.
Perry is a sleeper. It is easy to imagine him gaining some positive coverage and traction with a couple of good debates. What remains to be seen--the key unknown--is whether Perry himself can campaign and debate effectively enough to break into the top tier.
If I can make a sports analogy, what comes to mind for Perry is the 1999 St. Louis Rams.
If in 1999, you had known going into the season that the Rams were going to get great play from the quarterback position, projecting the Rams to win the Super Bowl would not have been a terrible idea. There were lots of strengths. Marshall Faulk was a great running back. Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt were fantastic talents at wide receiver. They were instituting a revolutionary new offensive system, under the helm of Mike Martz. Their defense was adequate the previous season (14th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA). So the foundation was there for success. The unknown was the quarterback: Trent Green had gotten injured, and they were down to a little-known former Arena Football quarterback with no NFL experience. Of course, that quarterback was Kurt Warner, who put together one of the more remarkable football careers in recent memory. The 1999 Rams went on to win the Super Bowl.
I see the Rick Perry campaign the same way. The underlying strengths are all there; the question is the campaign’s quarterback. Presently, the Top 3 for the Republicans are pretty clearly Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and Scott Walker, in some order. But if the candidate lives up to the underlying context, Perry is in that group.