The “second primary,” according to the same source, has even less real-world relevance: the Iowa straw poll in Ames on August 11, a date that’s been circled on Romney-campaign calendars since the fall. In the Republican tradition, campaigns spend enormous sums to bus supporters to the event, feed and entertain them, and buy their $30 admission to the state GOP convention where they cast their votes. Although the participants are unrepresentative of caucus-goers, and their purely symbolic votes are paid for, media, pundits, and party insiders treat the results as portents from Delphi.
“The Iowa straw poll is amazingly meaningless in any large-term sense,” says Bill Mayer, a political-science professor at Northeastern University.
Part one of Romney’s strategy was a total success. Since the end-of-March campaign-finance disclosure, everyone is treating him as a viable candidate, despite his miserable poll numbers up to that point and his obvious flaws — “his appalling record as governor of Massachusetts, and more flip-flops than any candidate in recent memory,” as Mayer puts it.
Even the constant drumbeat of questions about his Mormon faith has served only to keep Romney on magazine covers and cable news networks. If Romney’s campaign is like a blockbuster-movie promotion, the Mormon issue has been the lead actor’s convenient scandal leading up to the premiere — the equivalent of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s tabloid courtship before the debut of Mr. & Mrs. Smith.
Clearing the field
To terminate the competition, Romney is employing the same playbook George W. Bush used to devastate a crowded field of candidates eight years ago. Both came to the campaign unburdened by a significant, defining political record — Bush because his only elected office, governor of Texas, has minimal power, and Romney because, after two neither sterling nor disgraceful years, he was more or less absent without leave (except for occasional photo-ops).
Bush started with the advantage of high name-recognition, of course, but it was his $37 million fundraising report at the end of June 1999 that solidified the perception that he was a serious front-running candidate. Then his victory in the Iowa straw poll knocked out, in rapid succession, former Tennessee governor (now US senator) Lamar Alexander, former vice-president Dan Quayle, former labor secretary (now US senator from North Carolina) Elizabeth Dole, and all-purpose conservative icon Pat Buchanan. At that point, Bush needed only to fend off long-shot challenges from self-funded magazine publisher Steve Forbes and McCain, then in his first presidential run, which he did by isolating their weaknesses and pummeling them viciously.
Romney, of course, will have plenty of money to do the same when the time comes.
He also has some of the same strategists. Veterans of the Bush team include Romney’s policy director Sally Canfield, policy advisor Tony Feather, director of operations Jay Garrity, general counsel Benjamin Ginsberg, New Hampshire director Jim Merrill, and media consultant Alex Castellanos.
And Romney shares another similarity with pre-2000 Bush: he needs to lock down the support of skeptical social conservatives.
In 1999, those votes were thought to be available to Quayle, Buchanan, Forbes, or former Family Research Council leader Gary Bauer. But none of them became viable enough for leaders on the right, and those votes ultimately went to Bush as the only alternative.