A GOP Nomination Southern Strategy

If Taegan Goddard is, in my opinion, a bit overenthusiastic about the potential corrosive impact of Super-PACs on the two-party system, a more plausible role for the new critters is posited in today’s big WaPo piece from Matea Gold and Ed O’Keefe speculating that Super-PACS plus an enormous field might extend the GOP nonination contest beyond the early states.

What I find especially interesting (mainly because it’s more tangible) is their idea that early money might enable a candidate or two (they mention Cruz and Huckabee) to make a late Southern Surge, especially given the clustering of up to five Deep South states in the so-called SEC Primary.

Now as old folks know, this has been a long-cherished fantasy for southern presidential candidates in both parties who really wish they didn’t have to spend a year or so in Iowa and New Hampshire. It hasn’t worked yet. John Connally tried to more or less start in South Carolina in 1980, lost there, and dropped out of sight. In 1996, Phil Gramm staked his campaign on a pre-Iowa unofficial caucus in Louisiana; when he lost, he, too, fell apart. On the Democratic side, Lloyd Bentsen tried a late-breaking southern primary campaign in 1976, only to lose to the initially less highly regarded southerner who contested Iowa and New Hampshire, Jimmy Carter. And in 1988, Al Gore skipped Iowa and New Hampshire, thinking he’d surge into the lead via the famously southern-dominated Super Tuesday primary cluster. But Jesse Jackson ran pretty much even with Gore in the South, and Dukakis won the Super Tuesday states outside the region, with Gore soon fading.

Unless I’m forgetting something, the one Southern Surge that actually (if very briefly) lifted a candidate who skipped or did poorly in Iowa and New Hampshire into contention was Newt Gingrich’s in 2012. And yes, Super-PAC money had a lot to do with it. But it didn’t last more than a couple of weeks.

It’s worth noting that with or without southern support, there are plenty of candidates with the money you’d think might keep them in contention into the meat of the primary schedule without success in IA and NH–but who never went anywhere. That includes the above-mentioned Bentsen, Connally and Gramm, and also 2008’s Rudy Giuliani, who never found traction with voters much of anywhere despite an early national polling lead and plenty of resources.

It’s true that big early money and a huge field could invalidate some of the cliches about the presidential nominating process–e.g., the old “three tickets out of Iowa” maxim. But it’s not clear how long those “tickets,” how many there are, will remain valid.

Now if you want to hear what would enable a “southern surge”–and in general, a less predictable and arguably balanced nomination process, it’s this: what if party elites and the media began treating the four sanctioned “early states” as a unit, rather than continuing to treat IA and NH as unique, while NV and SC are just the beginning of the rest of the schedule? If a candidate really and truly could wait until SC to begin their campaign without being treated as an afterthought, then the SEC Primary could indeed become a springboard to the nomination. But even then, remember what happened to Al Gore in 1988: you gotta win when the schedule smiles on you.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.