The Permanent Campaign

When the Obama administration announced last month that religiously-affiliated institutions would be required to provide health plans covering contraception, there was widespread talk that a wedge issue was emerging. Several prominent Catholic liberals were quick to point out that Obama would lose the Catholic vote and seriously damage his re-election prospects.

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For all those waiting for the Republican primary to end, you’ll have to wait a bit longer: On Saturday Rick Santorum became the 11th Republican politician to lead a national presidential nomination poll during the 2012 cycle. And not just by a little—the Public Policy Polling survey showed Santorum with a 15-point (38-23) lead over Mitt Romney.

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Another week, another set of primaries—and soon enough, undoubtedly, another cascade of speculations about the prospect of a brokered convention. Predictions of an unpredictable fight-to-the-finish have become an unfortunate refrain—not to say, cliché—of our presidential election campaigns. Enough!

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After last night’s bitter defeat, Newt Gingrich is vowing to stay in the presidential race for a long, long time (“six to eight months” he said in Florida yesterday). Of course, that’s what candidates usually say just before and immediately after bitter defeats (see Jon Huntsman’s “Ticket to Ride” sound bite after finishing a poor third in New Hampshire), even if they have every intention of cutting a deal with a better-positioned candidate and getting off the campaign trail.

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Just when hardcore conservatives had seemed prepared to settle for Mitt Romney to avoid further exposure of intraparty divisions, Newt Gingrich’s unlikely recovery  has brought those divisions sharply and publicly into view. As Politico reported yesterday, conservative elites ranging from Tom Delay to Bob Dole have gone to the media en masse to warn voters of the perils of Newt. The Republican Party has rarely seemed more divided, and at the heart of those divisions is a disconnect between Republican elites and the voting base over the crucial issue of electability.

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After Newt Gingrich’s smashing victory in South Carolina yesterday, here’s my wagering advice: You can still put your money on Mitt, but don’t bet the farm. Not this year. The results for Mitt Romney weren’t pretty.

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The political fumbling by Christian conservatives has been even worse this presidential cycle than it was in 2008, when their blood-enemy, John McCain, won the top spot on the Republican ticket. The Christian Right’s fatal failure this time was its inability to form a consensus behind a single candidate. Last weekend’s Texas conclave of religious conservatives, engineered by Family Research Center president and Christian Right warhorse Tony Perkins, initially appeared to have generated a united front behind Rick Santorum.

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Sorting out cause and effect in political campaigns is not always simple. Some people look at John McCain’s nomination in 2008 and Mitt Romney’s success in Iowa and New Hampshire this year and see highly fortuitous demolition derbies.

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Last night was, by all accounts, a good night for Mitt Romney. He went into the New Hampshire primary needing two things: to win by a significant margin and to leave no one else with a plausible path to victory. The results from the Granite State fulfilled both of these Romney criteria, and it’s now extremely likely Mitt Romney will win the Republican presidential nomination this year.

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It is usually assumed that the invisible primary ends with the Iowa Caucuses, when the party rank-and-file begin to have their say. But thanks to an exceptionally chaotic and unpredictable pre-caucus period, the central dynamic of the invisible primary—Mitt Romney’s wooing of conservatives skeptical of him—has been extended.

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