Republican Debate: Romney Perry Fight Dominates Conversation

Last night's GOP debate was a two-man affair.

Work obligations kept me from watching last night’s Republican debate but it’s clear from the coverage that the back-and-forth between frontrunners Rick Perry and Mitt Romney relegated the other candidates to bit players, which is not good news for Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman but perhaps just as well for Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain.

The Hill‘s Michael O’Brien (“Fireworks between Perry and Romney erupt early in debate“):

“While he had a good private sector record, his public sector record did not match that,” Perry said of Romney’s record as governor of Massachusetts. “As a matter of fact, we created more jobs in the last three months in Texas than he created in four years in Massachusetts.”

Republican and Democratic critics alike point to the Bay State’s ranking as 47th-best of 50 states in job creation during Romney’s time in office.

Romney responded by saying that he inherited a situation as governor that involved a turnaround. Romney said he would have been grateful to have the advantages — a wealth of natural resources, a friendly state legislature, and so on — that Perry has had as governor.

“Those are wonderful things, but Governor Perry doesn’t believe that he created those things,” Romney said. “If he tried to say that, well, it would be like Al Gore saying he invented the Internet.”

Perry responded: “Michael Dukakis created jobs three times faster than you did, Mitt.”

Romney retorted: “Well, as a matter of fact, George Bush and his predecessor created jobs at a faster rate than you did, governor.”


The fight extended throughout the debate, starting with the central issue of jobs, but also extending to President Obama’s healthcare law (and the similar Massachusetts-level law Romney had authorized as governor), and Perry’s insistence that Social Security resembles a “Ponzi scheme.”

“It was a great opportunity for us as a people to see what will not work, and that is an individual mandate in this country,” Perry interjected during a question about the Massachusetts healthcare law.

Romney largely shrugged off the criticism by noting that he “understand[s] healthcare pretty darn well,” and instead saw his opportunity to pounce later, when Perry doubled down on remarks in his book calling Social Security a “monstrosity,” and likening it to a Ponzi scheme. ”The issue in the book ‘Fed Up,’ governor, is you say that by any measure, Social Security is a failure,” Romney said. “Our nominee has to be someone who isn’t committed to abolishing Social Security, but who is committed to saving Social Security … I will make sure that we keep the program and we make it financially secure, and under no circumstances would I ever say by any measure it’s a failure.”

Jeff Zeleny and Adam Nagourney’s NYT report (“Romney and Perry Clash, Drawing Lines in G.O.P. Sand“) is almost identical. But I got a chuckle out of this:

But as the exchanges intensified, one of the candidates, Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, chastised the moderators of the debate, from NBC and Politico, and said they were trying to stoke divisions among Republicans in a way he said would help Mr. Obama.

Yes, Newt, because the last thing people want to see in a Republican debate is a bunch of Republicans debating one another.

My guess is that the squabbling over who “created” more jobs as governor will be ignored by voters. If so, Romney wins the night by being able to draw more attention to Perry’s bizarre stance on Social Security. And everyone else loses. Perry, because he has to go on the defensive now and answer questions about the book. And all the other candidates because they’re way behind and nobody’s paying any attention to them.

Indeed, the photo atop this post (by Monica Almeida of the NYT) aptly captures that: Romney is looking at Perry with an amused expression on his face and Bachmann if off to the side looking annoyed. And none of the other candidates even get a cameo.

UPDATE: Nate Silver states and backs up an unstated assumption in my original post:

[Perry’s doubling down on the Social Security is a Ponzi scheme claim]  is not likely to sit exceptionally well even with Republicans, conservative though they may be. A CNN poll published last month found 57 percent of Republicans opposed to major changes in Social Security and Medicare.

Perhaps for the Republicans who will turn out in the primaries — who tend to be more conservative than Republicans as a whole — the numbers are closer to even, or a little bit in Mr. Perry’s favor. I would argue that Mr. Perry’s remarks were nevertheless unwise.

The reason is that this will play into concerns about his appeal to general election voters. (With good reason: some 62 percent of independents, and 69 percent of moderates, are opposed to reforms on the scale that Mr. Perry has advocated, according to the CNN poll.)

Electability does matter to primary voters. Historically, parties have rarely nominated the most ideologically extreme candidates in their field. Yes, George McGovern and Barry Goldwater won — but they have been more the exceptions than the rule as compared with a host of others (Howard Dean, Pat Robertson, Jesse Jackson, Pat Buchanan, Jerry Brown) who lost.

In fact, Mr. Perry’s lead in the polls right now is based in part on perceptions that he is electable. The recent Washington Post / ABC News poll posed an interesting set of questions to Republican voters — asking them who they thought was closest to them on the issues, and who they thought was most able to defeat President Obama, in addition to their first overall choice.


But back to the primaries: voters and parties are looking to calibrate these two objectives — picking a candidate who has a good shot at winning, and picking one who can be counted upon to advance their agenda. In a reasonably competitive field, failing either test will usually be disqualifying.

What Republican voters may perceive to be “electable” and what swing voters think may be two different things. Still, you can see that people like Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin perform badly according to this test even among Republicans, according to the Washington Post poll, and it seems to be limiting their upside potential.

Mr. Perry has so far avoided this fate. But if perceptions about electability fade, so will his overall numbers. Regression analysis of the Washington Post poll suggests that Republicans are weighing these two factors — electability and issue positioning — about equally. If Mr. Romney, rather than Mr. Perry, led on the electability question, that could be enough to push him past Mr. Perry even if Mr. Perry is a little closer to Republican voters on the issues.

More analysis and some useful charts at the link.

FILED UNDER: 2012 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Terrye says:

    I thought Romney did really well in the debate..and Perry held his own.

  2. Polaris says:

    Romney ‘won’ the debate in a technical sense. No doubt he did better when doing objective scoring. However, Romney was not able to disqualify Perry, and by trying has effectively turned this into a two candidate race.

    Advantage Perry since Perry appeals to the GOP base far better than Romney does. Romney needs someone to split the so-called ‘Tea Party’ vote with Perry.


  3. Hey Norm says:

    These clowns are still talking about Reaganomics…supply-side economics. We have had a decade of the lowest effective tax rates and they have supplied anemic growth and job-creation. Yet we are supposed to just double-down because true trickle-down is just around the corner.

  4. samwide says:

    If comes down to it and Perry gets the nomination, the electorate will be really only faced with one question: Do we want another Texas cowboy (and this one wilder than the last) in the White House? I think the answer will be, No.

  5. Polaris says:

    That depends on the economy. If it continues like this, I think pretty Perry or pretty much any reasonable republican can get elected. I don’t say easily, but I don’t think it’s as clear cut as you are trying to make it, Sam.


  6. john personna says:

    @Hey Norm:

    We have had a decade of the lowest effective tax rates and they have supplied anemic growth and job-creation.

    Ah Norm, you know “effective” tax rate is a socialist plot. Talk to any conservative, it’s all about top-marginal rate.

  7. john personna says:

    (It’s really hard to believe that Perry himself sees his SS stance as electable.)

  8. gVOR08 says:

    If one points out that the economy did better under Clinton than either Bush, every Republican in the room will rush to say the president has little control over the economy. The economy just happens, it’s like the weather. Now we have Republican governors debating which governor created more jobs? Please.