Strategies that work, and strategies that won’t work, under the compressed primary timetable.
1. The Jimmy Carter
The classic Jimmy Carter is an outsider’s strategy to establish a reputation by some better than expected performances in Iowa and New Hampshire, and use this to raise money and build momentum for later contests. At the moment, Brownback and Huckabee seem to be depending on this. It seems a suitable strategy for these candidates. By near universal agreement, Huckabee has performed well in debates. Brownback is the sort of candidate likely to impress caucus goers in Iowa. Apart from serving in Congress for Kansas he is a former Secretary of Agriculture there too.
The problem is, I don’t think this strategy will work any more. There simply isn’t time after Iowa and New Hampshire to build the sort of campaign infrastructure that will be necessary to win in huge, expensive and diverse states like New York, California, and Florida. A good showing in the early states might catapult someone to running-mate status, but not to candidate.
2. The incumbent
The incumbent strategy is when you seek to bulldoze your opponents by your ‘inevitability’. It requires a huge lead in the polls, in fundraising and in organisation. It leads to your strongest rivals dropping out before the race even begins. You don’t actually have to be an incumbent to do this: it worked for both Gore and (more or less) Bush in 2000, and Bob Dole narrowly pulled it off in 1996. Twelve months ago Clinton and McCain were both counting on this one. Today it looks rather shaky in Clinton’s case, and is in absolute tatters in McCain’s.
3. The John Kerry
The John Kerry is a more credible option for McCain and currently looks to be Edwards’s preferred route. This is when you establish a functioning infrastructure in all the major states but rely on kick-starting your campaign in Iowa. A week before the 2004 Iowa caucuses they looked to be a battle between Gephardt and Dean. As Kerry was already credible in New Hampshire, commentators began to ask the weekend before the caucuses “what happens if Kerry comes second in Iowa?” It was generally agreed that this would throw the whole race open. When he unexpectedly came first, with Edwards second, it gave him powerful momentum. McCain has obvious parallels with Kerry. A year before Iowa he looked like a frontrunner but has spiralled into a major decline since. There is currently not the slightest indication that he will get any sort of boost from Iowa – but partly, that is the point. It has to be unexpected to be valuable. Edwards, by contrast does look much stronger in Iowa than elsewhere. Any of the candidates with infrastructure always have the Kerry to fall back on. It suits an ex-frontrunner who has hit a bad patch.
4. The Mario Cuomo
The Cuomo seems an odd choice, since it didn’t actually work for Cuomo. This is the strategy of teasing people about a possible entry. The obvious Marios in the current field are Gore and Gingrich. They certainly have the name recognition to enter the race late, but not too late. Giuliani played the Cuomo hand well into 2007, when other candidates were openly and actively campaigning. Fred Thompson is still, technically, a Cuomo, though his candidacy is now all but declared. Giuliani now has the money to establish a national campaign. After he formally entered the race towards the end of the first quarter he raised $10 million in a single month – more than any other candidate. But, although he has the money and the name recognition the campaign in the early states is still in gestation. Thompson has even further to go. Romney is already tying up top talent, and some may be waiting on a firm answer from Gingrich. There is, however, a real chance that the McCain campaign will be shedding talent soon. The Cuomo has less viability than it did in 1992 – let alone 1976, when it nearly came off for Jerry Brown – but candidates with strong existing reputations might still be able to manage it.