The shape of the 2012 Republican presidential contest has now assumed a strange, shadowy form. The original front-runner, Mitt Romney, is the front-runner again, and is rapidly consolidating elite acknowledgment as the probable nominee. But his levels of actual support among GOP voters and conservative activists seem to have barely budged. Rick Perry, the political Leviathan who threatened to put the whole contest away just a month ago, is in deep trouble, bleeding support everywhere and alienating his Tea Party base with a toxic position on immigration. And Herman Cain, with little money and even less organization, has captured much of Perry’s hard-core conservative support with upbeat, crowd-pleasing oratory, a popular tax proposal, and the sheer incongruity of his candidacy. The key question, therefore, is this: Is conservative antipathy to Mitt Romney sufficient to fuel a Perry comeback, or make Cain a serious candidate for the presidency rather than the best-seller list? And if either anti-Romney effort remains feasible, which one will movement conservatives and their leaders choose?
During the last week, it’s become apparent that the Perry crash and Cain surge aren’t just a matter of some national polling phenomenon that is irrelevant to the actual task of winning early primary and caucus states. Two new polls of likely Iowa caucus-goers show Perry losing more than half his earlier support and sinking to fourth place, even as Cain leaps into first or second place with numbers similar to those sported by Perry at the peak of his own surge. Worse yet for Perry, one of those polls shows Iowa Republicans displaying not just a sense of being underwhelmed by the Texan, but active disdain (an approval/disapproval ratio of 38/41, as compared to 51/36 for Romney and 63/17 for Cain), most likely a product of ongoing anger over his violation of the newly established conservative litmus test requiring maximum hostility to illegal immigration.
What makes these numbers hard to interpret is the importance in Iowa of the money and organization needed to get supporters to endure a long, cold, winter evening of caucusing. Perry’s got money and organization to burn; Herman Cain has neither at the moment, but as the current favorite of Tea Party supporters in Iowa and elsewhere, he does have enthusiasm, which was enough to propel Mike Huckabee past Mitt Romney in Iowa during the last cycle. The positioning of the field in Iowa will be crucially affected by whether or not Romney takes the bait and decides to go for broke there, aiming for the kind of early knockout blow John Kerry achieved among Democrats in 2004. And local endorsements could matter, too. Senator Chuck Grassley has indicated he will probably choose a candidate quite soon, as could Governor Terry Branstad, Representative Steve King, an iconic right-winger and close friend of Bachmann who also happens to be Congress’ noisiest nativist (which should make Rick Perry nervous), and social-conservative kingmaker Bob Vander Plaats of the Family Leader organization.
Looking beyond Iowa, and given the likelihood that Romney will easily win both the Nevada caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, the Perry-Cain rivalry, if it persists, will have a new dimension when the campaign moves to the South. Perry was presumed to be the dominant favorite in that region the moment he announced, but it’s also where Cain has some semblance of an organization to supplement the probable support of local Tea Party groups. A new American Research Group poll of South Carolina shows the national patterns taking hold in Dixie as well, with Cain edging Romney 26 percent to 25 percent, and Perry back at 15 percent (given ARG’s uneven reputation for accuracy, that finding should be taken with a grain of salt). The Palmetto State is another early primary venue where bigfoot endorsements could matter, particularly one by Senator Jim DeMint, whose national clout could theoretically make Cain viable, give back Perry his movement-conservative street cred, or signal the acceptance of Romney by a reluctant Right.
Indeed, DeMint’s decision mirrors the choices currently facing movement conservatives in this contest. Having moved the entire party decisively in their direction since 2008, they do not, as it turns out, have an ideal vehicle for living out their dream of making 2012 a successful “re-do” of the 1964 election, which gave them a true champion determined to roll back the New Deal and short-circuit the Great Society—but not a president. There are certainly a lot of signs that conservatives are increasingly confident they can beat Barack Obama no matter who they nominate, so Romney’s supposed superior “electability” doesn’t resolve their dilemma. And for people with a long series of grievances about broken Republican promises, the supremely untrustworthy Mitt would have to be a last resort. Cain is more their kind of candidate, and his improbable nomination would be a monumental and gratifying act of defiance aimed at political and media elites. But it’s by no means obvious Cain can clear the Palin Line of showing the minimum self-discipline, seriousness, and relevant experience that even movement conservatives respect. Perry, too, for all his own experience and fundraising prowess, has richly earned as much skepticism as Cain about his staying power, and is in danger of looking as untrustworthy to serious conservatives as Mitt when it comes to the issues.
The so-called Republican Establishment has largely made its choice of Romney, but for all their money and media influence, they can no longer impose a nominee on a united conservative movement. So between now and January, it’s gut-check time for the right, and we’ll soon know whether its leaders attempt to rig the game or just throw up their hands and let the rank-and-file roll the dice.
Ed Kilgore is a special correspondent for The New Republic.