It may be too early — by about twenty-three hours — to start dissecting what exactly went wrong with the Rudy Giuliani campaign. How did he go from front-runner with an innovative and high-risk, high-reward strategy, to utterly irrelevant, in less than a month?
Ryan Sager for the New York Post has two answers, and I agree with them both:
First, Giuliani abandoned his basic identity. He was always a moderate conservative at best, and true moderate probably describes his basic personal ideology better. Tough, tell-it-like-it-is, and pragmatic were the basic components of his appeal. He’s pro-choice, not averse to the idea of gun control, thinks gay people are A-OK Americans if they pay their taxes and don’t jaywalk, and doesn’t let religion get in the way of governing his personal life. So he was never going to be a comfortable fit for the Christian right. But he’s also a personification of law-and-order government, strength and resolve in the face of foreign challenges, competence in government, and did a convincing job of explaining that “I may be a sonabitch, but I’m going to be your sonofabitch.”
When he started to pander to the religious right — a group of voters that he must have known, or at least should have known, would never back him in the primaries — he was sacrificing that identity for the chance to appeal to people who would always have distrusted him. David Brooks took him to task for this just over two months ago. Other Giuliani supporters were highly alarmed at this quite a bit earlier in the process, and when it didn’t stop, some of his original supporters bailed out. Problem is, he failed to convince more new people to replace them than were leaving.
He lost faith that there were a significant number of pro-choice Republicans (last time I checked, something like 40% or more of Republicans identify as “pro-choice,” which is a significant cleavage within the party.) He tried to toughen up on immigration, despite the fact that a majority of Republicans prefer a streamlined, liberalized naturalization process — well, they don’t use the word “liberalized,” but they do want to see workers come here and play by the rules.
But the moatdiggers were the large minority in the party Rudy did try to listen to — and they were never going to trust him, either. In fact, the moatdiggers have found themselves without any real standard-bearers once Tom Tancredo failed to make any significant impact in the primary. The best they found was Fred Thompson, and even he wound up being kind of squishy for them.
Finally, he was given a fair shot at making nice with the gun lobby, and he absolutely blew it. He should never have taken that phone call. Seriously, what better way could you have thought of to have said to the most reliably Republican, and easiest-from-whom-to-fundraise, and intensely motivated constituency within the GOP that “My hot wife is more important to me than your support” than what he did? He’d have been better off skipping the speech entirely.
So much for his first mistake. But he made another one. Skipping Iowa, that was a good move. But bailing out of New Hampshire was not. If he was ever going to have a chance to show that he could compete for votes in an early state, New Hampshire would have been a favorable place to do it. And he invested a substantial amount of resources in New Hampshire. Spent a lot of time there.
This was a place where he had some local familiarity; not as much, perhaps, as Mitt Romney who had been the governor right next door for four years, but he had the northeastern Republican vibe still to his advantage. And New Hampshire is a much more secular place than Iowa or South Carolina, and much less Mormon than Nevada or Wyoming. There was no better opportunity for Rudy to be able to be himself than in New Hampshire. But by the time New Hampshire had rolled around, Rudy had stopped being himself and started to be the product of a bunch of a squadron of campaign consultants, who vanilla-ed down the core of his message and told him that he needed to win, and a win wasn’t certain against a resurgent John McCain campaign.
Now, it’s true that McCain was very much the second choice for a lot of the voters who liked Giuliani. But that was precisely the reason to compete for those voters. By abandoning the New Hampshire primary, after investing weeks of time and millions of dollars there, Giuliani created McCain’s momentum. He obviously did not intend to do so. Maybe he would not have won. Likely, had he competed, he would have thrown the race there to Romney. (McCain and Giuliani combined for about 98,000 votes in New Hampshire; Romney got about 75,000.) But either way, he would have been seen as a significant factor. That would have meant getting his share of free media, his share of momentum.
But that’s not what he did. Instead, he created McCain’s momentum by conceding — not New Hampshire, but more specifically by conceding those 100,000 moderate Republican voters in New Hampshire — to another candidate with proven viability there. Giuliani didn’t need to win in New Hampshire. He needed to beat McCain there, even if that meant coming in second place to Romney. He could have walked away with head held high, saying that Romney had home-field advantage and that he was the clear alternative to Governor Flip-Flip. Then he could have creditably skipped South Carolina and put all his eggs into Florida and the Super-Duper Tuesday states like California and Missouri, where he has done quite a bit of campaigning.
By conceding those moderate Republican voters in New Hampshire, Giuliani permitted similar voters elsewhere to take a second look at McCain and allowed them to like what they saw there. The result, for instance, is a nineteen-point surge to the lead in polls here in California. Quoth one Golden State pollster: “McCain’s gains have come primarily among liberal and moderate Republicans as well as GOP voters under the age of 50. … Among liberals and moderates, McCain’s support doubled from 25 percent to 50 percent in the last two weeks. McCain also gained 29 points among GOP voters under 50 years old.” Those younger, less conservative members of the party are both the party’s future and Giuliani’s current natural support group. Gaining their support has made all the difference for John McCain, who should have bottomed out before the starting gate when he ran out of money seven months ago.
Instead, by failing to fight for his core constituency and instead competing for primary votes he could never win, Giuliani conceded every one of his advantages (now, including money) to John McCain. Military tacticians from Sun Tzu to Napoleon have stressed, again and again, the importance of picking favorable terrain for your battles. Picking the right terrain upon which to fight allows you to wage the war you want to wage, not the war your enemy wants to fight.
Giuliani should have been himself, not Zombie Ronald Reagan. He should have competed in New Hampshire. And if he had played his cards right, he could have been looking at an annointment next week instead of a concession speech.