The Appliance Primary

Now seems like a good time to once again haul out my major-appliance theory of Presidential nominations, to assess what's going on and what might happen in the crucial couple of weeks ahead.

The theory, for those who haven't heard it before, is that for most voters choosing a Presidential candidate is like buying a major household appliance -- a refrigerator, dishwasher, clothes dryer, that sort of thing. You walk into the store and see a whole bunch of models that seem to all more or less do what you need, and you drift around unsure of how to make a decision. Then a salesperson comes over, asks a few questions, and says something like: "for families like yours, these are our two most popular models. This one has a third crisper, and that one has adjustable shelves." And then you briefly debate whether you need the crisper more than the adjustable shelves, and make your purchase.

The salesperson, in the Presidential nomination process, is played by a number of parties, including the media, the party elites, the big funders, the pollsters, and the early voting states. 

I first developed this analogy in late 2003, to explain why I thought Howard Dean was unlikely to win Iowa, and the nomination. My argument was that Dean was the one different model -- the super low-water-use washing machine, or the fridge with the freezer on the bottom -- that appealed to some 20 to 25 percent of the Democratic electorate who wanted a Washington outsider, a governor, a candidate running as an unabashed progressive/liberal, and crucially, someone who had opposed the Iraq War authorization vote. But it seemed to me that the remaining 75-80 percent had decided they didn't want that, and were adrift in the store among the very similar-seeming center-left, Washington legislators, who had supported the authorization: Kerry, Edwards, Gephardt, Lieberman, Graham. They had already essentially decided they didn't want a Dean-like model, but they needed a salesperson to narrow their choice for them among the others. That's what happened, over time: Graham dropped out; Lieberman skipped Iowa; Gephardt faded (and failed to secure some key endorsements and funding). It became a far simpler choice of Kerry or Edwards, and they picked Kerry. 

On the surface, there's a striking similarity between that race and the current 2012 GOP situation. There is one candidate -- Mitt Romney -- who stands out as clearly different from the others, and who seems stuck at 20 to 25 percent while the majority drifts among the others, waiting for a salesperson to narrow the choice.

But it's a different dynamic. Dean was the new, untested, riskier choice -- but with more gut-level emotional appeal -- standing apart from the safe, standard models. And the mood of the Democratic electorate, as I read it, was that they were a little more interested in playing it safe in hopes of beating George W. Bush, than in following their emotions.

This race is the reverse: Romney is the safe, standard model standing apart from the more unconventional models with gut-level appeal -- while the Republican electorate is a little more interested in something snazzy that enthuses them.

I should note that this is already the result of the salesperson process. Dean was the "only" alternative choice, because he had been placed (by virtue of endorsements, fundraising, activist involvement, and media coverage) at the front of the store with a big 'manager's special' sign on it, while Kucinich, Sharpton, and Moseley Braun had been shoved against the back wall. Romney likewise is the "only" mainstream choice because of a process that has removed the Pawlenty, Thune, and Barbour models from the showroom floor altogether. (The "invisible primary" that academics talk about functions, in part, like the negotiations between the store manager and the manufacturers, that determines which models will be carried and how they will be displayed.)

I would guess that among the Republican primary/caucus-voting electorate, probably somewhere around 20% are perfectly happy with Romney; another 20% are strongly opposed to him and determined to choose a more inspiring model; and the remaining 60% are fine with Romney, but would prefer to pick a fancier model.

That's probably roughly the same as the way the '04 Democrats viewed Dean. But the key difference is that there was no question that Democrats would be satisfied with most of the 'standard' models in that race; the question was which one they'd settle on. It's far less clear that the GOP voters, as much as they might want a fancy model, will actually find one they want to buy. That's the problem with new-fangled fancy models. So it's quite likely that in the end, most of them will end up taking home the Romney model that they know will get the job done.

What we've seen to this point has been less a narrowing, and more a tour of the merchandise. The Republican voters have seen the Romney model, and told the salesperson they want something more modern. So the salesperson has taken them around:

--Here's the Bachmann model....

--Ooh, aah! Looks great!

--The downsides are....

--Oh, that's a shame. What else do you have?

--Well, this is the Cain model....

--Ooh, aah!


And at the end of that process, they know they've got lots of options, all of which are flawed, and they're still left wandering around, not knowing how to make their decision. They haven't given up on the idea of buying one of the new-fangled models -- which is why Romney is still on a pretty flat line in the polls, and not picking up much new support yet. And now, with Iowa approaching, the salesperson knows it's time to up the pressure, narrow the choice, and make the sale.

That's where we're at now. It looks to me like the Bachmann model is quickly being ruled out. The Gingrich may be heading that way, although I wouldn't rule out a recovery yet. [And hey! If you haven't entered my GinGrinch Contest, do it now! Entries due Saturday night!] Santorum may be getting the '04 Edwards-like treatment, although I wouldn't rush to any conclusions there either. It will be interesting to see how many of the Iowa shoppers end up settling for Romney; regardless, he'll still be there as the safe purchase after Tuesday, when Iowa has played its salesperson role and forwarded its recommendations to New Hampshire.

As for how New Hampshire responds to the Iowa caucus narrowing process -- I'll cover that in a post a little later.

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