Thursday, July 31, 2014

Reviving Rick Perry - The Master of Debate Debacles Is Back On Top After A 3-Year Repentance

Photo courtesy of Joyce Marshall/AP

It was the 'oops' heard 'round the world. A painstakingly demeaning moment in front of millions of TV viewers nationwide turned Texas Governor Rick Perry's 2012 Presidential campaign upside down. Perry, who entered the field later than any contender, needed to make a good impression on voters just tuning into the race. Instead, he reenforced preconceived notions. Like the fact that he was an intellectual lightweight, an accusation hurled often at ex-President George W. Bush. And who could blame anyone for buying into those stereotypes? It's not as if Perry was trapped in a 'gotcha moment' by the debate moderator. He was hoisted by his own petard (thanks Selina!), unable to complete his own talking point on the three federal agencies he would abolish as President.

Needless to say, the "oops" moment was a low point for the Perry campaign. He quickly fell into single digits in national polling and never recovered, having made a huge splash upon his late entry into the race on August 13, 2011. Before the "oops" debate on November 9, 2011, Perry averaged 19% in national Republican primary polls. After that debate, until he suspended his campaign on Jan 19, 2012, he only averaged 7%. See the table below:

Polling data used in averages is compiled from The Roper Center's i-poll database.

Thoroughly mocked and humiliated on a national level, Perry returned home to finish out the three remaining years of his fourth term as governor. And not even they were happy to see him.

If "oops" was Perry's low moment, then his best moment since then would certainly have to be now. After the failure that was 2012, Perry set out to rekindle relationships and reassure potential supporters that 2016 would be much more serious. And external political events, namely the crisis of unaccompanied immigrant children flooding the southern border, have further boosted his profile. All of this has culminated in the two most recent national 2016 GOP primary surveys finding Perry essentially tied for first place.

A recent Fox News poll finds that while several potential candidates are clustered together at the top, Rick Perry and Jeb Bush emerge with 12% a piece, more than anyone else. A CNN poll released just a couple of days earlier found Perry again in double digits amidst a crowded field, with 11%. Chris Christie and Rand Paul led with 13% and 12%, putting Perry well within the +/- 4.5% margin of error.

Yet perhaps more important than Perry's raw percentage of the likely 2016 Republican primary vote are the trend lines. In the case of the Fox News poll, Perry drastically improved his performance from their prior survey in April, where he only managed 5% of the vote (good enough for 6th place). In the CNN survey, Perry nearly doubled his level of support from their prior poll just two months ago, jumping from 7th to 3rd place.

But how relevant are a pair of primary polls taken mid-summer of the midterm year prior to the next presidential election? Not very, as I've explored on this blog before.

Consider the midterm year, summer-time surveys of past competitive presidential primaries. In the Summer of 2010, Mitt Romney sat atop the GOP pack, but only barely, leading Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin 23-18-16% respectively. He would, however, go on to relinquish that lead on multiple occasions to folks like Huckabee, Palin, Rudy Giuliani, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum. But at least in the case of 2012, the midterm year summer-time polls were prophetic.

That wasn't the case in the summer of 2006, when Hillary Clinton had over double the support of her two closest rivals combined, Al Gore and John Edwards, 33-17-13%, and when Rudy Giuliani reigned over the Republican field. Obama wasn't even a blip on the radar. Nor was it the case in the summer of 2002, when Gore was the clear frontrunner, as eventual-nominee Kerry polled in the mid-single digits. Both George W. Bush and Al Gore were leading presidential primary candidates in the summer of 1998, though only if Colin Powell didn't run in the case of the former. Bob Dole only slightly led Colin Powell in the summer of 1994, while in the summer of 1990, Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson looked poised to nab the 1992 Democratic nomination., and Bill Clinton was no where to be found in national public opinion surveys. While midterm year, summer-time presidential primary polling was fairly predictive for the Republicans in the summer of 1986 (George H.W. Bush was the obvious standard barer), it wasn't for Democrats. Soon-to-be-sex-scandalized Gary Hart had a substantial lead over all Democratic opponents. Eventual nominee Michael Dukakis had yet to be mentioned in a national Democratic presidential primary poll. The summer of 1982 saw Democratic legend Teddy Kennedy towering over his closest competitors, eventual nominee Walter Mondale and astronaut Senator John Glenn. Teddy Kennedy again led eventual 1980 Democratic nominee and sitting President Jimmy Carter in primary polling in the summer of 1978, often by two-to-one margins. And Gerald Ford...yes, Gerald Ford narrowly led Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination that same summer. The summer of '74 saw the non campaign of Teddy Kennedy and the renomination campaign of President Gerald Ford in firm control of their party's primary polls.

I know that's probably a data overload, so here is a handy table to help you condense it all:

So in the end, Perry can rejoice in having obtained at least some sort of vindication. To have fallen as hard as he did in 2012, and lead any 2016 Republican primary poll with inarguably a superior crop of candidates, must be seen by Team Perry as a victory of some sort. But as the chart above illustrates, you can't take much away from two measly surveys. At most, they indicate an opportunity for Perry to capitalize on a growing national immigration crisis of which he has been directly involved for 13 years. Naturally, the problem with making a single issue your calling card is that issue could fade from public awareness. But even if it does fade, the Fox and CNN polls would indicate that for now, Perry's national profile has been raised. It will be up to him to keep it there.

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