Just two days before the South Carolina primary, Rick Perry decided at last to drop out. You may recall he was considering withdrawing after the Iowa caucuses, but instead decided to concentrate on placing well in South Carolina. Turns out he wasn’t doing well there either, so Perry decided to throw in the towel and endorse Newt Gingrich.
That’s the topline story. So what can I dredge up from between the lines?
First of all, Perry is the first notable dropout to endorse Newt. Others who were in the race either endorsed Mitt Romney (most recently Jon Huntsman but also Tim Pawlenty and Thad McCotter) or have remained silent as to who they would back. It was thought that Herman Cain would throw his support behind Newt but he made no official statement to that effect, and Michele Bachmann has likewise been mum with her choice.
This also changes the equation of the race, as it’s now down to four main contenders. In political terms among that rapidly shrinking group, Perry’s departure leaves only Mitt Romney with any sort of executive experience as a former governor and Ron Paul as the last remaining current officeholder – Newt left the House in 1998, Rick Santorum was defeated for re-election to the Senate in 2006, and Romney chose not to run again in 2006. And presumably the anti-Romney vote is now split just three ways, with conventional wisdom predicting the new weakest link to be Rick Santorum.
But let’s talk about some other factors at play here.
If you’ll recall, Rick Perry was among the last to get into the race officially – he had been coy about getting in for some time early last year and for awhile flatly denied he was interested. But people wanted him to get in and so he did, at a point where it appeared Newt was going nowhere fast, Herman Cain was a blip on the radar screen, and the anti-Romney “it” candidate du jour was Michele Bachmann. She went from the high of winning the Ames Straw Poll to yesterday’s news in the space of about a week because Rick Perry jumped into the race. That was a blow her campaign never recovered from.
Of course, once Perry got in and raised his expectations sky-high, we had the series of debate gaffes – especially the “heartless” remark regarding opponents of the Texas DREAM Act – which led people to wonder why they had wanted him to get in originally. It almost makes me wonder if his heart was really in it (no pun intended), and the break after Iowa to “reassess” his campaign was a way to plan a more graceful exit. Certainly there was a chance he could do well in South Carolina but a number of observers didn’t like the way Perry ran his campaign.
But the events of the last sixteen days have led me to once again make a call for a better process. On January 11 eight Republican presidential candidates qualified for the Maryland ballot, but already two have dropped out of the running. By the time we vote on April 3, there may only be two or three choices and, much as I hate to come across as whining about fairness, it really is a disservice to voters of 47 states that the choice is essentially made by the first three participants. I know the GOP took steps to address this issue before this cycle, but I believe the time is now for the parties to stand for a series of six regional primaries over as many weeks, with the order of regions rotating every four years. If Iowa and New Hampshire want to have their caucus and election (respectively) first then make them beauty contests with no convention delegates at stake.
It’s definitely time to reform this process we call a Presidential campaign.