24 September 2011
Florida's straw poll and the return of the favorite son
The theme of the weekend in the news media is Gov. Perry's vulnerability. It was announced following the Texan's sputtering performance in last Thursday's joint appearance (i.e. "debate"), and it gains momentum in time for the Sunday talking-head shows following the Florida straw poll, a non-binding popularity context in which only a few thousand people, but also all the Republican presidential candidates, participated. Despite extensive effort from Perry, the poll went to the Floridian candidate, pizza magnate Herman Cain. This is interpreted as bad news for Perry, but less so for Mitt Romney, who more clearly wrote off the event to signify that he didn't stake as much on it as Perry did. While it seems very unlikely to me at this time that Cain could go on to win the Florida primary next year, one never knows. The fact that the straw-poll participants favored a favorite son, despite his being perceived nationally as a second or third-tier candidate, at least illustrates that these Floridians are resisting the media imperative to reduce the Republican race to a bipolarchy of Perry and Romney. To the extent that Tea Parties influence the primary campaign, their reputed decentralized nature should make them more willing to consider the long-abandoned favorite-son approach to state primaries. Without necessarily expecting the favorite son to win the final nomination, opting for him (or a favorite daughter in our enlightened age) allows the partisans of a state to keep their options open at the national convention. Unless their favorite child is an actual front-runner, their delegates can expect to be released to support another candidate, but not before concessions are extracted. The object of a favorite-son strategy is to deny any candidate with a national following an easy first-ballot win. Our majoritarian mentality deplores the idea of a brokered convention and the imagery of the smoke-filled room, but a favorite-son strategy, if widely adopted, could have the interesting effect of pitting a party's base against itself. That might be more likely to happen among the Republicans, where a commitment to state rights could counterbalance other ideological imperatives. The power of a party "base" to dictate the nomination of an extremist has only grown with the democratization of the nomination process. Reintroducing an element of deliberation by forcing candidates to deal with favorite sons at the convention might, against the apparent odds, have a moderating influence on candidate selection. This still seems unlikely at present, but Cain's upset win in the straw poll at least inspires a sense of possibility that things may be different next year.