“Nobody knows anything.”
That oft-repeated phrase comes from screenwriter William Goldman, lamenting that in Hollywood, nobody ever really knows if a movie will be a hit or a flop. You can put together the best actors, the best director, a script that everyone loves, spectacle, a soaring score and end up with the most recent version of Godzilla. Meanwhile, some movie will come out of nowhere and become a big hit.
Just as success in the entertainment world is unpredictable, success in the world of politics defies any infallible formula. Professionals watching and working in politics would like to think that with study, experience, and the honing of instinct, the success of candidates and campaigns can become predictable and clear. But time and again poll respondents, caucus-goers, and voters surprise us.
The most striking example of this today is New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. For much of the year, his campaign seemed to resemble a slow-motion car wreck.
Even before getting into the race, there were reports that Al Gore and John Kerry passed on him as a running mate because of unspecified skeletons in his closet. When his lieutenant governor, Diane Denish, told a New Mexico newspaper that she avoids sitting or standing next to Richardson because he’s a little too hands-on, it hinted to what those skeletons might be.
Once on the campaign trail, Richardson’s campaign seemed to pratfall when it wasn’t immobile. In the first debate, he said his model Supreme Court justice was Byron “Whizzer” White, who dissented from Roe v. Wade. When he was later confronted with that, he erroneously insisted that White served before that decision. He also confirmed to moderator Brian Williams that he held off on calling for the resignation of attorney general Alberto Gonzales “because he’s Hispanic.”
He referred to Al Sharpton as “the governor.”
In the early debates, he sweated like a man who ate one too many chili dogs. In his Meet the Press interview, Tim Russert not only caught him in a slew of contradictory policy statements, but by the end Richardson was insisting that he was a fan of both the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, a straddle that made John Kerry look like an icon of consistency.
Finally, in the “gay debate,” when asked by lesbian rock star Melissa Etheridge, “Do you think homosexuality is a choice, or is it biological?” Richardson declared, “It’s a choice,” — an answer so unpopular with the gay and lesbian audience that he probably would have been better off belching the Star-Spangled Banner.
Afterwards, Richardson issued a statement declaring “Let me be clear — I do not believe that sexual orientation or gender identity happen by choice,” insisting he did not mean to say the exact opposite a few hours before.
So Richardson should be toast, right? Instead, in some sort of defiance of political gravity, the governor has steadily climbed to an almost-respectable spot in various polls.
Zogby has Richardson in at ten percent in the Iowa caucuses, good for a respectable fourth place. Hart Research puts him at thirteen percent, only five percent behind Obama. Rasmussen puts Richardson at nine percent in New Hampshire, only five percent behind John Edwards, and Hart puts him at 12 percent, within three points of Edwards. A recent CNN poll put Governor Richardson in third place in New Hampshire, above Edwards. The latest ARG poll puts him at seven percent nationally.
These numbers aren’t the makings of a blockbuster, but note that neither Senators Joe Biden nor Christopher Dodd have racked up that level of support, and they have stronger debate performances.
So what’s fueling Richardson’s climbing poll numbers during his deteriorating performance? At least one part of it might be his advertising.
His “Job Interview” ads stand out in a crowded field because they’re funny. This earlier-than-ever campaign seemed to get ugly within the first moments, so a candidate who can have a little fun is probably appreciated by voters who are still recovering from attack ads from last November. The ads are even a little self-deprecating, as Richardson can’t seem to impress the thick-headed interviewer, no matter what accomplishments he cites.
Meanwhile, on the Republican side, we saw former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney climb in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire shortly after running his own ads in those states. Romney remains pretty far from the lead nationally, suggesting that commercials — seen only in those key states – pack a punch in ways that debate performances — seen nationally — can’t equal.
The other suggestion from Richardson’s rise is that if funny positive ads are underrated, perhaps the importance of good debate performances is overrated. In fact, maybe debate performances don’t count for much of anything. Joe Biden has been passionate and exhibited considerable depth of knowledge, and yet his numbers haven’t budged. Hillary’s lead has remained steady or grown, week after week, whether she turns in a debate performance that is among her stronger ones or her weaker ones. Obama only slid in the polls after several days of media attention and controversy surrounding his pledges to meet with dictators, use military force in Pakistan, and never use nuclear weapons.
There’s another point to note about Richardson’s slow rise: When you’re in fourth place in a race with three much bigger names, you don’t catch much flak. On the Republican side, John McCain receives fewer jabs these days, because his rivals see less to gain in tearing him down. Today McCain enjoys the mixed blessing of being not important enough to attack anymore.
Right now it’s campaign correspondents and tuned-in Democratic activists who are chuckling over Richardson’s gaffes. But if he were to actually gain enough support to really threaten one of the big three, we would see his unflattering moments spotlighted in attack ads. The slips of the tongue might not seem so harmless. Those rumored skeletons in the closet might get a bit more attention. Less-attentive voters in those early states might see the side of Richardson that the rest of us have noticed, the genial, bumbling, hopelessly unkempt Saturday Night Live skit waiting to happen.
Maybe it’s moot, maybe Richardson has peaked. Or maybe he’s demonstrating that slow and steady wins at least part of the race, and he’s about to jump into first tier. Or maybe, as Goldman said, nobody knows anything.
–Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot blog on NRO.