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Diplomacy in Action

Readout of the Florida Primary and a Look Ahead at the Upcoming Caucuses and Primaries

Jerry Hagstrom, Columnist, National Journal
Washington, DC
February 1, 2012

11:00 A.M., EST


MODERATOR: Welcome to the Foreign Press Center. This morning, we have with us Jerry Hagstrom, who is a columnist with the National Journal, who will give us a readout of the results of the Florida primaries, and will also talk about the upcoming caucuses and primaries for the rest of the season – election season. I also like to note that the remarks by Mr. Hagstrom are his own opinions, and they’re not an expression of the U.S. Government.

Mr. Hagstrom.

MR. HAGSTROM: Well, thank you, Miriam. It’s always a delight to be at the Foreign Press Center. I see we have a slightly smaller group than sometimes this particular day, but that’s because some of your colleagues are in Miami and in – at Tampa. But that is fine, and I understand there are some people who are watching from New York, and so I’m very happy to be talking to you, too. I’ve spoken at the Foreign Press Center in New York. I have very fond memories of being there.

So – well, in terms of the Florida primaries, if any of you – and I’m sure you all have been watching television. Last night between 7:00 p.m. last night and 9:00 a.m. this morning, I think almost everything that has been said about the Florida primaries can be said. There has been wall-to-wall coverage on CNN, MSNBC, FOX, et cetera. So I’m going to make a few points about Florida, and then I’m going to talk about what’s coming up here, and then make some more comments about this Republican nomination system and the situation surrounding it, and then talk a little bit about the general election.

Well, there’s no question that this was a solid win for Mitt Romney. It was what he needed to do. After South Carolina, he needed to show that he was strong against Newt Gingrich and obviously Santorum and Paul came in quite a ways behind. But of course, the commentators were already saying Mitt had to get tough with Gingrich. Is that good? Is that bad? Are things being said that are going to just be – that are just going to destroy him when it comes to the general election? And of course we don’t know that, but a lot of very negative things have been said.

But I would like to make one point about the Florida election, because there has been so much discussion about the fact that there was $18 million spent on television advertising. And the point that I’d like to make is: I’m not sure how much that mattered. Now, it mattered in reaching the voters, but the thing is, all the negatives also came out in the debates. It isn’t like the advertising and the debates are two different campaigns, and sometimes it is like that in which the debates are going on and they’re sort of at an elevated level, and they’re about public policy, and then these ads are going on in which the candidates are either talking about their records or they’re attacking each other.

But it isn’t like that in Florida. The debate – I mean, or in South Carolina. I mean, the candidates have been attacking each other right there in the debate forum. In fact, I’d say that the debates this year have been something unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It didn’t used to be that there were lots of people clapping and shouting and getting standing – giving standing ovations, all of that kind of thing in a debate. That’s sort of the new thing this year, and it has definitely changed the atmosphere of the debate. Some people would say that they’ve been demeaned, but they are certainly more visually compelling. It’s not just a bunch of guys being policy wonks. They are talking about their character, essentially.

And ultimately what the American people do vote on is character, because there is a viewpoint that – among the voters – the pollsters will tell you this – that no matter what a politician promises, the politician will never deliver exactly what he says, because politics is the art of compromise. So what the candidates – or what the voters are ultimately doing is to vote for a – is to vote for the candidate that they believe that they can trust to compromise. And so I think these – that this exploration of character really is a serious part of the election.

Now, if I were to pick what is the single most interesting thing about what happened in Florida, it’s that Romney won the big population counties, and Gingrich won the lowest population counties in the state. In fact, I’m hoping I might have the numbers here. Yes. Romney won the big 26, and Gingrich won the 29 counties that are the lowest in population. Now, why is that important? Well, I think it’s going to be important in Florida and in other states in a general election, because you have a question of whether or – if Romney is the nominee, whether or not Republicans will support him.

And then we have a couple of – there are a couple of oddities in this – that the polling data shows, and one is that while rural men prefer Gingrich – rural Republican men prefer Gingrich, rural Republican women are more likely to vote for Santorum, because Gingrich does have a problem with women, and there are some indications that it’s because of his three marriages, and the other indication is that he’s just so bombastic that they don’t like the – that they don’t like his style.

But we do have this – very much this split within the Republican Party. And you still have to say, even with Romney getting 46 percent of the vote, when you add up the Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul, there’s still a protest against the major candidate. So that is still there.

Now, coming up as we go from here, I want to assure all of you who did not go to Florida that if you still have money in your travel budget, you’re going to be able to justify asking for a trip to Nevada, Arizona. Now, maybe the weather is too warm in Washington, and you don’t care this year. (Laughter.) But the next – okay. We have the – we have Nevada and Maine coming up first, then Minnesota, Colorado, and then I think it’s the 28th of February – it’s late February in any case – the Michigan and Arizona primaries. And that will be a very, very important time. But ultimately, I think that the Super Tuesday on March 6th will probably pretty much settle this. And what I think you’ll see in these events that are coming up is that the – that Ron Paul will – I’m not going to say he’s going to win, but Ron Paul will do better in the caucus states because he’s been organizing them, that in the states that have somewhat more rural population that Gingrich will probably do somewhat better there. Now, last night, the commentators were saying what Gingrich really needs to do is go to Michigan and win that primary.

Now why? First of all, it’s the home state of Mitt Romney’s family. And it’s a big – it’s the big state, and it would be the place for him to really make a showing. But I think you could also make a case there that Gingrich’s populism and his connection with the lower income voters in a highly unionized state might make him a more attractive candidate there then Romney, who is very much seen as the capitalist and who has made money – his detractors say – from taking companies and closing production facilities and moving jobs out of the country. So therefore, you could see that Gingrich would have hope there. But it is hard to – still, it is hard to imagine that Gingrich would actually win that.

And then on the 6th of March we have this Super Tuesday with Vermont, Alaska, North Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Virginia, Tennessee, and Ohio. After that – and I think we’ll probably have a good idea of whether Mitt Romney will be the nominee.

A few words on the origin of the conflict between the establishment and the populous within the Republican Party. I think this is something that is particularly hard for foreign journalists to understand, especially if you haven’t lived in this country since the 1960s when this really started. So I’d just like to give you a little bit of background here.

If you were to look at the Republican Party in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, you could see that it was really dominated by the Northeast and the Midwest, a combination of big business executives and what we call main street business people, people who own small businesses, shops and repair – car repair shops, that kind of thing. They were the core of the Republican Party. There’s something important to be said about that period though. The Republicans never won elections in that time. From 1932 to the early 1950s, the Democrats ran the country totally. Then ’52, Eisenhower did get elected President, the Republicans do start to rise again in strength.

But what’s going on in this period is that you have the rise of the Southwest, most of all California, but also Arizona, to a degree you can think of Texas in this light, because Texas is a state that is really of three territories. It’s the East, which is has more in common with the Southeast, it’s the Plains, and then it’s the western part of the state, which has more in common with you could say the Mountain states, the ranching culture of the West. Now, what these people were saying is we are tired of – if they were conservatives, if they’re Republicans, we are tired of a Republican Party that is dominated by Wall Street and dominated by people who are already rich. The symbol of this became Nelson Rockefeller who was running for president in this period.

But so in 1964 Barry Goldwater, who was the senator from Arizona, the Republican senator from Arizona, won the nomination. And historically you could see that this was a victory for the fact that wealth had been created in the West. He was backed by a lot of California businessmen, and they’re saying, “These Northeasterners are too willing to go along with big government.” They’re – social liberalism was not an issue at this point. So they go along with big government; they’ve already made their money; they’re not so interested in making money. And these people in the Southwest were people who had made money themselves. They were not the heirs to money. And this was the first big conflict between what we now call the Republican establishment and this other group. So that started in ’64. Well, of course, Barry Goldwater did miserably in the 1964 election and Lyndon Johnson won. But that was the beginning of a stronger Republican Party.

Then you get to the early 1970’s and you have the Supreme Court decision that makes abortion legal nationwide. Also in this period, you have the civil rights movement, the desegregation of the school, et cetera. You have rebellion against that. And in this period, the South begins to move from the Democratic Party that it had been in for so many years to the Republican Party. So now you have this combination, you might say, of the economic conservatives and the social conservatives, and that culminates in the election of Ronald Regan in 1980.

But the battle still goes on, because the – first of all, you have the conflict within the Republican Party in which you have a Mitt Romney who inherited some money, has made some money, but he’s very – he much seems like a Northeasterner even though he is a Mormon. And so you have that conflict. And then you have the world represented by Newt Gingrich, who came from a hardscrabble background in the South. And yet you have these people in the same party, and they are so culturally different, and that – this battle just goes on and on and on.

And you – I mean, we’re not – we don’t have a Democratic primary this year so I’m not discussing this issue in terms of the Democrats. They have a whole different set of battles within the party. But it’s something that happens when you have an umbrella party in a country, and we have really two umbrella parties, rather than a whole bunch of parties as you have in many other countries.

But I just wanted to bring this up because I think it’s so important in understanding why it could be hard for the Republicans to come together. Now, maybe they will. The joke in 1980 was – that was when Carter was President – that the Republicans were so desperate to become – to get elected that even the richest Republicans were willing to go to a convention in Detroit in August and they did. They were very, very – they really wanted to win. And now you have that same issue this year, how much do they want to win or how much are we going through a debate within the Republican Party that will – that won’t win an election, but will – it will be a discussion of where the party is going to be headed in the future.

And of course, now what you have is, once again, the other element that I didn’t bring up, but that the development of the Tea Party, which is in a lot of ways just the newest evolution of these – both these economic and social conservatives over these years, and partly that was fueled by the fact that they were unhappy with the presidency of George Bush. So that’s just a bit of background that I think is very important to understand as to what is going on here.

Now, it’s a long time till the Republican and Democratic Conventions this fall, and it’s – or late August, early September, but somehow the forces of Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul are going to have to accommodated in that convention atmosphere. That is going to be a very interesting thing to see whether there is a way to do that or whether it will be a contentious convention. It’s hard to tell how important these conventions are these days, because the number of people who watch them on television is lower than it used to be. But still, an atmosphere of division is not something that any party wants to put out at that time.

A few words about Ron Paul. He attracts young voters; he attracts, strangely, antiwar voters. I have never seen an antiwar movement within the Republican Party before. This – who knows what (inaudible). But it is also possible – Ron Paul voters could go for Barack Obama. Some of the – I mean, this is where you have this political spectrum where you have right and left, and eventually they meet at the edges. And so there could be Ron Paul voters who just find Romney unacceptable or they find Gingrich unacceptable. I could see them voting for – some of them voting for Obama.

So to talk about the general election just a bit, I’m going to start by talking about President Obama. And I would say that, first of all, he has the advantage in the election. He’s the President. He has an enormous campaign chest. He has the ability of using the Oval Office to campaign, even though they say that they don’t, and his approval ratings have been getting better.

But Obama’s biggest problem is the troops who voted for him in 2008. No matter what he has done, every group that voted for him seems somewhat disenchanted. The young people are unhappy that they haven’t gotten jobs. The Hispanics haven’t gotten immigration reform. Gays got the end of Don’t Ask; Don’t Tell, but they still want him to support gay marriage. Jews are upset about his statements on Israel. But finally, and I would say very importantly, he was supported by a lot of Wall Street executives who gave him a lot of money, and they are very unhappy that the Administration actually went forward with financial services reform. You may have seen the statement by George Soros that it wouldn’t matter who you elected in 2012; Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are not that different. That, to me, was a very telling statement.

Now, at the same time that Wall Street is unhappy about the financial services reform, there are a lot of liberals who are very angry that nobody beside Bernie Madoff has gone to jail over what happened with the financial services industry. They still want – they want blood. They want people to pay. And the Administration, of course, has taken the position that the problem was not the individuals; the problem was the laws and that the laws were so weak.

On healthcare, who knows how that’s going to play out? There are still liberals who are disappointed that the healthcare reform bill didn’t get rid of insurance, then you have elderly people who are worried that somehow Medicare is going to be cut in order to provide insurance to younger, low-income people. And the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, that’s a mix as well, how Democrats feel about that.

But finally, we have the question of the labor unions. Now, the labor leaders seem to be rallying behind Obama. The question is how the rank and file people feel about it. But most of all, to me, the issue is whether Obama can win back the support of unionized teachers. The Administration has had this education reform plan that has been very critical of the unions. They would say that’s not true, but that’s the way the unions interpret it. There have been decisions that have been made at the Education Department that have not been pro-union. But teachers are – unionized teachers are a very important element in the Democratic constituency, and they go out – first of all, they vote heavily, they have worked in campaigns. So the question is whether or not they will go out and work this fall.

But then the Republicans may still have an even tougher job. They – the question is, if Mitt Romney is the nominee, can he be turned into somebody who really has national appeal, or will he just be seen as a rich man who has investments in the Cayman Islands who is so remote from the voters. And this is particularly important with the Independent voters.

This morning in the National Journal, we have a quote from a woman in Iowa who voted for – she voted for Clinton, for Bush, and for Obama. And she said Mitt Romney is just so far from the way that the average people live that she just can’t see that he can connect with them, that he can understand their problems. And so ultimately, that is going to be a bit issue for him. And so we’ll just have to see about that, whether he can sort of reinvent himself, especially after he has taken so many positions so many different ways. That will

Also, the – there is also his Mormonism. And that is a real issue within the Republican Party, particularly for the evangelical voters. And they don’t talk about it so much. But as I understand it, the real issue for the evangelicals with Mitt Romney becoming a Mormon president that they believe that the Mormon Church would use that position to – for converting people to Mormonism worldwide. And in the developing countries, the evangelical churches and the Mormon churches are competing for followers. And so the evangelicals view a Mormon president as helping them. And of course, that doesn’t even – that kind of discussion doesn’t even deal with the question of whether or not evangelicals consider Mormonism to be Christian or not. That’s on an even deeper philosophical basis.

Finally, I want to leave you with a plea that you would pay a little bit of attention in your coverage to how people vote in rural America. I think this may be the factor that turns the election one way or another, but not everywhere in rural America. Here’s the way the rural vote works in the United States: The Democrats never expect to win what we really regard as rural states. That would be the Dakotas, Nebraska, the plains states, all of those areas. A state that is mostly rural is not going to go Democratic. But the rural vote is very, very important in states – in these states: Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, in the last election Indiana, North Carolina – in these swing states. And the reason that it’s important is that those states all have substantial urban populations, but they also have substantial rural populations. If the rural – the rural areas will go Republican. The question is by what percentage. If the rural voters really like a Republican candidate or they really dislike a Democratic candidate, then the rural vote is very Republican. People turn out; they vote Republican. And in those – under those circumstances, it is very difficult for a Democrat to win the presidency.

But in 2008, Obama did better than any Democratic candidate since Bill Clinton. Part of it is probably his appeal. I mean, in the end, remember the – Obama was a very, very appealing candidate. But it was also that John McCain had been against both the farm bill and ethanol. So rural people saw John McCain as a threat to their economic interests, and they really had no reason to vote for him. Now, McCain still won the rural areas of those – of most of those – most of the rural areas of those states, but it wasn’t enough to counter the big urban and suburban vote for Obama.

So when you’re doing your reporting as the year goes on, I would urge you to keep this in mind. And to bring it back to Florida, remember Mitt Romney did not do well in the panhandle of Florida; he did not do well in those rural areas. And we have a question, will the rural Floridians vote for Romney? Once again, we have the issue of the conflict between Mormonism and evangelicism because there are a lot of evangelicals in the rural areas.

So with that, I would say once again I hope you get out to visit some of these primary or caucus states or other places. And I’ll be happy to answer your questions if I can. Thank you.

QUESTION: Zolton Mikes, World Business Press Online news agency, Slovak Republic. And my question is regarding of the Latino vote. In Florida, if I’m correct, Romney won big part of the Latino vote. The question is: Why is it so when Romney is famous by his scolding of Rick Perry about the immigration – illegal immigration, and Gingrich is famous about, like, be the only one Republican candidate who is normal in this question, like, who is showing some --


QUESTION: -- heart. (Laughter.) And on the – the other is about Ron Paul, which you told that he would be – his voters would be ready to leave for Obama.

MR. HAGSTROM: Some. Some.

QUESTION: Some. Okay. Is there not a solution in the Republican Party discussed that Ron Paul would be the nominee for vice president?


QUESTION: To get him?

MR. HAGSTROM: Yes. First of all, on the issue of Romney getting the Hispanic vote in Florida, the main reason that you could say that Romney got that vote is that most of the Hispanics in the Republican Party in Florida are Cuban Americans. And so – and Cuban Americans do not have the same issue with immigration that the other Hispanic groups have because if Cuban Americans can somehow get to the United States, they are automatically allowed to stay in the country. This is because of the Castro government. So the issue of immigration that is so important to the other groups is not their issue. Now, the – in – when we get to the general election, the Cubans are only a portion of the Hispanic vote in Florida. So it won’t be necessarily be the case that Florida Hispanics will go for the Republican candidate.

In terms of why the Cuban Americans would prefer Romney to Gingrich, I think that they would be – they’re mostly – they are – a lot of them are very successful in business, and I think a lot of them would be more culturally comfortable with a Mitt Romney the businessman than they would be with Newt Gingrich the populist.

And your second question, oh, about Ron Paul – well, first of all, since he only got 7 percent of the vote in Florida, I don’t think there would be enough of a reason to make him the vice president. I mean, if you were going to do that just on the numbers, you’d pick Newt Gingrich for vice president, but that would be hard to imagine. (Laughter.) It’s hard to imagine Newt being number two to anyone. But – so I think that the – Newt Gingrich – or, excuse me, not Newt Gingrich, but Ron Paul is viewed as an unusual character in politics. I mean, his opposition to the Federal Reserve, a lot of his statements on the economy – he is also, I believe, 76 years old. So I think that they would try other means other than making him the vice presidential candidate to deal with his supporters.

QUESTION: Hi. I’m Jannik Pentz with ZDF, German television. We’ve seen a pretty aggressive primary in Florida right now if you consider the advertisings that went on the air and sometimes even got personal. Now, I would like to know, do you see the danger of a split or a division inside the Republican Party? And if I may add a question, do you think this atmosphere we’re having right now, does it make it easier for Obama in the general election?

QUESTION: First of all, I would note that negativity that you saw in the advertising was also a part of the debates. And this to me is very important because the ads are one thing, but when you have this – these confrontations in the debates, this sort of raises it to a different level. And remember that those – all those debate moments are on tape and that’s public staff, and any campaign can use that stuff afterwards. It’s all on the public record, and you know that the Democrats were monitoring every moment in this and will be able to come back with it.

The longer that the contest for the Republican nomination drags out, the better it is for Obama. And it does seem that Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul just want to keep on going. They just want to be out there.

By the way, I just have to throw out here that you should all be aware that becoming a candidate for president just enhances these politicians or these figures for the rest of their lives. Who had ever heard of Jon Huntsman before he ran for president? And now he is a famous individual. So we sometimes have people who know that running for president will also enhance their abilities to be public speakers in the future, to be – to earn big speaking fees. So it is – and Rick Santorum, who was a defeated senator. Nobody had heard of Rick Santorum for years, but he ran a campaign, he attracted a following, and I think he will be a national figure for the rest of his life in a way he wouldn’t have been if he didn’t run this campaign.


QUESTION: Hi. Nancy Ku from Fuji TV, Japanese TV network. You just said the longer the contest, the better for Obama. Could you expand on that more? Because I also see the argument that the – it benefits the Republicans to have a long contest because if it ends now, and let’s say Romney becomes the nominee, he loses this media attention for several months before the general election.

MR. HAGSTROM: That is true. He would lose the media attention. So you could say it is a bit of a mixed bag on that point. However, I think there’s a theory that a lot of the voters don’t really pay attention to the campaigns until September. I mean, if they’re really – that’s when they really start making their decisions. So how much the value the media attention has between now and September, I’m not sure.

There are a lot of foreigners who think our campaigns are too long. I disagree with that. I think that if you have a country this big and you have candidates from – coming from such diverse places as Massachusetts and Georgia, Texas, Pennsylvania, that it takes a long time for people in a country this size to get to know who these candidates are and to evaluate them. I have a lot of European friends who criticize the long election, and I said, “Well, what if you were electing a president of Europe and you – and the voters were all the way from the Arctic Circle and Norway and Sweden to Sicily? Wouldn’t you need a long election time, too, to get to know these candidates?” So I just make that as a side point.

Did you have a second question?

QUESTION: No, but I think also why is that the longer the contest, the better for --

MR. HAGSTROM: Oh, for Obama. Because the Republicans continue to be split, and until the – when the nomination is settled, then the Republicans can focus on pulling the party together. But as long as this drags out, then the Romney supporters, the Gingrich supporters, the Paul supporters, the Santorum supporters really don’t want to talk to each other. They don’t want to think about how they can come together. So if this drags out really into June, then it’s just less time to heal the wounds and try to come together as a party. Also, you can’t develop one message until you have a certain nominee. Now you have these mixed messages.

MODERATOR: Any other questions?

QUESTION: One more.


QUESTION: Could you give an outlook for what you think will happen in Nevada? And then for the other three states happening next week – Maine, Minnesota, and Colorado – which of these do you think is the most – will be the most interesting to watch?

MR. HAGSTROM: Well, I’d have to say that I think Nevada will be the most interesting. I just got an email from Newt’s campaign. He’s in Reno already. Nevada, I would say, is the – will be the most interesting because it’s a state that has grown so much in population. And when a state has grown so much in population, it’s hard to – it’s harder for everyone to understand it. It’s more volatile. Thinking in the long term, unions are much more important in Nevada than we usually think of because the big hotels in Las Vegas are unionized. And it’s also – it’s viewed as one of the swing states in the general election. So I think that will be very important. Also it has a big Mormon population, too, which gives Romney an advantage there.

One thing that you might want to be watching for is what kind of turnout are there – is there in these upcoming caucuses and primaries because the turnout in Iowa for the caucuses and the turnout in Florida for the Republican primary has been below expectations. And that is not a good sign for the Republicans, because if they are so excited about getting President Obama out of office, you would think that they would turning out in high numbers in these electoral contests for picking the nominee. And that – I didn’t – I don’t have a number on New Hampshire, so I don’t know – or North – South Carolina. I don’t know what the turnout was like there. But I do know those two, so it is – it’s one of the things that the commentators watch to see how things are proceeding.

MODERATOR: Any other – any questions from New York? One here.

QUESTION: Who do you think has got a better chance to beat Obama in the general election? Would that be Romney or Gingrich? (Laughter.)

MR. HAGSTROM: Oh, my. You’re asking me to get into something that I usually don’t do, so I’ll just – I’ll give you some strong and weak points. I think that Romney would be much more acceptable to the Independent voters. And in fact, okay, so here we get into this thing about Romney. We’ll go with what George Soros said. A friend of mine who works for a teachers’ union who told me that her sister, who is a teacher, had decided she’s so disappointed in Obama that she’s going to vote for Romney. Because of his middle-of-the-road record in Massachusetts, she thinks he couldn’t be all that bad. So that would make Romney look like the more formidable candidate.

Gingrich is often more interesting to listen to. But the thing is he goes off in so many places that you would think that when it really comes down to selecting a president as opposed to a nominee who may represent your views, that it would be hard for the American people to go along with Gingrich ultimately.

How’s that? (Laughter.)

MODERATOR: Any other questions?

Okay. Thank you very much for coming, and thank you.

MR. HAGSTROM: Thank you.

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