Off to the Races

Political scientist and commentator Jeffrey Berry handicaps the contest for the Republican nomination

a Republican debate lineup of candidates

As one Republican presidential hopeful after another has raced to the front of the pack, only to fall back again, Jeffrey Berry has been keeping a close eye on the polls, the debates and the news. Berry, the John Richard Skuse Professor of Political Science in the School of Arts and Sciences, comments frequently on electoral politics for the media, and talks with us about the turbulent race for the Republican nomination.

Tufts Now: How would you characterize the Republican primary contest?

Jeffrey Berry: It’s fascinating. It’s like watching NASCAR: You want to see who wins, but without admitting it, you hope there will be a car crash. And there have been several crashes, and they have been bright, hot and spectacular. I always think I know a lot going into election season, and yet I still find there are things that are not predictable. That’s a good thing for political scientists.

Who has crashed?

The performance of [Texas Gov.] Rick Perry [in the debates] was astounding. It defied any logic in terms of preparation. He couldn’t offer a coherent answer about Pakistan when that was the main story in the news; that was shocking to me. You just don’t go into nationally televised debates without working through the briefing book, and it was clear he was lazy and couldn’t be bothered.

Herman Cain was one of the most undisciplined candidates I’ve ever seen run, though to his credit, he galvanized the Republican Party for a short time because he had one bold idea, his 9-9-9 tax proposal.

Does Newt Gingrich’s recent rise in the polls mean he has staying power?

He’s credible. It’s now a two-person race between him and Mitt Romney, and the people who don’t want Romney really only have him as a choice. So that makes him somebody to contend with.

Could Jon Huntsman still have a chance?

It’s very unlikely he will emerge. He’s putting all his marbles into New Hampshire, where his father is spending a small fortune on TV advertising, But I think he’s too moderate for the Republican Party, and his association with Obama as ambassador to China makes him poison for the Republican Party.

Is there any chance someone not now in the race could enter and change everything?

It’s very hard for a candidate to come in at the last minute. He or she would need to raise enormous sums of money and need to be organized across the 50 states, and to do that at the last minute defies credulity. If Gingrich stumbles, Romney is the nominee.

Why did Cain have to drop out after a woman said she had had an affair with him, while Gingrich, who has acknowledged similar behavior, can stay in the race?

Gingrich’s behavior doesn’t matter as much in the Republican primary because it was well known before he entered the race, and a lot of Republicans are ready to forgive him for that. It will be a serious problem should he win the nomination—it will be publicized more. Obama won’t raise it, but his surrogates will, and everybody in America will know Gingrich cheated on his first two wives.

The past is prologue, and all that Gingrich has done that is questionable will be front and center. Right now the Romney campaign is trying to figure out how negative to go on Gingrich, and I think they’re undecided. They’d like the press to do the dirty work for them, and to a certain degree it is cooperating. The articles on his lobbying with Freddie Mac tarnish him, and I think that’s something that will become more of an issue. He’s not given a candid answer about lobbying; he said he was giving history lessons. Nobody pays $1.6 million for history lessons—if they did, I’d be really rich.

"I think the economy is the number one issue, the number two issue and the number three issue," says Jeffrey Berry. Photo: Melody Ko"I think the economy is the number one issue, the number two issue and the number three issue," says Jeffrey Berry. Photo: Melody Ko
How do you view Romney’s campaign at this point?

He is in some trouble. To be this well known, be this well organized and have so much money and not have the needle move on the speedometer has to be disconcerting, particularly as other candidates have fallen by the wayside and he’s not inheriting much of their support.

Why is he struggling?

It’s no one thing. He is tarnished within the Republican Party, particularly with conservatives, by health care in Massachusetts. He is seen as a man without a backbone; that he doesn’t stand up for what is right and true but rather puts his finger to the wind. For conservative Republicans, that’s a real problem. They believe they are the ones in American politics who are principled, and they expect that from their leaders.

Does Romney’s religion play a role in how he is perceived?

That’s a little more difficult to evaluate. People are sophisticated enough to not mention that to pollsters, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t color their opinion of him. Evangelicals are suspicious of Mormonism, and if he becomes the candidate, we’ll be learning more about Romney’s religion.

What do you think of the debates?

They are a great exercise in democracy, because they educate Republicans about the qualities of each of the major candidates. It was a winnowing out process where some demonstrated they don’t have the capacity to be president of the United States. Perry, Michele Bachmann and Cain all did better on Fox TV than under the critical questioning of some sophisticated Washington reporters. That’s a lot different than sitting down and having a chat with Sean Hannity.

Who do you think will win the Republican nomination?

There have been so many twists and turns, it seems like the wise bet is no bet.

What will be the biggest issues in the presidential campaign?

I think the economy is the number one issue, the number two issue and the number three issue. The size of government is something Republicans will talk about, as well as health care and regulations. But those issues won’t move independent voters the way the economy will.

What does Obama have to do to win?

Pray for the economy to get better. It’s not like he has a set of levers on his desk, and he can pull one to find the right mix of stimulus and restraint and regulation. It’s largely out of his control. The economy is getting better, but it’s not getting better very fast. He has to hope it will accelerate.

Who will win next November?

Ask me in October.

Marjorie Howard can be reached at


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