With the Iowa caucuses fast approaching, it’s tempting to call this the first culling point of the Republican presidential primary process – but that may no longer be true. Last week, the Republican Party in Virginia ended its ballot qualification process for their Super Tuesday primary on March 6, which will select 49 delegates to the Republican convention in Tampa. Instead of a wide range of choices, voters in Virginia will likely see only the names of Mitt Romney and Ron Paul in the voting booth, thanks to the failure of all other candidates to qualify for the ballot. The embarrassing outcome threatens the message that Republicans intended to use for the 2012 general election – that Barack Obama has proven to be an incompetent executive who needs to be replaced.
To be sure, Virginia has one of the more difficult sets of regulatory hurdles for primary ballot access. Candidates for the presidency must collect at least 10,000 signatures from registered Virginia voters, with at least 400 in each of the eleven Congressional districts. The petitions have to be notarized and submitted on particular forms. However, campaigns have had since the beginning of July to collect these signatures, and to ensure that they had enough to withstand the normal review. Two campaigns managed to run that gauntlet, while all of the other Republican hopefuls either failed or didn’t bother trying.
For some candidates, this failure is understandable, if not confidence-building. It takes a significant organizational commitment in time, people, and campaign cash to gain the necessary number of signatures in Virginia. For the cash-strapped campaigns of Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum, both of whom need to win or score a second-place finish in Iowa to retain any credibility, the decision to focus campaign assets in the Hawkeye State makes a lot of sense. Neither campaign turned in any signatures, although both had nominal efforts taking place in Virginia. Jon Huntsman’s concession is somewhat understandable. Huntsman has the ability to raise his own cash, but he’s polling near the bottom in Virginia; he’s putting all of his efforts into New Hampshire, without much success.
Two candidates in particular ended up with egg on their face. Rick Perry, the kind of Southern governor who would normally get plenty of traction in Virginia, submitted over 11,000 signatures, as did Newt Gingrich, who has lived in Virginia for the past twelve years. Both had too many signatures fail the verification process and at the moment will not be on Virginia’s ballot. Perry can’t claim a lack of resources for his failure. He raised $17 million in the first six weeks of his campaign, more money than Newt Gingrich has seen in total all year long. Perry jumped into the race late and lost nearly two months’ time in Virginia – but he had the resources to make up for that shorter time frame. Gingrich’s campaign has run on a shoestring almost all year, but this is Gingrich’s home state. The most recent Quinnipiac poll shows Gingrich leading in the state by five points, which should have had the campaign taking this state’s primary very seriously.
The Perry campaign has not given much of a reaction to their failure to meet the ballot requirements in Virginia, but Gingrich and his team have responded with characteristic aggressiveness – and perhaps even more incompetence – in placing the blame elsewhere. In a Facebook posting, the campaign announced that Gingrich, in historian mode, felt that only Pearl Harbor was sufficiently analogous to the events in Virginia last week, and promised a write-in campaign for the March 6th primary. Unfortunately, Virginia law states that write-in votes will not be counted in presidential primary elections, a fact that seems to have eluded the campaign of the only Virginia native in the race.
Gingrich and his supporters have argued that he and Perry have been victimized by unreasonable ballot-access rules and by a change of enforcement prompted by a court case this year. They claim that the Republican Party had never verified signatures in the past, a claim disputed by a contemporaneous account in 2007 by Erick Erickson, a conservative activist and now a CNN commentator. Erickson included an e-mail from the state GOP informing the campaigns on December 14, 2007, that the party would do “a hard count for number of signatures based on correctness of form” three days later – a process to which Erickson objected at the time as needlessly stringent.
It’s also disputed in an e-mail to me by a Republican Party official at the county level in Virginia (as it happens, a Perry supporter). The official claimed that signature verification has taken place for at least a decade, saying, “This is not Chicago politics.” Furthermore, Mitt Romney’s campaign sent volunteers to “target rich” party events over the last several months to get signatures in a common, “pitch and catch” process in the state. He has never seen representatives with petitions for either Gingrich or Perry at these events, where party officials will usually sign petitions for all candidates regardless of whom they support in order to ensure a meaningful primary for Virginia. Nothing significant has changed in Virginia law on petitions in the past decade, except to make it easier to get signatures by reducing the requirement for Social Security number collection to a voluntary choice.
In 2008 and 2000, the two disputed Republican primaries this past decade, Virginia managed to get a half-dozen or more candidates qualified for the primary each time. That includes the less-than-mainstream Alan Keyes in 2000 and the less-than-energetic Fred Thompson campaign in 2008, as well as Dennis Kucinich for the Democrats in 2008, who barely appeared in the primary results with 1,625 votes (0.16%). In fact, the Thompson example is doubly instructive, given his late entry to the primary competition in September 2007, later than Perry’s entry this cycle of August 2011. Thompson raised $21 million in 2007, a figure Perry has likely already exceeded, and yet Thompson managed to get the signatures and verify them in Virginia – and Thompson didn’t exactly have the kind of polling success, however brief, that Perry and Gingrich have enjoyed at times in this cycle.
This takes us back to the competency issue. If Republicans choose to make executive competence an issue, the failure to understand Virginia ballot law will not speak well of the executive competence of either Gingrich or Perry. With Gingrich taking hits from former House colleagues on the issue of his managerial competence as Speaker, this is a primary test that Gingrich very much needed to pass. For Republican voters in Virginia and around the nation, only Mitt Romney and Ron Paul won the competence primary in the Old Dominion, which has to have some impact on the calculus for the rest of the primaries.