The conventional wisdom outside of Capitol South metro station, where I learned of the news, was that this is bad for Romney. I don’t buy it. Mostly because I’m 99.44% confident the race is already over regardless of what happens in South Carolina. But also because I don’t think former Perry supporters in South Carolina or Florida are going to break in a way that can possible hurt Romney; for this to have an affect on the outcome, you have to either believe that Gingrich is a viable candidate to defeat Mitt, or that Santorum is going to siphon off the vast, vast majority of Perry voters. I do not think either is even remotely realistic. As John Sides has pointed out, and as Nate Sliver wrote several days ago and further explicated today, the conservatives just aren’t all that anti-Romney, nor are they united in support of the anti-Romney idea; Romney is actually the second choice of a great many of them.
More interesting to me is the timing of Perry’s drop-out, and the timing and choice to endorse of Gingrich. As I wrote last week, the decisions of political actors are often strategic rather than sincere, in the sense that they are not undertaken for the most plainly obvious reason. That is to say, the timing of Perry’s dropping out and his decision to immediately endorse, and immediately endorse Gingrich, were almost certainly strategic decisions designed to maximize Perry’s utility across his various goals (or more precisely, Perry’s beliefs about what will maximize his utility across his goals), rather than a reflection of the fact that he just realized he can’t win and that he thinks Newt would be the best President and he just feels like saying that right now. Although we think of dropping out as an endpoint, it is in fact just another decision within the context of a career for a political actor, one which needs to be carefully considered if the actor wants to maximize his future political opportunities, value, and influence as a policymaker, candidate, party member, or entrepreneur.
We can never know precisely what Perry’s goals or utility function are, but we can makes some educated guesses: he’d probably like to influence national politics toward his preferred policy outcomes, whether it be by influencing the outcome of the nomination race or by influencing a future presidential administration; he’d probably like to enhance (or at least not devalue) his future influence and/or political prospects; he’d probably like to enhance (or at least not devalue) his future private sector financial opportunities; and he’d probably like to enhance his personal and professional reputation. None of these goals are unique to Perry; in fact, they are pretty standard political goals. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list; there are almost certainly personal or otherwise idiosyncratic goals of Perry’s that we simply cannot identify.
These goals, regardless of what they are, severely constrain a political actors choices of action, since maximizing many of them depend on external factors. For instance, once conservative party insiders and outsiders started calling on Perry to drop out, staying in the race began to hurt Perry’s standing among them and thus hamper a variety of his future goals. This is no different than the internal mechanisms of the legislature that constrain Senator behavior; it is rare indeed for individual Senators to hold up the floor of the Senate with endless objections to unanimous consent requests. This is because their available actions (as dictated by the institutional rules) are constrained by exogenous factors like leadership, which can reward or punish behavior. So Perry’s strategic decisions today are not only likely to be maximizations of his own utility for achieving his own goals, but also strongly influenced by the changing motivations, goals, and actions of other actors.
Which brings us back to the three basic questions: why did Perry drop out today? Why did he endorse Gingrich? And why did he endorse Gingrich immediately? I don’t have any insider information to answer any of these questions, but we can make some conservative deductions about all of them. All three decisions are, of course, connected in some ways, but for ease of argument, let’s discuss them separately. First, why drop out today? Note that this is actually a biased way to think about the decision. Once it’s more or less clear you can’t win (and thus your decision over the timing of dropping-out becomes purely strategic), every day that you don’t drop out is actually a decision to stay in. It’s naive to think that the Perry campaign was not in negotiations with the Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum campaign regarding his decisions, and while we can’t know the exact motivations of any of the campaigns, my guess would be that the Romney camp wanted him to stay in (or perhaps an unlikely drop out and endorse Romney), while the other two camps wanted him out and endorsing them as first preference, followed by out without an endorsement, and followed in some order by staying in and getting out to endorse the other guy.
From Perry’s perspective then, he wants maximize the credible influence his dropping out or staying in has on the nomination regardless of direction, plus maximize the influence he has in pulling the nomination or nominee toward his policy preferences, plus maximize the immediate or future consideration he can get from the other candidates, while minimizing the animosity he might get from party members for staying in. By dropping out today, Perry has theoretically influenced the South Carolina primary. This might have been done specifically in service to Gingrich, or perhaps in service against Romney; we don’t know. It is likely, however, that Perry was running out of time for his dropping out and/or endorsement to be influential at all; once Romney clearly locks things up, none of the other candidates would have any reason to offer Perry and immediate or future consideration for dropping out (although Romney could clearly have benefited from a deal with Perry not to drop out). So I would guess that Perry’s decision to drop out now is an attempt to influence South Carolina, likely arranged with the Gingrich campaign, and perhaps horse-traded for future consideration that was perhaps bid up by offers from Romney to stay in, or from Santorum to get out in his favor.
Second, why did he endorse Gingrich? As with dropping out, strategic endorsement decisions are often a mix of factors: ideological preferences, potential political influence with the candidate down the road, specifically bargained horse-trading, and personal relationships and loyalty. (See Matthew Green’s fine paper on endorsements in House leadership races for more on some of these dynamics). It’s quite possible that Perry has a personal relationship with Gingrich that made the endorsement choice a no-brainer; likewise, he could very well believe that Gingrich maximizes some combination of policy preferences and ability to win the general election that maximize Perry’s future national policy utility function. Also possible is that Gingrich simply offered a better deal to Perry; perhaps Perry would like to be get out of electoral politics and be Interior Secretary or the head of DHS, and Gingrich made a private commitment to such in exchange for an endorsement. At any rate, don’t assume that Perry simply finds Gingrich’s policies closest to his; that’s certainly important, but it’s only one factor of many that go into these sorts decisions.
Finally, why endorse Gingrich now? The first thing to remember is that Perry probably didn’t just arrive at the endorsement decision this morning. The timing of the endorsement has little or nothing to do with that; the Perry and Gingrich campaigns could have had cross-endorsement deals worked out for weeks or months now. The key to the timing for Perry is twofold; first, maximize the impact of the endorsement and, flowing from that, maximize the return benefit, because this is Perry’s last real opportunity to affect the nomination race itself. The timing was up against the same hard-wall as the dropout — Romney was going to credibly sew this thing up soon, and Gingrich and Santorum were only going to trade top-value for it when their own goals could still be maximized, and whether those are winning the White House or something else, it obviously meant prior to Romney locking things up. But the Gingrich campaign had two important developments this week: an apparent mini-surge in South Carolina, and the potentially harmful interview with Gingrich’s ex-wife on TV tonight. Both point toward getting a large piece of good news out ASAP. If Gingrich thought he had no chance in South Carolina, he might have held back a Perry nomination until Florida, for example. The debate may also have been a factor; if Perry gets out now, that’s more airtime for Gingrich in the medium he (at least believes he) has a relative comparative advantage.
Having said all this, we don’t know when Perry sincerely decided to give up the campaign, and that would be a helpful piece of information in teasing out these strategic possibilities. If he figured it out this week, then whatever moves he is making are probably not as sound (from his point of view) as if he has been acting strategically since just after New Hampshire. But I would reiterate that that decisions about dropping out and endorsing are often highly strategic decisions. Yes, it’s very personal for a candidate to end a campaign — I’ve sat through any number of concession speeches where candidates were virtually crying, and they sure as hell weren’t running for President — but political actors at the national level are very good politicians, and they did not get where they are by wasting a lot of opportunities. And the decision to drop out and endorse is a very good opportunity to get some big-picture political benefit out of what is so obviously a short-term failure. When Perry said in his speech that he was making a “strategic retreat,” I assure you, he wasn’t kidding.