B y Eric Stern
THOUSANDS of years ago, the Mayan people predicted that the world would end in the year we now call 2012. And according to this year’s crop of GOP presidential candidates, they may have been right.
“One morning,” prophesized former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, “just like 9/11, there’s going to be a disaster.” Rep. Michele Bachmann ominously warned, “We’re in a state of crisis where our nation is literally ripping apart at the seams right now, and lawlessness is occurring from one ocean to the other. And we’re seeing the fulfillment of the Book of Judges here in our own time…”
Indeed, Republicans all across the country believe threats to our country have never been greater and the threats have never been higher. President Obama, who has at times been derided as a socialist, a Muslim, an anti-American (perhaps not even an American), and an all-around job-killing nightmare, must be stopped. But by whom? Republican party leaders are in quite the quandary: they need a candidate who can fire up the base and talk to independent voters; who can tame the Tea Partiers and charm the establishment; who can stump, fundraise, smile for the camera, and, most of all, beat President Obama. What’s not exactly clear is who that person is.
Nate Silver, a political journalist and statistician, noted the remarkable volatility of the Republican field. “Believe it or not,” he wrote, “there have been 10 different G.O.P. candidates to have led at least one poll of Republican voters since Jan. 1: Mr. Cain, Mr. Romney, Mr. Perry, Sarah Palin, Chris Christie, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Donald Trump, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and Mike Huckabee.”
Dr. Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and a well-known political commentator, described the 2012 contest as “a crazy, topsy-turvy race.”
“It’s an odd year,” Sabato said in an interview, “in that we have an incumbent president who was elected to such acclaim three years ago who is now struggling, and yet the GOP field is also unsettled. It’s a hard one to predict right now and it could end up being very close.”
Presidential campaigns used to be such humdrum affairs. Two or three years before the election, a handful of well-qualified candidates – Governors, Senators and a couple of other elder statesmen – would begin to test the waters. They would tour the early primary states (namely Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina), shaking hands and kissing babies, all the while quietly building a network of political operatives and fundraisers.
Between two years and a year and a half before the election, candidates would begin to announce their intentions to run. Presidential elections were big, elaborate and, as the media loved to point out, increasingly expensive. That was until 2010. The rise of the Tea Party threw the old map out the door. Staid, hand-picked and decidedly Establishment nominees for the House and Senate in 2010 (and even some incumbents) were swept away in a Tea Party wave of firebrand insurgents. The Democrats’ midterm “shellacking,” as President Obama put it, was felt just as strongly in Republican circles.
Potential 2012 Presidential candidates closely huddled with their advisors and watched, carefully deciding what to do next. For the most part, fearful of ending up as the next Tea Party victim, they just waited. (It should be noted that Tim Pawlenty, the only candidate to follow the conventional game plan, was also the first political casualty of the 2012 Republican primaries.) Whereas by April 2007, for example, more than a dozen people had announced their Presidential runs, by April of 2011, not a single candidate had made an official announcement. Eventually, however, flag-draped announcement speeches were made and the field slowly solidified. By the time Rick Perry, the last serious candidate to run, had officially entered the race — August 13 — it was the latest of any major candidate since then-Governor Bill Clinton in 1991. Indeed, with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Sarah Palin’s decisions to forgo White House runs, the field finally appears to be set.
Yale Political Science Professor Eitan Hersh believes that, for now at least, the declared candidates are wisest to try and attract core GOP voters.
“The election they are in now is for the Republican nomination, so it’s probably a good idea for them to appeal to the base until the summer,” Hersh commented. “They need to win this election first. The activists to whom they are now appealing are the people they will rely on in the general election to be their core volunteers and donors. The candidates need their support now in order to move forward to the next round.”
Now that the dust has finally cleared, the Republican field can be quickly summarized thusly: Mitt Romney is the prohibitive frontrunner, with Herman Cain and Rick Perry running closely behind, and all of the other candidates are desperately nipping at their heels, trying to garner enough money and attention to stay relevant.
Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts Governor and 2008 Presidential candidate, currently leads the pack of 2012 hopefuls in public polls, money and endorsements. Indeed, Romney has high name recognition, significant capital and a capable team (in addition to movie star-good looks). Moreover, he has the invaluable experience of his failed 2008 run.
“Given the field as it stands now in early October 2011, I’d put my money on Mitt Romney,” said Hersh. “He has performed well in the debates and on the campaign trail. Compared to the other leading candidates, he is striking the right balance between promising support for core Republican priorities and signaling that he is a level-headed executive, which should help him in the general election.”
Yale’s Sterling Professor of Political Science David Mayhew agreed. “I say Romney,” he wrote, when asked which candidate he believed would win the nomination. “He is also a known quantity and a steady performer. He has been watched and vetted for years. Big surprises regarding Romney, either negative or positive, are not likely.”
Nonetheless, Romney carries at least as much baggage as his fellow Republicans.
Though his deep blue home state could be a boon in a general election, it will undoubtedly worry many hardcore conservatives in the primaries (his “Romneycare” health care plan will not help remedy this). Polls continue to show that despite his problems in early states such as Iowa, South Carolina and Florida (where he sometimes trails Herman Cain and Rick Perry by varying margins), he would run the closest against the President in a national election.
Romney’s best hope at this point is that the possibility of actually nominating Rick Perry or Ron Paul (or really almost any of the other potential GOP candidates) so scares the GOP establishment that it will sprint toward his decidedly sober campaign. If, however, the Tea Party continues to exert its oversized influence on Republican primaries, Romney — with his past of supporting abortion rights, civil unions, and universal healthcare — may once again fade unceremoniously into the periphery.
Unlike the staid Romney, however, Texas Governor Rick Perry may be just what dyed-in-the-wool conservatives are looking for. At this point, most Republican leaders are quietly taking a step back to see whether Rick Perry is for real, or just the latest member of a long stream of Tea Party darlings (think Donald Trump and Michele Bachmann) that have risen and fallen faster than Obama’s hair has changed from black to gray. Unlike Trump and Bachmann, however, Perry has a rock-solid resume, from humble beginnings to a youth spent as a farmer and air force pilot to a long political career, during which he served on every rung of Texas government. (He is currently the longest serving Governor in the state’s history.) Add that to fundraising prowess (he lassoed $17 million in a generally slow third quarter), his ready-made job-creation sound bite (“Since June of 2009, Texas is responsible for more than 40 percent of all of the new jobs created in America”) and a few homespun stories about gun ownership, and the cowboy boot-wearing Perry may be the ideal GOP candidate.
That said, Perry has some potentially serious drawbacks. The Governor is thought by many insiders to be too brazenly conservative for independent voters and “Reagan Democrats.” He is also a notoriously weak debater and has yet to show that he can attract voters outside of his home state of Texas. Moreover, Perry’s moderate positions on immigration and the DREAM Act, which may aid a general election campaign, greatly offend many of the GOP’s likely primary voters, who demand more ideological purity than in any other election in recent memory.
Adam Bonin, the Chairman of the Board of Directors for Netroots Nation and a featured writer on DailyKos, believes Perry still has a very good chance of winning the nomination.
“I think ultimately, whatever stumbles he may have had out of the gate, Governor Perry is by far the most viable and experienced of the non-Romney field and I think given the composition of the Republican primary electorate, he stands a very good chance of consolidating the non-Romney vote and emerging victorious,” Bonin said.
Yet because of Romney and Perry’s obvious flaws, Republican voters are closely examining the other choices, chief among them include businessman Herman Cain, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former Utah Governor and Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman.
Perhaps the most puzzling candidate of the 2012 race is former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza and Georgia radio personality Herman Cain. At first dismissed by the media as a lowest-tier fringe candidate, Cain has risen remarkably in the polls following several strong debate and straw poll performances. Whether or not Cain is simply another “flavor of the month,” as Sarah Palin has put it, remains to be seen. But Cain has the strongest “positive intensity” score of any candidate as well as perhaps the most room to grow of any candidate.
Silver pointed out, “Mr. Cain is now polling in the high teens or low 20s despite name recognition of only about 55 percent. If the remaining half of the Republican electorate likes him as well as the half that has gotten to know him so far, he could be quite formidable.”
Nonetheless, he has taken some extremely polarizing positions on a number of issues, and his campaign structure is nearly nonexistent. Moreover, as Hersh noted, “The last time someone without experience as an elected official won the Presidency was in 1952 with Dwight Eisenhower.” “But Ike, of course, commanded the Allied armies in Europe during World War II,” continued Sabato. “Cain is no Eisenhower.”
Rep. Ron Paul, who is often characterized as the “intellectual godfather” of the Tea Party movement, has run for President twice before. In this election cycle, however, the septuagenarian candidate is far better known and his operation is much better tuned than in past years. Moreover, his small-government views (such as eliminating the Federal Reserve, legalizing all narcotics and opposing renewal of the Voting Rights Act) — which were once considered fringe — are now accepted by many Republican primary voters. Though he is generally thought of as a welterweight candidate by the media and GOP establishment, Paul is not to be easily dismissed.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, who is one of the strongest fundraisers in the House and a lightning rod for hardline conservatives, was seen as a potential frontrunner early in the race. She had a few solid debate performances and won the important Ames, Iowa straw poll. But a series of well-publicized gaffes, in addition to an evaporating campaign team and the rise of Tea Party favorites Perry and Cain, have relegated the Minnesota Congresswoman to second-tier status at best. (Recent polls show Bachmann with as little as 3 or 4 percent support nationally.)
Ex-Senator Rick Santorum has the potential to be a serious contender, but so far nothing has gone right for the former GOP rising star. His rock-solid conservative credentials matter little next to firebrands like Perry and Paul, while his crushing 2006 defeat has downgraded the former Senator (from a well-populated and hugely important state) to second-tier status. That he has practically taken up residence in the early primary states means little now that the Tea Party has rendered his brand of compassionate conservatism near-obsolete.
Santorum’s devotion to social issues such as abortion and gay marriage and his following among Evangelicals could still make him a serious candidate, noted John Brabender, a prominent Republican political analyst and advisor to the Santorum campaign.
“Social conservatives play a bigger role in Republican primaries than any other part of the electorate,” Brabender said. “And what we’re seeing is that some of the other candidates that appeared to be strong social conservatives very much have cracks in their armor.” Nonetheless, absent of a stampede of social conservatives in his direction from the Perry and Bachmann camps, Santorum simply won’t have the money or the manpower to compete with the frontrunners.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich began what could have been a promising campaign, but it quickly imploded and has been flat-lining for some time now. Gingrich is largely viewed as a figure from the past and members of his staff departed en masse to join the Perry campaign earlier this year. Additionally, Gingrich is plagued by fundraising woes and a well-publicized Tiffany’s scandal (the Speaker embarrassingly had two lines of credit at the high-end jewelry store for up to $1.5 million). Although he has enjoyed a slight rise in the polls since his lowest point this summer, Gingrich has little chance of winning the nomination. His goal is likely no loftier than to leave the race with his reputation (and status as a party elder) intact.
Jon Huntsman, a moderate former Governor who entered the race amid significant media fanfare, has not lived up to the expectations. He excites few voters outside of the editorials board of the Wall Street Journal and has significant handicaps for a candidate who must appeal to conservative voters.
“Huntsman’s problem, I think, is that he’s the guy saying, ‘Hey look, I’m the moderate in the field,’ in a party where there aren’t that many moderates voting in primaries,” said Brabender. Indeed, Huntsman is plagued by relative social liberalism, service in the Obama administration and the fact that he is competing for (and overwhelmingly losing) the Mormon vote with Mitt Romney. His best hope is to slowly yet surely win over New Hampshire’s more moderate voters and hope for a late surge there that could propel him to a strong position in Nevada, Florida and Illinois. Most experts, however, agree that he will simply fizzle out.
“That said, Governor Huntsman has more support than anyone in the field among independents and conservative Democrats,” commented Michael Knowles, the National Co-Chairman for the young voters operation in the Huntsman campaign. “[A] conservative that can appeal to independent and moderate voters will have the best chance of defeating President Obama in our center-right country.”
Hersh, whose research examines campaign strategy, voting behavior, and election administration, is not convinced that any of these latter six candidates can overcome the odds and claim the nomination.
“Their particular ambitions may range from using the experience as a launching pad for another election to being tapped for the vice presidency, from expressing an ideological point of view to converting publicity into personal financial gain. Also, we shouldn’t underestimate the ability of politicians to delude themselves into thinking they have a real chance at victory in spite of their inability to connect with a plurality of voters,” he added.
Looking Ahead to November
The Republican primary race is still decidedly fluid. Another candidate could easily explode in popularity (as then-Senator Obama and Senator McCain did in 2008), and though Romney’s frontrunner status is just about set in stone, Perry and Cain’s are far from certain. If the Texas Governor’s gaffes and missteps continue, or if Cain and his catchy “9-9-9” tax plan fade into obscurity, it is likely that another anti-establishment favorite (possibly either Bachman or Santorum) will be pushed to the forefront as the “anti-Romney.”
The sixty-four thousand dollar question, of course, is whether the eventual nominee will be able to compete with President Obama in November of 2012. Job growth is stagnant, the economic recovery is sputtering and President Obama has never been viewed as more vulnerable. Indeed, polls indicate that the general election will be far closer than it was in the President’s landslide electoral victory in 2008.
“I look at any of these candidates, and I think that they can beat Obama,” agreed Brabender. “I think that you will find that the Republicans will be extremely unified and extremely motivated in the 2012 election.”
But the President should not be easily dismissed. His campaign operation is well-oiled and his aides boast that he could raise more than $1 billion for the race, a massively daunting war chest. Moreover, demographics are changing, and increasing numbers of black and Hispanic voters in a number of swing states will greatly benefit the incumbent. Former Arkansas Governor and 2008 Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee admitted in February that while President Obama will have “a huge social network and … the power of the incumbency,” Republicans “could in fact end up with a demolition derby.” “Whoever emerges will come out bloody, bruised and broke,” he added.
Who that lucky person will be, however, is anybody’s guess.