Consider yourself clairvoyant if you can correctly predict who is going to win the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. The race is that wide open.
In most years, Republicans tap the person whose “turn” it is to be the party’s standard-bearer, and that individual’s identity is often known long before the start of the primary and caucus season. This time, the race looks different. One could argue that it is former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s turn because she was the party’s vice presidential nominee in 2008. Or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s turn because he won the Iowa caucus last time around. Or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s turn because he was eventual nominee John McCain’s toughest rival in 2008. But none of those arguments is particularly convincing.
In most years, current and former U.S. senators are grossly overrepresented in presidential fields. But with the announcement by Sen. John Thune of South Dakota that he isn’t going to run, it appears no sitting GOP senator will enter the race. Pennsylvania’s Rick Santorum may be the only former member of the chamber to make a bid. Current and former House members have a dismal record in winning nominations, but that hasn’t stopped them before. This time, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas looks to be the only House member running, and former Speaker Newt Gingrich may be the only former member in the contest.
With Washington so out of favor, this could be a campaign that features lots of current and former governors. Three sitting governors are possible candidates—Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, and Rick Perry of Texas—along with five former governors: Jon Huntsman of Utah, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Huckabee, Palin, and Romney.
Each of the possible contenders has strengths and weaknesses; how voters will ultimately weigh these pluses and minuses is unknowable today. Gingrich and Palin have near-total name recognition, certainly an asset, but also unusually high negatives and big questions about electability. Can Huckabee raise money? Do Barbour’s former job as a K Street lobbyist and his Deep South roots offset his prodigious fundraising potential and unmatched Republican Rolodex? Will Romney’s experience in running for president and his personal fortune and fundraising potential outweigh charges that he is an ideological chameleon and the suggestion that his Massachusetts health plan makes him the “father of ‘Obamacare’ ”? Can Pawlenty become exciting? All these questions have yet to be answered.
It appears no sitting U.S. senator will enter the race.
Many people seem unable to look at politicians on any axis other than left-center-right. But in terms of presidential nominations, there often don’t seem to be many huge ideological differences. Among the potential Republican contenders, all oppose abortion and gun control, are skeptical of Big Government, and favor cutting taxes and spending.
The real differences will turn out to be in style, tone, temperament, and, most important, emphasis. Emphasis is key because it defines candidates to a certain degree and what pockets of voters they plan to target. All of the potential candidates are pretty conservative on social and cultural issues. But an aspirant who talks about social issues a lot is looked at differently than one who emphasizes fiscal and economic issues. And a candidate who emphasizes economic issues is look at differently than one who focuses on foreign-policy and national-security concerns (really none in this field, though). The term “moderate” often is less a reference to ideology (no Ripon Society members in this group) than to style and the temperature of rhetoric. Some candidates run hot and others at room temperature, even if their fundamental positions aren’t much different.
Republican pollster Bill McInturff once articulated a construct for looking at presidential nominations that I have often found useful. Compare the field to a set of NCAA basketball brackets, starting at the quarterfinals. The theory goes that each bracket features candidates with similar appeal. This approach, when applied to the 2012 campaign, might yield a tea party bracket, sporting competitors who are first and foremost antigovernment and in favor of slashing both taxes and spending.
A second bracket might contain candidates whose appeal very much centers on social and cultural issues. They’re targeting voters who are religious, most of them evangelical, although some are Catholic, with abortion a dominant issue. This year, the other two brackets might actually be one very large group with a straight shot to the finals: secular, establishment, business-oriented Republicans.
Thinking back to 2008, Huckabee was going after one group of GOP voters, Romney another faction, and McCain yet a third. Each was drawing his support from different pools, at least initially. Eventually, the top two this time around will face off in the finals for the nomination. At this point, though, who the nominee will be is anybody’s guess.
This article appears in the March 5, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.