Trying to make sense of the unfolding Republican presidential nomination contest is a challenge.
Historically, Republicans have been hierarchical in their selection of presidential nominees, picking the candidate whose “turn” it is—the logical successor rather than having a real, open contest.
This time that dynamic doesn’t seem to be in place.
More often than not, open contests for presidential nominations are overpopulated with current and former senators. But this time, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania is the only one running and he’s a long-shot at best for the GOP nomination.
Perhaps it is true that Mark Halperin and John Heileman’s 2010 book, Game Change may well have changed the game plans for several would-be candidates, convincing them or members of their families that the personal sacrifices demanded by a presidential bid are great and not worth taking. There is no question that this campaign will have some unique developments.
With so many new and quirky elements this time, the likely winner of the GOP presidential nod may best be determined by starting with a couple of assumptions. First, when the primaries and caucuses are concluded, the GOP nomination will go to someone who is at least acceptable to the three major factions of the Republican Party.
The first and largest faction is the establishment faction, made up of old-line, pro-business Republicans who are more secular in their priorities. The second faction is made up of conservatives whose primary focus is on social, cultural, and religious issues. They are particularly strong in the South and Midwest, in small-town and rural areas as well as the exurbs. Tea partiers comprise the newest faction, making up perhaps a third of all Republicans. Their unifying cause was opposition to President Obama’s health care reform and, more broadly, opposition to Big Government and a strong aversion to taxes.
A decidedly smaller faction is the libertarian wing, personified by Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson. This group seems very limited, and some of their positions severely curtail the potential to expand their numbers in the party. These stances include the legalization or decriminalization of certain drugs and support for isolationist policies that create rather interesting positions on such things as the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Virtually all Republicans these days are right of center. The differences among the factions are a matter of emphasis, priorities, and style. It is unlikely that the eventual GOP nominee will have been the first choice for each group.
In the absence of a Ronald Reagan-like figure, no single candidate is likely to be the front-runner in each bracket. It is also unlikely that someone will win the nomination if they are considered unacceptable to the majority in any of these three groups. Basically, any one of these three factions can effectively veto a nomination.
It’s one thing to have the strong support of one faction and get 25 to 35 percent of the vote while coming in first in a five- or six-way contest. Even some of the more exotic or niche candidates may be able to do that. But it’s next to impossible to win over half the vote when the contest narrows down to two or three candidates if you are ignoring a significant part of your party’s base. Contenders who are too polarizing and have bases that are too narrow get culled.
The second assumption to make is that the nomination will go to someone who has the potential to tap into the elite donor class in the Republican Party as well as grassroots donors. The $100 million-$200 million likely price tag for winning the nomination is not likely to be reached with grassroots and Internet fundraising. Every state and every community has a finite number of established and reliable fundraisers for each party. Invariably, those donors tend to focus their support on just one or two candidates at the exclusion of others who simply die on the vine. These donors tend to be businesspeople and professionals who support candidates they feel most comfortable with in terms of social, cultural, and professional class.
The 2008 experience of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is instructive here. Huckabee was able to consolidate social, cultural, and religious conservatives to win the Iowa caucus, which is traditionally an important step toward winning the nomination. However, he was not able to expand his support into the secular Republican Party and more importantly, he wasn’t able to monetize his Iowa win.
While former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is generally considered to be the front-runner, he is going to have a tough time broadening his appeal to the different factions of the Republican Party. He is limited by conservative antipathy toward the health care plan that he pushed through while he was governor of Massachusetts and will have to fight broader concerns about his authenticity and a resistance to his Mormon faith among many rank-and-file Republicans, particularly evangelical Christians in rural America.
At this point, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty seems to be the candidate who has the greatest potential to bridge these disparate factions and put together the money needed to run a winning race.
This article appears in the May 24, 2011, edition of National Journal Daily.