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What’s the question?

Barbour: Has a track record.(Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

photo of Reid Wilson
February 2, 2011

Updated at 8:09 a.m. on February 3.

Running for president is, in some sense, an exercise in fortune-telling. Every cycle, candidates strive to portray themselves as the best answer to the question their party’s electorate is asking: Who will bring about change? Who has the most experience? Who makes me feel safe? The problem is, the electorate never makes clear exactly which question they’re asking.

Consider the 2004 Democratic contest, when Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, and then-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean provided the answer to two very different questions. Kerry presented himself as the most electable candidate, gently appealing to most Democratic ideologues while avoiding offending independents. Dean, on the other hand, offered the starkest contrast with President George W. Bush, especially on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


The Democratic electorate loved Dean’s ideas, and small donors flocked to his side. But in the end, the majority chose Kerry’s electability over Dean’s idealism. A bumper sticker at the time summed it up: “Dated Dean, Married Kerry.”

Four years later, then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois set himself up as the candidate best able to deliver change and then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York positioned herself as the most experienced contender. Fed up with Bush and eager for a new direction, Democrats went the opposite way as they had in 2004, picking the novice over the veteran.

On the other side of the aisle, Republican voters also wanted to know which candidate would provide change, and they chose the contender who most obviously ran away from Bush. Sen. John McCain of Arizona answered other questions as well, about character and experience, that other candidates couldn’t.

In short, presidential strategists find themselves in the same position as two characters in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which a computer deduces that the answer to the Great Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything is—42. The problem is, the baffled characters don’t know what the question itself is. This is a situation GOP candidates might find themselves in. Each may have an answer—they’re experienced, conservative, etc.—but which question primary voters ask is still not obvious.

The Republican primary electorate is “going to want a record of conservative accomplishments in office, so they know you can actually get something done if you get there. They’re going to want an image of electability, because they sense Obama is vulnerable to the right Republican, but not any Republican. They’re going to look for an image of someone who can be the leader of the free world, and that requires a measure of gravitas that not all candidates possess,” said Whit Ayres, the Republican pollster.

But which factor gets the most emphasis will help determine which contender wins the Republican primary. And there are a number of candidates who would benefit from each emphasis. Some questions the electorate might ask:

Which candidate has the best record of accomplishments? Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman all had success governing as conservatives in their home states. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania can also claim conservative victories during his two terms in Washington.

The race is “certainly going to have an element of experience in it,” said David Norcross, a Republican lobbyist with close ties to Barbour. “Look at all the governors in the race. That clearly tells me that they and their advisers think that it’s an experience race.”

Which candidate can contrast best with President Obama? Most candidates will do their best to present the starkest contrast to the incumbent. Some candidates, like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, will use harsh language. Romney and Pawlenty will present more focused ideological points.

“The Republican primary electorate is definitely in the mood for change, and I think this will be a pretty strongly ideological election,” said Ed Gillespie, the former Republican National Committee chairman and adviser to George W. Bush.

Who can beat Obama? As one smart Republican brought up recently, contrasting with an increasingly centrist Obama might produce an unelectable ideologue. The best contrast might be someone with centrist credentials without the focus on social issues. But the fired-up electorate is showing no interest in settling.

An appeal to moderates based on business experience over conservative ideology is a great way to win a general election—and an equally excellent way to lose a primary. It is a difficult argument to make—so much so that candidates fight back at the mere suggestion that they are anywhere but on the GOP’s far-right fringe.

“If things seem to be going well, if the economy turns around, I think the Republicans will go the ideological route. The right wing of the base will control it,” said former Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who heads the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership.

Who can do the job? Republicans will likely argue that Obama has been swamped by the job, and someone with more experience needs to take over. “Presidential politics is also about persona and personality,” Gillespie said. Candidates must convey “both the philosophical case for our policies but also... the sense that the nominee can fill the Oval Office up again and fit the job.”

Whatever answer the GOP wants, there will be someone who fits the bill. But what makes presidential primary politics such a guessing game is that many of the candidates may not know what the question is—until it’s too late.

This article appears in the February 3, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.

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