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Magazine / Cover Story

Populists Versus Managers

Two very different kinds of candidates will be running for the Republican presidential nomination. One thunders; the other reassures.

With her folksy style, Sarah Palin appeals to conservative working class whites.(Gilles Mingasson)

As the 2012 Republican pre­sidential race begins to coalesce, the field is dividing between populists and managers.

The most prominent populists are former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The leading manager is Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, although he could face competition from such current governors as Indiana’s Mitch Daniels, Mississippi’s Haley Barbour, and, conceivably, New Jersey’s Chris Christie. Onetime House Speaker Newt Gingrich straddles both camps but leans toward the populist side. Outgoing Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a self-described “Sam’s Club” Republican with an equable manner, also straddles the line but probably tilts toward the manager camp, as would Sen. John Thune of South Dakota if he ran. Conversely, if Texas Gov. Rick Perry reverses his decision and joins the race, he would enter as a full-throated populist.

CHART: See where each candidate falls on the spectrum.

 

The two groups disagree on some issues (trade, aid to banks), but the most important differences between them are cultural and stylistic, not ideological. The populists thunder; the managers reassure. The populists stress their social values; the managers tout their economic competence. The populists rage at the elite; the managers mingle easily with them.

To their supporters, the populists represent a cultural statement: Who they are is more important than what they will do. For the managers, that equation is reversed: Their biggest selling point is their agenda, not their identity.

These camps speak primarily to competing wings of the Republican coalition. The populists channel the edgy, defensive nationalism of a culturally conservative, economically aggrieved working-class white electorate that has moved steadily toward the GOP for decades and has stampeded in that direction under President Obama. The managers connect most easily with college-educated Republicans who tend to be somewhat more socially moderate, less viscerally hostile to government (if still dubious of it), and mainly intent on rejuvenating the economy. In early 2012 national polling, Romney consistently leads the field among college-educated Republicans; Palin runs even or better with him among Republicans without college degrees.

“At the risk of oversimplifying it, I think that the upper-income college-educated [Republican] group is looking for a CEO for the economy, somebody who knows something about how jobs are created,” said veteran GOP consultant Ralph Reed, who was executive director of the influential Christian Coalition during the 1990s. “It is almost a managerial issue. I think what the more culturally conservative grassroots are looking for is a classic tea party candidate who is not intimidated by the establishment, not about to be cowed by media attacks; who will stand up and fight for them and will be a real game-changer, if elected, in terms of how Washington operates.”

Republicans have typically picked nominees who fit the manager mold more closely than the populist one (although some, particularly Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, combined elements of both). But the demographic balance of power inside the GOP coalition is shifting downscale, a change that could provide a greater opening for the populists, including Palin if she runs. The party’s new tilt could also produce a 2012 race that divides the GOP much more than before along lines of class and education, the same fissures that have often characterized Democratic nominating contests, particularly the 2008 race between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“We know from history that usually, almost always, the manager wing—the mainstream conservative Republican wing—nominates the candidate,” says consultant John Weaver, a longtime senior strategist for 2008 GOP nominee John McCain. “But if we are seeing real cultural shifts inside the party where we will have more blue-collar, noncollege-educated voters, that could change.”

THE CLASS INVERSION

In the first decades after the New Deal, the GOP was the party of the corner office. During that era, Republican presidential and congressional candidates routinely ran better among white voters with at least a four-year college degree than among those without one, according to the University of Michigan’s biennial national election polls dating back to the early 1950s.

Since the 1960s, however, Republicans have steadily improved their position among working-class whites, many of whom lean toward the right on cultural and national-security issues and view government skeptically. As Republicans have reached deeper into those blue-collar communities, Democrats have improved their performance among college-educated white voters who trend toward liberal positions on the same social and foreign-policy issues that have drawn many working-class whites toward the GOP.

The result has reversed the historic pattern: In the three presidential elections since 2000, Bush and McCain each won a larger share of the vote among noncollege than college-educated whites. In the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans dominated among virtually all white voters, but the same pattern held: According to exit polls, the GOP captured the votes of a stunning 63 percent of noncollege whites in House races, an even more astronomical number than the 58 percent the party won among college-educated whites.

 

“Culturally conservative [voters] are looking for a classic tea party candidate who is not intimidated by the establishment.” —Ralph Reed, former Christian Coalition executive director

 

This long-term, but now accelerating, class inversion has reshaped the demographic basis of each party’s coalition—and its electorate in the primaries. The change transformed the Democratic Party first.

In the era of mass presidential primaries (which began in 1968), the Democratic nominating contest has frequently come down to a race between a “beer track” candidate who relies primarily on economically populist working-class voters (including minorities) and a “wine track” rival who relies mostly on more culturally liberal college-educated white voters. For decades, in every race in which that pattern emerged, the beer-track candidate beat the wine-track contender (think Walter Mondale besting Gary Hart in 1984 and Al Gore defeating Bill Bradley in 2000).

In 2008, Barack Obama, who ran much better among college-educated than working class whites, became the first wine-track candidate in the primary era to win the nomination. That was partly because he shifted most African-American voters to his camp. However, it was also because college-educated white voters (who gave as many of their votes to Obama as to Clinton) had grown as a share of the primary vote to the point where they equaled the blue-collar whites who overwhelmingly preferred Clinton, according to a cumulative analysis of all 2008 Democratic primary exit polls conducted by ABC News.

As the Democratic primaries have shifted upscale, blue-collar voters have become an increasingly important factor within the Republican primary electorate. In the 2008 GOP primaries, according to ABC’s cumulative exit-poll analysis, voters without a four-year college degree made up a 51 percent majority of the total vote, compared with 49 percent for those with a college degree. In some coastal states, where overall education levels tend to be higher, college-educated Republicans still cast most of the 2008 primary votes. But in many Midwestern and Southern states, noncollege voters dominated in the primaries. (See chart.)

Rob Stutzman, a California-based Republican consultant who advised Romney last time, said that the shifting demographics became concrete for him when Huckabee upset Romney in the 2008 Iowa caucuses with a message that combined cultural conservatism with populist economics and free-trade skepticism. The mix was reminiscent of the agenda that Pat Buchanan offered in his 1992 and 1996 Republican primary bids, although Huckabee delivered it with a more cheerful disposition.

“When Huckabee was able to undercut Romney not just by appealing to Christian [values], but appealing to Christian blue-collar Republican voters with populist economics and protectionism … that was to me an ‘aha’ moment,” Stutzman said. “You had voters buying into an economics that hasn’t had a home in the Republican Party since Buchanan.”

Given the GOP’s overwhelming general-election performances among working-class whites in 2008 and 2010, many party strategists expect those supporters to contribute an even larger share of the GOP vote in the 2012 presidential primaries. “Once people cross the bridge and become active [with a party] in the general election, they become more active in the primaries,” Weaver said. “My sense is that will happen—and it will change the dynamic of the primary.”

A NEW CLASS DIVIDE

In contrast to the Democratic presidential primaries, class and education traditionally have not created major fissures in Republican nomination contests. ABC’s cumulative analysis found that in 2008, for instance, John McCain won exactly the same share of the vote among college and noncollege Republicans. Historically, the more important Republican primary dynamic has been ideological, with center-right and hard-right voters diverging.

Early evidence suggests, however, that the wine-track, beer-track dynamic could affect the GOP in 2012 and overlay the familiar ideological contrast with factors of economic class, cultural style, and tone. In early national polling, Palin and Romney, in particular, display mirror-image patterns of support much like the contrast between Clinton and Obama in 2008.

In the most recent national Quinnipiac test of GOP voter preferences for 2012, Palin led Romney 22 percent to 14 percent among Republican-leaning voters who don’t have a college degree. But college-educated Republicans preferred Romney over Palin, 26 percent to 10 percent. Gallup’s most recent national horse-race test produced similar results. Among white noncollege Republicans, Romney and Palin ran about even; but among college-educated white Republicans, he led her 27 percent to 10 percent. In both the Quinnipiac and Gallup surveys, Huckabee and Gingrich, the other two candidates who polled best, showed equal strength among both groups (although in his 2008 race, Huckabee drew somewhat more backing from noncollege than college-educated voters).

Ideology only partially explains the GOP’s new class divide. To help quantify the differences between blue-collar and white-collar Republicans, National Journal and the Pew Research Center recently analyzed results from their joint Society for Human Resource Management/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll over the past year, as well as from other Pew surveys.

 

“For the blue-collar folks, it’s visceral: ‘We balance our budget; why can’t they balance theirs?’ ” —Republican consultant Alex Gage

 

The two groups differed on some fronts. Blue-collar Republicans in the surveys were more likely than their white-collar counterparts to look skeptically at free trade and to oppose gays serving openly in the military. The downscale Republicans were much more likely to say that the United States should mind its own business internationally—and should act unilaterally when it does get involved. The blue-collar camp was also more skeptical of extending President Bush’s tax cuts for all earners. Upscale Republicans are most interested in cutting taxes; downscale Republicans probably place greater priority on cutting spending. The blue-collar Republicans are “very antigovernment—waste and inefficiency in government just drives them out of their mind,” says Alex Gage, a GOP consultant who specializes in targeting voters. “It drives both sides [of the party] out of their minds, [but] for the blue-collar folks it’s visceral: ‘We balance our budget; why can’t they balance theirs?’ ”

Opinion varied little between the two groups on most economic and cultural issues. Respondents on both sides were equally as likely to support establishing private-investment accounts under Social Security, denying birthright citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants, repealing Obama’s health care law, converting Medicare into a voucher program, and increasing domestic exploration for oil and gas. (See chart.)

Those results support the conclusion of Republican consultant Mike DuHaime, McCain’s 2008 general-election field director, who says that the biggest differences between the potential populist and manager candidates in 2012 are likely to be less about issues than about “tone and focus.”

The populists define themselves, above all, by their scorn for elites, including the party’s own leadership. Their rhetoric is hot, sweeping, and frequently contemptuous. Palin, in her latest book, America by Heart: Reflections on Family, Faith, and Flag, echoes decades of conservative populists when she contrasts a virtuous folk with a disdainful and corrupted elite. “The American people,” she writes, “have a principled wisdom that all the lawyers and academics and schooled-up ‘experts’ in D.C. fail to appreciate.” Palin has been nearly as tough on the GOP leadership, condemning “the blue bloods who want to pick and choose” the party’s nominees. Huckabee’s tone is less confrontational, but his message is similar.

This positioning carries some policy implications. Huckabee, for instance, has been a leading critic of the Troubled Asset Relief Program’s bank bailouts, as has Palin (after initially supporting the plan as McCain’s running mate). Romney, meanwhile, supported TARP. The managers portray free trade as essential to economic growth, while Huckabee laments the jobs lost to foreign competition. Both camps call for cutting taxes, spending, and regulation. The managers, however, mostly portray smaller government as a means of invigorating the economy; the populists talk more about pruning back federal influences to expand personal liberty and local control. One side speaks in terms of efficiency, the other in terms of morality.

Infographic

That contrast will also ring through what could be the most heated policy argument of the 2012 GOP race. Romney has defended his Massachusetts health care plan, which includes the same sort of individual mandate that Obama imposed in his reform bill, as an attempt “to get health care to work like a market,” as he recently said. But the populists, and even some of the managers, condemn the mandate, which requires individuals to purchase insurance, as a threat to individual freedom.

Even with these potential conflicts, the core of the populists’ appeal is less their program than the sense of cultural identification they inspire. They offer not so much to lead their voters as to embody them—their hopes, fears, aspirations, and resentments. Stutzman speaks for many Republican analysts when he says, “The fundamental appeal of Palin and even Huckabee” is the emotional connection they can forge with “a lunch-bucket guy who is still working for the man and [feels] the man is screwing [him].” The more Palin and, to a lesser extent, Huckabee, hurl thunderbolts at contemptuous elites—or take return fire from them—the more deeply those anxious and frustrated voters identify with the populist champions. If Palin runs, Stutzman predicts, “the other candidates have to figure out how to cut the wires on this bomb without blowing it up.”

Emotional connection isn’t the priority for the other camp of GOP voters. Upper-income Republicans may appreciate the polish of Romney or Daniels, but the managers’ greatest assets are their résumés, their accomplishments, and their agendas. They are less likely to condemn elites than to cite their success in mastering elite institutions. Romney, for instance, often boasts about his background as a management consultant. If Daniels, Barbour, or any of the other GOP governors challenge Romney in the manager lane, they would probably assert that their successes at the state level have equipped them to tame Washington. Few voters anywhere would pick Palin because of her successes in public office. For her supporters, Palin’s values and cultural symbolism dwarf her achievements. For Romney, the reverse is true.

THE TIPPING POINTS

At this early stage, the buttoned-down, boardroom-savvy Romney and the rifle-toting, consonant-dropping Palin represent the purest embodiments of the manager and the populist camps, and they generate the sharpest class divide in responses from GOP voters. The diminutive, cerebral Daniels also seems to fit squarely in the manager camp. Huckabee, despite his balanced appeal in early polls, would likely draw more from the populist pool if he runs.

The other potential candidates fan out along this continuum. Barbour, a former lobbyist and national party chairman, would probably draw more from the manager camp, although his good-ol’-boy Southern manner could open doors with downscale voters (especially in his home region). Thune has defined himself less than the other major contenders have, but stylistically he overlaps more with Romney than with Palin. Pawlenty might define the midpoint of this array: He has solid governing credentials but also a blue-collar background that could help him connect downscale without alienating upscale voters. Gingrich, as throughout his career, is difficult to pigeonhole, but his vituperative attacks on Democratic (if not Republican) elites might ultimately push his appeal toward the populist portion of the party.

With the upscale and downscale components of the Republican coalition now about equal in size, several factors may be critical in determining whether a manager or a populist captures the nomination.

One key variable will be which pond is more crowded: Romney, for instance, would benefit if both Palin and Huckabee emerge as serious candidates and divide the populist vote; likewise, either of them would gain if Daniels or Barbour cut into Romney’s upscale base.

 

“Almost always, the manager wing—the mainstream conservative Republican wing—nominates the candidate.” —GOP consultant John Weaver

 

 

Even more important will be which candidate can cross over from his or her base into the party’s other camp. Romney faces serious obstacles of style and substance in connecting with blue-collar Republicans. On the other hand, many GOP strategists believe that Palin, who has defined herself since 2008 as a celebrity as much as a political leader, would confront even bigger barriers with upscale voters. In the early Gallup survey, Romney led her comfortably even among college-educated white Republican women. “I don’t know how Sarah Palin expands her base significantly beyond what it is,” Weaver says, echoing a widespread judgment.

Weaver believes that Huckabee, with his “sunny optimism” and “inclusiveness” has more potential to “poach” in the upscale pond. But Weaver, like others, is dubious that Huckabee can construct a campaign operation to seize that opportunity. That points to a third key factor: The managers, who are more connected to key party leaders and institutions, are likely to hold the edge in building effective campaign structures, notwithstanding Palin’s ability to raise enormous sums of money.

A final critical variable will be the nature of the 2012 debate. If the race focuses on hostility toward Washington, anger at elites in both parties, and tests of ideological purity, those dynamics will favor the populists, as they did the tea party insurgents who won several GOP Senate primaries this year. One senior strategist for a 2012 contender, who asked not to be identified, says that anyone who thinks a populist can’t win the Republican nomination should “just frankly … look at this year’s Senate primary elections” for proof to the contrary.

But the managers will benefit if the election revolves around reviving the economy. Whit Ayres, a veteran GOP pollster, predicts that the Republican contest will overwhelmingly focus on that issue, boosting candidates such as Romney and dooming Palin if she runs. “Until the economy turns around … jobs and spending are going to dominate everything, and that means cultural affinity is less important,” Ayres contends. “Palin has no record of significant job creation or significant public-sector accomplishment. She is going to run up against a wall at some point because of that lack of a demonstrated record of accomplishment.”

Looking beyond the primaries toward the 2012 general election, many GOP analysts argue that a manager might be a stronger nominee than a populist, simply because white-collar voters are likely to be a more contested constituency than blue-collar whites, most of whom appear locked into opposition to Obama. The ideal for the party would be to find a candidate who can transcend the class divide in both the primaries and the general election, but that may not be easy in a field where Romney and Palin embody such contrasting archetypes of the GOP’s future. “Part of what you have with the strength of Palin and Huckabee is a communication style and authenticity, and with Romney you have an intellectual appeal,” DuHaime says. “And looking for some combination of that is not easy to find.”

Scott Bland contributed contributed to this article.

This article appears in the December 18, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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