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.
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.
Scott Bland contributed contributed to this article.
This article appears in the December 18, 2010 edition of National Journal Magazine.