Sizing Up the Electorate: What Polling Says About Voters’ Attitudes Going into 2012

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June 5, 2011, 7:58 p.m.

Pres. Obama cam­paigned 10/7 with MD Gov. Mar­tin O’Mal­ley (D), the first time Obama has cam­paigned at a pub­lic event that was not a fun­draiser of any kind with a Dem can­did­ate since 1/10/10. That day, as Hot­line alum Mike Memoli points out, Obama stumped for AG Martha Coakley dur­ing her ill-fated MA SEN race. In fact, O’Mal­ley had bet­ter hope he doesn’t turn out like the oth­er 2 can­did­ates for whom Obama has pub­licly cam­paigned since win­ning elec­tion — ex-NJ Gov. Jon Corz­ine and VA GOV nom. Creigh Deeds.

Rick San­tor­um’s exit from the pres­id­en­tial race this week brings a form­al end to a con­test that had been over, for all prac­tic­al pur­poses, for weeks. It also in­vites a tem­por­ary spot­light on Rom­ney’s next task, pick­ing a run­ning mate — and with it, a glimpse at the fu­ture of the na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Party.

And based on the emer­ging con­sensus around a Re­pub­lic­an short list that fea­tures rising stars from all corners of the na­tion, that fu­ture is bright. Rom­ney is now the nom­in­ee of a party still search­ing for its iden­tity after George W. Bush’s pres­id­ency, and the pro­cess of choos­ing a run­ning mate — and the at­tend­ant me­dia at­ten­tion on the vi­able op­tions — will el­ev­ate one of a gen­er­a­tion of of­fice­hold­ers vy­ing to in­flu­ence that dir­ec­tion.

The roster of vice pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates stands in stark con­trast to what was a weak, lackluster field of pres­id­en­tial re­treads. Rom­ney has not won an elec­tion since 2002, nor has he held of­fice since early 2007. San­tor­um lost his last race in 2006. Newt Gin­grich, os­tens­ibly still in the race, left of­fice in early 1999.

That field was com­pet­ing for an elect­or­ate that has moved in a de­cidedly more ag­gress­ive, more con­ser­vat­ive, and more pop­u­list dir­ec­tion. That dir­ec­tion, in turn, marks a de­par­ture from Bush’s pres­id­ency, dur­ing which ex­pan­sion of en­ti­tle­ments angered con­ser­vat­ives and mis­handled wars angered just about every­one else. After los­ing their con­gres­sion­al ma­jor­it­ies in 2006, the party em­barked on a pen­et­rat­ing soul-search that has yet to re­solve it­self. The tea party move­ment was a stab at res­ol­u­tion; it rep­res­en­ted a pop­u­list re­jec­tion of gov­ern­ment that Re­pub­lic­ans em­braced in ad­vance of their 2010 wins. But while it claimed a few vic­tor­ies in 2010, Rom­ney’s nom­in­a­tion proves the move­ment has yet to as­sert any real con­trol over the GOP.

That’s not to say the re­ac­tion to Bush hasn’t pro­voked a change in the GOP. It has giv­en rise to a new gen­er­a­tion of Re­pub­lic­an of­fice­hold­ers, in­clud­ing a good por­tion of the fresh­man class first elec­ted in 2010, and in­fused more con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers of the House Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence with broad­er in­flu­ence. And yet the new gen­er­a­tion barely had a rep­res­ent­at­ive in the pres­id­en­tial field, with the ex­cep­tion of Rep. Michele Bach­mann of Min­nesota.

Now, with the primary fight be­hind him and the vice pres­id­en­tial se­lec­tion in front of him, Rom­ney has the op­por­tun­ity to el­ev­ate the new gen­er­a­tion. More than two dozen can­did­ates have been men­tioned, to vary­ing de­grees of ser­i­ous­ness, but the com­mon thread that runs through most ser­i­ous short-list con­tenders is their re­l­at­ive new­ness to the na­tion­al scene — the clearest in­dic­a­tion that the young­er gen­er­a­tion is poised to take over for the old guard.

Con­sider the names that most of­ten as­cend to the top of pun­dits’ short lists: Sen. Marco Ru­bio of Flor­ida, Rep. Paul Ry­an of Wis­con­sin, and Vir­gin­ia Gov. Bob Mc­Don­nell are all young, at­tract­ive, and ar­tic­u­late spokes­men for the con­ser­vat­ive cause. Sen. Rob Port­man of Ohio is the only con­sensus short-lister who comes from the old guard, giv­en his long re­sume in Wash­ing­ton in both the le­gis­lat­ive and ex­ec­ut­ive branches.

The longer list of vice pres­id­en­tial pos­sib­il­it­ies is re­plete with new­comers: Govs. Chris Christie of New Jer­sey, Susana Mar­tinez of New Mex­ico, and Bri­an San­dov­al of Nevada all seem poised for na­tion­al pro­files at some point in their ca­reers. Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hamp­shire gets rave re­views from my col­league Josh Kraush­aar. Al­lies of Rep. Cathy Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers of Wash­ing­ton are float­ing her name, though her can­did­acy seems un­likely. Even Louisi­ana Gov. Bobby Jin­dal, whose résumé reads like a man 15 years older than he is, can lay claim to the new-gen­er­a­tion mantle.

There are plenty of older, more ex­per­i­enced can­did­ates Rom­ney might con­sider, from former Min­nesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty to In­di­ana Gov. Mitch Daniels. Oth­ers, like Sens. Pat Toomey and John Thune, mesh young­er faces with résumés heavy on Wash­ing­ton ex­per­i­ence. But they have gen­er­ated less en­thu­si­asm from con­ser­vat­ive me­dia out­lets who are pin­ing for a new voice, and they seem more likely to pop­u­late Rom­ney’s Cab­in­et, if he gets the chance to form one, than to serve as vice pres­id­ent.

Any pres­id­en­tial cam­paign is con­cerned that the vice pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee might over­shad­ow the top of the tick­et. This year, even if that doesn’t hap­pen, the vice pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee will likely be a sign of the rise of a new Re­pub­lic­an gen­er­a­tion — a gen­er­a­tion that, after Rom­ney has had his shot, will prob­ably pro­duce the next Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ent.

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