In modern American politics, the race for the President starts very early indeed. President Obama shuffled his deck of advisors and kicked off his campaign in the spring, and the Republican field is well ordered here in the early days of summer. With less than 17 months to go, the horses are already in their stalls. Handicapping the GOP horse-race is a difficult process, in large part because many conservatives are more likely to apply the alternate meaning of the verb, to handicap. With less than a year until the first primaries, not a single GOP candidate stands out as a likely conservative champion. This column takes a brief look at the field, the race, and the odds.
The field is, at best, eclectic. Professional presidential candidate Mitt Romney leads a cast of thousands (well, nine isn’t really a thousand, sorry); professional social network commentator Sarah Palin, Tea Party favorite and pizza magnate Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, House Tea Party caucus leader Michelle Bachmann, former Utah governor John Huntsman, populist champion Ron Paul, and former Senator Rick Santorum. All of the above have a special point of appeal for conservatives, and all of the above are burdened with a fatal flaw in the minds of conservatives. Whoever takes the prize next summer, will do so at great cost, because this nomination fight is likely to set new standards in electioneering and positioning. The winner will almost certainly have accomplished the deed by veering far to the right, and will be rewarded by having to face a man who dominated the middle the last time around.
Regardless of one’s views on politics or ideology, President Obama is a clear favorite for reelection. A recessionary double dip, major security disaster, or scandal are the only items that could tip him off the pole. But the GOP field is far less certain; some candidates could close the gap with the President, others would likely ensure his reelection.
Mitt Romney 2 to 1
Strengths– Romney is a comfortable campaigner and fund-raiser who surrounds himself with solid political professionals and credentialed policy wonks. He is also seen by the GOP rank and file as someone who could beat Obama.
Weaknesses– Romney tends to make his own decisions according to his conservative philosophies. He has never seemed overly interested in what the conservative chattering class has to say about ideological purity. His reform of the health care system in Massachusetts was based on the same proposals by the conservative Heritage Foundation as the Affordable Care Act; an association with the artist conservatives call ObamaCare is not good for the campaign.
Outlook for the General– Romney can beat President Obama, providing the economic indicators stay soft to flat.
Sarah Palin- 3 to 1
Strengths- The former Alaska governor has become a caricature of a candidate, but opponents from either party discount her at their peril. She will raise money, she will excite the conservative base that votes in GOP primaries, and she is catnip for the media. Sarah Palin will always draw coverage, and will always be able to turn her mistakes into support among the die-hards.
Weaknesses- Primarily, Sarah Palin is an atrocious candidate with a limited grasp of policy nuance and history. The rank and file may love her, but most do not consider her electable, and that may lead to votes for candidates they like less.
Outlook for the General- If Palin reaches the general, her candidacy will presage a Democratic wave election of similar proportions to the conservative tsunami in 2010.
Newt Gingrich 4 to 1
Strengths- The former Speaker of the House is intelligent, nimble in debates, and a master fundraiser. This is the man who engineered the Republican takeover of the House in 1994; to discount his raw abilities now would be foolish.
Weaknesses- Gingrich has seen his support amongst social conservatives wane under the pressure of bad decisions, and his tendency to bend in the wind is alarming to the conservative base. He really is the conservative Bill Clinton; turning this way and that, changing his mind at need, and generally going in the direction he thinks will earn him the prize.
Outlook for the General- Newt Gingrich would draw solid conservative support in a match-up against Mr. Obama; certainly the enthusiasm gap would be smaller than it was for poor John McCain. But the former conservative stalwart is just too prone to putting his foot in his mouth to win a general under less than perfect conditions.
Michelle Bachmann 5 to 1
Strengths- Bachmann is fiery, enthusiastic, and believes every word she says. Believing in your product is the first and most important step in selling your product. If she can convince voters in Iowa and South Carolina she can win a general, and she stays close in New Hampshire, Michelle Bachmann could carry the torch for conservatives in 2012.
Weaknesses- If, if, if…Bachmann (you may be surprised to learn) has barely squeaked through her elections (50%, 46%, and 52%), and is prone to statements that are difficult to defend. It isn’t clear that the Minnesota Congresswoman would be able to raise sufficient funds to sustain a tough primary campaign.
Outlook for the General- Much like the prospects of Governor Palin, Michelle Bachmann is a candidate Democratic strategists are dreaming about.
Tim Pawlenty- In a functional Republican Party, Mr. Pawlenty is a great candidate with the potential to be a good president. In the age of the conservative purity test, Pawlenty is a guy with a mullet who had the temerity to “believe” in anthropogenic climate change and then act on the issue.
John Huntsman- Ditto the part about the Republican Party and its standards of purity; Ambassador Huntsman worked for President Obama as his Ambassador to China. In today’s politics that is, unfortunately, a non-starter.
Herman Cain- Cain is an interesting guy from the mould of Steve Forbes and Mike Bloomberg; he is a businessman who believes he can apply the principles of management to bureaucracy. Unfortunately, he is a political product of the Tea Party, and not well-known to the conservative rank and file.
Rick Santorum– The former two term senator from Pennsylvania has solid social conservative credentials, but little else. He lost his reelection bid just six years ago, which isn’t a good prologue to a presidential bid.
Ron Paul (AKA The Darkhorse)
This guy could turn the GOP primary season on its ear. He has impeccable credentials as a fiscal conservative, impeccable populist credentials as the champion of the anti-Fed, pro-gold crowd, and can boast the somewhat unusual trait of consistency. Ron Paul doesn’t flip-flop. Light-years ahead of his petulant son Rand (the new senator from Kentucky) in the personality department, Rep. Paul could scramble the season by winning Iowa and New Hampshire.
His Achilles Heel is probably the military state of South Carolina, but Ron Paul can be a force in the primaries, and would present a formidable challenge to Mr. Obama in a general election.
So ends the Rational Middle’s look at the GOP field…so far. Tune in later tonight; in American politics the environment can change in a flash.
The Rational Middle is listening…