The Republican nomination
The Republicans are, at last, seriously getting on with choosing a candidate to take on Barack Obama next year
Jun 9th 2011 | WASHINGTON, DC | from the print edition
IT HAS been said so often that it has come to look self-evident. But is the Republican field in the race for next year’s presidential election really so weak? Democrats said much the same about their own candidates in 1991, only to see Bill Clinton capture the White House.
True, Americans take a dim view of the field so far, if recent surveys by the Pew Research Centre and the Washington Post are to believed. Only 25% had a good impression of the likely candidates. Many stars have decided to sit this race out. But this week brought a surprise. Less than a week after announcing that he was running again, Mitt Romney, who came second to John McCain in 2008, found himself head-to-head, at 47% each, against Barack Obama in a Washington Post/ABC poll. Maybe the president is not unassailable after all.
That said, Mr Romney is the clear front-runner (see Lexington). The others have a lot of ground to make up before they can match his combination of name recognition and financial resources.
Consider Tim Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota. An evangelical Christian who balanced his state’s budget has obvious appeal both to the party’s social conservatives and its fiscal hawks. And yet his mild public manner makes his policies seem less threatening than those of other conservatives to voters in the middle. In theory, this is the ideal place to start. The trick for any candidate is going to be winning the nomination of a party that the tea-party movement has driven sharply to the right without alienating too many of the voters in the centre on whom final victory will depend.
As a wolf in sheep’s clothing, Mr Pawlenty has become a favourite among political insiders. But according to the Pew survey, less than half (48%) of America has ever heard of him. After announcing his candidacy from Iowa at the end of May, Mr Pawlenty has now embarked on the long slog of making his name more widely known. At a speech this week at the University of Chicago he set out his economic stall firmly on the right, promising to slash the size of government and boost growth by simplifying income taxes, cutting corporate taxes and eliminating taxes on capital gains, dividends and inheritance. Critics dismissed his plans as fantasy.
One other former governor, Gary Johnson of New Mexico, has joined the race and a second, Jon Huntsman of Utah, is on the point of formally doing so. Mr Johnson is a rank outsider, but Mr Huntsman is exciting interest as a more charismatic version of the front-runner.
Like Mr Romney, he has good looks and a successful record in business. He was popular for presiding over Utah’s biggest-ever tax cut. But like Mr Romney he is a Mormon, still a handicap in presidential races. And he too carries some baggage that will alienate the Republican base.
Mr Romney’s problem is that he pioneered in Massachusetts a version of the hated Obamacare the Republicans vow to repeal. Mr Huntsman’s is that he accepted Mr Obama’s offer of being ambassador to China and said nice things about his boss. More troubling to the Republican base are the support he expressed for the president’s economic stimulus package in 2009, his moderate position on civil unions for gay couples and his participation, when governor, in a regional cap-and-trade scheme. Nate Silver, a polling analyst for the New York Times, argues that none of the other contenders had adopted so many moderate positions, and that this put the former ambassador’s chances of winning the nomination “near zero”.
Messrs Romney, Pawlenty and Huntsman are seen as candidates who, if they could win the nomination, stand a fair chance of doing well against Mr Obama. Others might be called the insurgents—those with less appeal to the mainstream voter but eager followers in the base. The best-known of these is Sarah Palin. Whereas only 32% of Americans have heard of Mr Huntsman, says Pew, the former governor of Alaska is now familiar to a whopping 97% of Americans.
Since being chosen as Mr McCain’s running-mate in 2008, Mrs Palin has courted publicity tirelessly, most recently with the “One Nation” bus tour she launched in Washington, DC, on Memorial Day. Not all the publicity has been favourable, however. For example, she was widely mocked after giving a mangled account in Boston of Paul Revere’s famous ride and refusing to admit her mistake.
“Reveregate” exemplifies Mrs Palin’s problem as a candidate. Nobody knows whether she seriously intends to join the race or, if she does, how seriously to take her. Although she has fiercely loyal fans (some of whom apparently tampered with Wikipedia to support her revisionist version of Revere’s ride), she inspires fierce dislike as well. The Washington Post/ABC poll found two out of three Americans (including 42% of Republican voters) saying they would definitely not vote for her—and more than six out of ten said she was not qualified to be president.
If she does run, she will hurt Michele Bachmann, a congresswoman from Minnesota who is also a darling of the tea-party movement but one who has been less coy about her plan to join the race. Sometimes dismissed as Palin Lite, Mrs Bachmann is in fact a former tax lawyer, devout evangelical and a serious-minded politician capable of flashes of stirring oratory. In public she insists that Mrs Palin is a friend and kindred spirit, but Ed Rollins, her newly hired campaign consultant, grumbled this week that “Sarah has not been serious over the last couple of years.”
Another candidate with excellent name-recognition (71%) is Ron Paul. The elderly libertarian now making his third run for the White House (on one attempt he represented the Libertarian Party) argues that the nation is at last latching on to his small-government philosophy. Students in particular admire his professorial radicalism. But most voters are dubious about returning to the gold standard and dismantling America’s overseas bases. With no real prospect of victory, he may soon have to pass the torch to his son, Rand, now sitting in the Senate for Kentucky.
Newt Gingrich entered the race with brighter prospects. He has money, and a name as the author of the 1994 “revolution” that captured the House of Representatives for the Republicans for the first time in 40 years. Better still, the Republican majority in the House is once again on the former speaker’s small-government wavelength—or was, until he called its plan for a radical overhaul of Medicare “right-wing social engineering”. A grovelling apology may not have rescued his campaign from this disastrous start. Nor does a history of extramarital affairs, one conducted while he was trying to impeach Mr Clinton over the Monica Lewinsky affair, endear him to the average voter. Nearly two out of three who told Pew they had heard of Mr Gingrich said there was no chance they would vote for him. Though still in the fray, he has just taken time out for a cruise of the Greek islands with Callista, his (third) wife.
Herman Cain is Mr Gingrich’s opposite: the self-made pizza mogul and talk-show host started as an unknown and has soared in the polls by preaching “common-sense business solutions”. Tea-partiers lap up his speeches, and by general consent he “won” the first televised debate in South Carolina last month, though most of the big names were not there. Another good performer, who joined the race this week, was Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania who failed to win re-election in 2006, in part because of his extreme social conservatism.
The field may grow again. Popular governors such as Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Chris Christie of New Jersey and Rick Perry of Texas chose not to run when Mr Obama looked unbeatable. If that changes, so might the calculations of some of them—and of other Republican heavyweights such as New York’s former mayor, Rudy Giuliani. The race has only started.