Sabato's Crystal Ball

Gop 2012 Update: The Big Tease

Larry J. Sabato and Kyle Kondik, U. Va. Center for Politics June 9th, 2011

Rarely if ever has one of the two major parties been so confounded by dissatisfaction with its presidential field and the refusal by the base’s and establishment’s preferred choices to run. The void in the GOP ranks has led to a big tease: Potential contender after potential contender, many of them with no real hope of being nominated, coming forward to dip a toe, foot or leg in the White House waters.

Some prominent names have already ruled themselves out: Gov. Mitch Daniels (IN), whom the establishment tried to draft into the race; and Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and 2008 GOP primary phenomenon, who appealed to the socially conservative wing of the party. Both recently announced that they were passing on the race, as did Gov. Haley Barbour (MS), an insider favorite who nonetheless was a long-shot candidate; and Donald Trump (NY), whose surreal candidacy was the epitome of farce.

In this seemingly open field, many are making noises about getting in: Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (MI), former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Gov. George Pataki (NY), Rep. Peter King (NY), former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton (MD), etc. This is not a complete list by any means: A new “contender” seems to come out of the woodwork almost daily, and already fallen away possibilities like Huckabee have not-quite-believable second thoughts. All of them have a minuscule chance of becoming president, and it is doubtful that any of them will enter the race.

There are other, bigger names that are also performing their best Hamlet, publicly going back and forth and deferring a decision. Gov. Rick Perry (TX) keeps stirring the pot, and on the surface he’s a strong candidate if he runs. You can’t easily dismiss the three-term governor of a major Republican state who is an aggressive Southern fiscal and social conservative in a field that lacks titans from the GOP’s strongest region. But Perry probably isn’t running, and it’s not even clear that voters in his own state want him to run. A recent poll showed him attracting only 4% support in a hypothetical Republican primary in Texas. That result squares with rumblings from the Lone Star State that the powers that be want Perry, who may instead run for yet another term as governor in 2014, to ride off into the sunset.

Sen. Jim DeMint (SC), who would occupy similar Southern conservative territory as Perry, has also indulged in the big tease lately, and for the second time this campaign season. DeMint suggested, for about a day, that he would have to consider the intense, prayerful pleadings of supporters that he become a candidate for the White House.

Then there is Chris Christie, the outspoken governor of New Jersey and leader in the field of maybe-possible-potential presidential candidates. Christie recently hosted a delegation of Iowans who are hungering for a new candidate, like him, to enter the race. Despite agreeing to visit Iowa later this summer, Christie insists he won’t run. It’s hard to imagine someone turning around and running after so publicly denying interest in running: Think about Daniels, who gave so many public reasons for why he didn’t think he should run that he may have convinced himself to stay out. Still, we consider Christie a “maybe,” not a “no,” at this point. If GOP activists still find their field faulty come fall, who is to say that Christie won’t wake up one morning, look in the mirror, and see a president?

There’s a reason why some Republican elites recruited Daniels. They saw him as a sober, reasonable teller of hard truths who could go toe to toe with President Obama on the economy. With Daniels out, the Republican elites may turn their attention more to Christie. Or maybe to Rep. Paul Ryan (WI), the architect of the controversial budget proposal bearing his name that would fundamentally alter Medicare. Even the normally straightforward Ryan now seems to be part of the big tease, having recently given himself some wiggle room for a presidential run after having repeatedly said no earlier this year.

Meanwhile, there is former Gov. Sarah Palin (AK), with her hastily thrown-together bus tour over Memorial Day weekend, complete with a pizza dinner with Donald Trump and a game of hide-and-seek with swarms of reporters. Maybe she runs, and if she did she would be a contender for the GOP nomination, as one would expect of a prior vice presidential nominee. However, she’s extremely unpopular with the nation at large: Public Policy Polling, a reasonably reliable although Democratic outfit, found that more voters viewed Palin unfavorably than favorably in all 31 states it surveyed. We have downgraded her status in our ranking to near the bottom of our second tier. Ultimately, we don’t believe she’s running for two reasons. She has more influence and a far higher income outside of elective politics than in it — don’t forget her resignation at mid-term as Alaska’s governor. Even more important, she knows full well her chances of being elected president in 2012 are low. Why sacrifice so much and endure such rigors for nothing?

The big tease continues because this field hasn’t excited many Republicans, although as some have pointed out, the Democratic field in 1991 did not look all that appealing either, yet Bill Clinton became a two-term president.

For now, let’s focus on those who are already in the race already or who soon will be:

Leading the first tier of contenders is former Gov. Mitt Romney (MA), who is an exceptionally weak frontrunner, perhaps the weakest GOP frontrunner since 1964, when the GOP rejected Nelson Rockefeller and other moderates in favor of Barry Goldwater. We all know how that one turned out. Romney has many problems: He is seen as a flip-flopper — a one-time moderate turned conservative warrior. Even worse, his signature accomplishment as Massachusetts governor was a health care plan that provided the model for President Obama’s plan, which is loathed by most Republican primary voters. That said, remember how John McCain supposedly was so disliked by the GOP base that he could never win the nomination? We all know how that one turned out, as well.

Nipping at his heels is the only other front-line contender, ex- Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN). Pawlenty has been on the trail for months and months, despite only officially announcing his campaign recently. He has hired top-caliber staff, starting with his highly regarded campaign manager, Nick Ayers. Pawlenty has the potential to unite fiscal and economic conservatives behind him. But is Pawlenty overrated? His national polling performance had long been little more than a rounding error, although PPP recently had him at 13%, behind only Romney and Palin at 16% apiece. Iowa is clearly more important to Pawlenty than to Romney, whose must-win state is New Hampshire. If Pawlenty doesn’t win Iowa or come very close, it will be nearly impossible for him to slingshot into the nomination.

Iowa is where a fellow Minnesotan, Rep. Michele Bachmann, could torpedo Pawlenty’s chances. Bachmann has a good shot to connect with the born-again Christians who make up roughly three of every five GOP caucus goers in calendar-leading Iowa and could effectively knock out Pawlenty if she defeats him in Iowa. In that, Bachmann might end up being Romney’s best friend. After all, winning Iowa is not a required stop on the way to the Republican nomination. McCain barely competed there in 2008, and evangelical leader Pat Robertson finished ahead of eventual Republican President George H.W. Bush in 1988. Bachmann could be this cycle’s Iowa-winning Huckabee, and now she’s even hired Huckabee’s former campaign manager, experienced GOP hand Ed Rollins. Because of her good chances in Iowa, and the fact that she’s very likely running, Bachmann is now in our second tier of candidates, up from the third tier.

If Bachmann is Pawlenty’s kryptonite, then former Gov. Jon Huntsman (UT) could be Romney’s. Obama’s ex-ambassador to China is staking out conservative economic ground paired with a more modest foreign policy that many neoconservative Republicans are going to dislike. His closeness to Obama, and his moderate stance on social issues — he has endorsed civil unions for gay couples, for instance — means he is highly unlikely to get the nomination, absent a strange multi-candidate split among conservatives that persists for months. However, there’s a chance Huntsman could play well in New Hampshire, which may be much more responsive to his message because Granite State Republicans are less conservative and religious than their kin in Iowa. Imagine a scenario in which Bachmann wins Iowa and then someone like Huntsman wounds Romney in New Hampshire, perhaps not winning but holding Romney to a closer-than-expected victory. What then?

What about the other candidates? They can affect the endgame, of course, but it is tough to find a credible path to the nomination for the remainder of the GOP field. Because of his history as the key Republican leader in the GOP’s legendary takeover of Congress in 1994 — and only because of it — ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) remains in our second tier of candidates. But we have dropped him down several notches because of the disastrous roll-out of his campaign, including his calling Paul Ryan’s budget proposal “right-wing social engineering,” a major faux pas that infuriated many Republicans. Gingrich quickly apologized, but the damage was done. At the end of May, Gingrich took a previously scheduled two-week vacation while other candidates campaigned. All told, one can not only question the execution of Gingrich’s campaign, but also the commitment of the candidate to it. Remember when failed Democratic Senate candidate Martha Coakley took a vacation between her primary victory and the special election against now-Sen. Scott Brown (R-MA)? Inviting comparisons to Coakley, who shockingly lost Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, is obviously not any campaign’s objective.

Gingrich very well may be falling behind some of the lesser-known, long-shot candidates in our third tier, a list that is led by businessman Herman Cain (GA). Cain is a talented speaker who advocates the so-called “Fair Tax,” effectively a national sales tax to replace the income tax, and he has attracted increasingly favorable attention in Iowa, South Carolina, and nationally. PPP, the Democratic pollster, pegged him at 12% in its latest national poll, and also showed him second in Iowa, tied at 15% with Palin (Romney led with 21%). However, we wonder if Cain, like Donald Trump before him, is registering in the polls as something of a placeholder candidate. Cain has never held public office, and could not even win a GOP U.S. Senate primary in Georgia a few years back. This is a thin electoral record on which to base a presidential candidacy. Some Republicans may be temporarily backing a long-shot candidate who has said some things with which they agree, but ultimately they may not support Cain when the rubber meets the road early next year. That said, analysts recall that Republicans picked several successful outsider candidates in Senate and governor primaries last year, including some winners: Sen. Ron Johnson (WI), Gov. Rick Scott (FL) and Gov. Rick Snyder (MI) are examples. Of all the lower-profile candidates in this race, Cain is the one to watch right now.

Rep. Ron Paul (TX) has fervent support in some quarters, and he might exceed expectations in some caucuses, where lower turnout might allow his supporters to dominate. As an advocate of what is essentially a “Come Home, America” foreign policy platform, he certainly will stand out in debates, as he did in 2008. But his libertarian message just does not appeal to a big enough slice of the Republican electorate for him to make an outsized impact. Three other candidates, ex-Sen. Rick Santorum (PA) and ex-Govs. Gary Johnson (NM) and Buddy Roemer (LA), haven’t broken out either. Santorum’s appeal is limited to some social conservatives so far, and even many of them wonder how a senator who lost his Senate seat by 17% in 2006 can credibly claim to have the right electoral stuff to beat Obama. Johnson is competing with Paul for the libertarian vote, and so far Paul is winning handily. As for Roemer, he ranks last in our ratings, and like most people, we can’t figure out why he’s even in the race.

For more on the candidates, see our chart below. We will update it in the coming weeks and months as the “Big Tease” continues — and maybe, just maybe, the Great Republican Presidential Derby sees some real, not ghostly, new entrants.

2012 Presidential Possibilities

The stoplight icon indicates how likely the potential candidate is to actually run for president (green for running, yellow for undecided, red for declining to run so far). A thumbs-up icon demonstrates gaining momentum, while a thumbs-down shows losing momentum, and in-between indicates no recent change in momentum.

Candidate Key Advantages Key Disadvantages
First Tier
Mitt Romney
Former MA Gov.
•Business background in bad economy
•Looks the part
•Next in line, more or less
•Good fundraiser, been around the track
•Romneycare
•Weak frontrunner status
•Religion
Tim Pawlenty
Former MN Gov.
•Broadly acceptable
•Blue collar conservative
•Governor, not Senator
•Total unknown/untested
•Bland
Second Tier
Chris Christie
NJ Gov.
•Tea Party favorite/strong fiscal conservative
•No nonsense
•Governor, not Senator
•Controversial approach: picks fights
•Too new as Governor
Jon Huntsman
Former Ambassador to China
•Foreign policy experience
•Executive experience as governor of Utah
•Very wealthy
•Media loves him
•Obama appointee to China
•Moderate-liberal views on social issues
•Mormon base split with Romney
•Media loves him
Michele Bachmann
MN Congresswoman
•Strong Tea Party support
•Good media presence
•Fundraising potential
•Highly controversial
•House member
•Unlikely to win in fall
Sarah Palin
Former AK Gov.
•Best known candidate of all
•Intense support among most likely primary voters
•Family image & values
•Intense opposition outside GOP base
•Polarizer, baggage from ‘08 & Tucson
•Quitter as AK Governor
Newt Gingrich
Ex-House Speaker
•100% Name ID
•Eloquent speaker
•Admired by GOP base
•Presidential-level GOP experience
•Polarizer
•Unlikely to win in November
•Personal baggage
Third Tier
Herman Cain
Businessman/Activist
•Wealthy & well liked in GOP base
•African-American conservative
•Never been elected to office
•Too far right for general election
Rick Santorum
Former PA Sen.
•DC elective experience
•Strong social issue conservative
•Iowa appeal
•Lost own Senate seat by 17%
•Too conservative for general election
Ron Paul
TX Congressman
•Intense support among slice of GOP & Independents
•Medium name recognition
•Views on some subjects (such as Iraq) outside GOP mainstream
•Advanced age, prior losses
Gary Johnson
Former NM Gov.
•Libertarian
•Gubernatorial experience
•Legalization of pot not popular GOP plank
•Complete unknown
Buddy Roemer
Former LA Gov.
•Good on the stump
•Reformer image attractive
•Hopes to be next Jimmy Carter
•Very thin resume, especially recently
•Jimmy Carter won as a Democrat