The Blog

Morning Jay: No Frontrunner? No Problem!

6:00 AM, May 11, 2011 • By JAY COST
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

On Sunday, Byron York offered a fascinating report on the thinking among Republican insiders in South Carolina:

Talk to enough people around this key primary state and you'll learn two lessons, over and over again.  One is that there is absolutely, positively no unity among Republicans about any presidential candidate or potential candidate; there's no such thing as a frontrunner.  The other is that in the back of their minds, many Republicans are hoping that somewhere, somehow, a superhero candidate will swoop down out of the sky and rescue them from their current lackluster presidential field.  They know it's a fantasy, but they still hope.

It's not just dissatisfaction with the field -- Tim Pawlenty, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain, Ron Paul, and Gary Johnson -- that took part in the first GOP debate on Thursday night.  Even if the other would-be candidates -- Mike Huckabee , Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Mitch Daniels, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman, and Donald Trump -- had all been onstage with the others Thursday, there still would have been plenty of unhappiness among South Carolina's political professionals, activists, and ordinary people who just follow politics.  Seeing each candidate as flawed, they focus on the unattainables -- Chris Christie, Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio -- who they believe might bring a fresh face and new hope to the GOP.

I appreciate why the party’s grand poo-bahs are concerned. We can basically go back in party history to World War II, and discover that almost every nominee falls into one of three categories: former runner-up (either for the general or the nomination), larger-than-life candidate who dominated the field, or incumbent president.

Really, the only exception here is 1964, when Barry Goldwater squeaked out a victory over Nelson Rockefeller and Henry Cabot Lodge Jr.

So, psychologically speaking, it should not be a huge surprise that Republicans are nervous. The one candidate who could in theory fit on this graph – Mitt Romney – has real problems within the party. That’s not to say that Romney cannot win, but it does make for the most open contest since 1964.

Beyond the psychic discomfort, which is understandable, I really do not think Republicans need to worry about this at all. For three big reasons.

First, it is unlikely that this wide open field will result in some kind of knock-down, drag-out fight that lasts the length of the primary season, like the Clinton-Obama battle in 2008. The reason is that, on an ideological level, the Republican party is much more homogenous than the Democratic party. Republicans tend to be in the same demographic and socioeconomic brackets, and their only real differences are the extent to which they are conservative. Obama and Clinton did not disagree much on the big issues, but their voting coalitions were very different. That is just not going to happen in the Republican party, which is dominated by the white, married middle class.

Second, this nomination battle gives the party an opportunity to do something that is long overdue: have a real conversation about its future. The 2010 midterm was a good one for Republicans, but that was due largely to dissatisfaction with the Democrats – both parties had approval ratings in the low 40s. It is high time for the GOP to reflect on the last decade, evaluate what it has done right and done wrong, and make some corrections. Frankly, if one of those nominees in the above chart were in the field this year, such self-reflection would probably not happen. 

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 20 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers