The conventional wisdom is that the emerging Republican field for 2012 is a very weak one. However, like so much else in the topsy-turvy age of Obama, the conventional wisdom on this one is completely upside down. The idea of a weak GOP field is almost as ridiculous as a debate about a fifty-year-old birth certificate just as the economic recovery comes grinding to a halt. Almost.
In fact, Obama and the Democrats have good reason to worry about the emerging Republican field. Here are four big reasons why.
(For background, check out this analysis I wrote a few weeks ago about why we should ignore the early polls on the GOP nomination battle, as well as this one on why it’s normal not to have a “perfect” candidate in the field.)
1. The GOP has several serious candidates. At the moment, most of the oxygen in the nomination battle is being sucked up by less-than-viable candidates, above all Donald Trump. However, there are at least four serious contenders either in the field or looking likely to enter it: Mitch Daniels, Jon Huntsman, Tim Pawlenty, and Mitt Romney all bring a few qualities to the table that would serve them well in the general election. For starters, they’re all governors, meaning their résumés involve running state governments rather than getting bogged down in the ideological divisiveness of Congress. Daniels, Pawlenty, and Romney have all demonstrated crossover appeal – with Pawlenty and Romney winning in historically Democratic states, and Daniels winning reelection in 2008 in Indiana even as Obama carried the state. As for Huntsman’s appeal, Obama was worried enough about it to ship him off to China in 2009.
Republicans should be pleased about this. Evaluating candidates is a subjective process, of course, but a cycle in which the party can point to four serious contenders who would be formidable in a general election battle is a good one.
2. An Obama-Clinton type of battle is unlikely. The battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton was unprecedented in its duration, but it nevertheless has roots in historical class conflicts within the Democratic party, with parallels to Humphrey-McCarthy in 1968, Muskie-McGovern in 1972, and Mondale-Hart in 1984. All of these battles featured a split between the party’s working class constituencies that have been in place since the 1930s and the newer groups added during the 1960s.
The GOP has no such class-based divisions, dominated as it is by the married, white, churchgoing middle class. Really, the major dividing line in the Republican party is between moderately and very conservative voters. This means that the nominee is usually the one who can convince Republicans that he’s conservative, but not so much so that he can’t win a general election.
3. A “fringe” nominee is unlikely. Democrats are hoping that the Republicans nominate somebody like Barry Goldwater, who satisfied the right wing but alienated independent and moderately Republican voters in 1964. However, that has not happened since the AuH2O candidacy, in large part because primaries now dominate the nomination process. That tends to reduce the influence of the most ideologically committed voters, as a broader cross-section of the electorate participates in primaries than party caucuses. Goldwater – who won the nomination in 1964 because of depth of support, rather than breadth – would probably not have been able to pull it out if the rules of today had been in place back then. His victory depended on his loyal supporters taking control of state and local party organizations, but these units are no longer in charge of the nomination.
This is why, since the party reforms of the 1970s, most Republican nominees have been downright “boring.” George H. W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, and John McCain have been the selections in the last 20 years – and even Ronald Reagan was not really an insurgent in 1980. By that point, he had served for two terms as governor of the largest state in the union, and had stood for the GOP nomination twice already. In all likelihood, the nominee in 2012 will be similar to the ones we’ve seen over the last 30 years.
4. An “enthusiasm gap” should not be a problem. Suppose that the GOP does nominate another candidate in line with the Bush-Dole-Bush-McCain tradition. Won’t enthusiasm be a trouble spot for the party base in 2012? Probably not. The conservative base's intense dissatisfaction with the Obama tenure should be more than enough to make up for the fact that the party is not in love with the nominee (and it is possible, by the way, that the party could fall in love with somebody). On top of that, there are enough very serious figures out there who make the base swoon – perfect for the vice presidential nomination. Marco Rubio is the first that comes to mind. Team the junior senator from Florida up with one of those serious would-be presidential nominees, set that ticket against Obama-Biden next year, and you’ll have a great recipe for the most enthusiastic GOP base in decades.
Bottom line: Democrats who are counting on the GOP giving this election away with a weak nominee need to find something else to pin their hopes on. In all likelihood, it isn’t going to happen, and Barack Obama will have to stand for reelection against a serious Republican ticket next year.