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.
Third, the party does not need to fall in love with its nominee. Sitting in the background here is my (admittedly heterodox) opinion that "enthusiasm" doesn't matter all that much for presidential elections. The most loyal partisans usually are the ones who make a regular habit of voting in presidential elections, regardless of their enthusiasm. Additionally, to the extent that enthusiasm does matter, it's important to remember that a close election will drive up interest, and therefore turnout, while a Republican blowout will make all this irrelevant. Enthusiasm could indeed be a problem in an Obama blowout, as that might open up scores of new House and Senate pickup opportunities for the Democrats. Finally, the Obama administration has thoroughly alienated the conservative base, meaning that we can expect it to turn out, at the least, to vote against the president if not for the GOP nominee (recall how the Democratic base turned out in droves for the thoroughly lackluster John Kerry).
While a nominee doesn't have to make the base swoon, there are three things he has to demonstrate:
i. Electability. He has to show that his victory in the nomination battle will enhance, not diminish, the party’s chances against Barack Obama.
ii. Governing skill. The legislative branch is of particular concern. Managing Congress is a lot like handling a two-year-old. It requires a deft touch, and a caregiver who knows when and how to reward good behavior and punish bad behavior. This is a big reason, incidentally, why Obama has gotten into such political trouble: he allowed Nancy Pelosi and a narrow coalition of liberal Democrats to run the show on Capitol Hill. Managing congressional Republicans is different from handling the Democrats, but it is still no little feat. The party needs a president who, after victory, will know how to do that. An open nomination battle is the best opportunity to vet the prospectives on their governing abilities.
iii. Party stewardship. It’s often forgotten that leading a political party is a significant part of a president’s job. And so, it is vitally important that Republicans nominate a candidate who will leave the party in better shape than he found it. If the GOP wins in 2012, this is unlikely to be an issue in the next Congress, as the Republicans will probably have a majority in both chambers. Yet after the 2014 midterm, that could all be gone, and a Republican in the White House may be matched against a Democratic Congress. Will that commander in chief make good choices that enhance his reelection prospects without damaging the party? Or will he compromise on the party’s core values to save his skin?
So, all in all, the fact that nobody has emerged as a breakaway frontrunner is not at all a reason to worry. It's just due to a confluence of unrelated circumstances, and it opens up an opportunity for the party to reflect on its position in American society. Republicans should worry if, and only if, none of the prospectives performs competently across these three metrics. That seems extremely unlikely to me.