Looking toward the crucial 2012 presidential race, three things are becoming increasingly clear:
1. A Republican candidate who can unite the Tea Party and the Republican establishment can beat President Obama. Recent polling by CNN and Rasmussen shows that the vast majority of voters who have a strong feeling about President Obama’s performance disapprove of it; that there’s not a single major issue on which the majority of Americans think he’s strong; and that the overwhelming majority of Americans say he’s not a good leader, with 40 percent saying he’s downright a “poor” leader. Moreover, Obama’s signature legislation, whose fate will likely coincide with his own, is unpopular, even in polling that grossly oversamples Democrats, and most Americans want it repealed.
Despite Obama's clear vulnerability, however, a Republican candidate who’s unable to unite the Tea Party and establishment wings is unlikely to generate enough enthusiasm and across-the-board support to win the general election. Moreover, a candidate without sufficient Tea Party support isn’t likely to win the Republican nomination. Tea Party support will be essential to Republican success at both levels of the electoral process.
2. There is very little overlap between the potential candidates that the Tea Party favors and the potential candidates that the establishment favors. An ongoing Tea Party Straw Poll, conducted by the same folks who did the Tea Party’s “Contract from America,” demonstrates this quite strikingly. Mitch Daniels, a favorite inside the Beltway and among many establishment Republicans, ranks only 12th in popularity with the Tea Party. Mitt Romney, perhaps the leading establishment candidate, ranks a sobering 22nd.
Mike Huckabee, not really an establishment candidate but nevertheless a big name, ranks only 14th. Huckabee, however, has much stronger support than Daniels (who has repeatedly called for a social “truce”) or Romney (who has something of a reputation as a waffler) among social conservatives, who overlap greatly with the Tea Party but are not synonymous with it. Among the best-known potential candidates, only Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich crack the Tea Party’s top-10.
To be sure, the Tea Party Straw Poll is not “scientific” in the sense of trying to replicate the views of the entire population or the entire Tea Party. It’s better thought of as a vastly improved CPAC poll. Still, this is the best gauge of Tea Party sentiment about prospective candidates of which I am aware.
Moreover, the straw poll (which operates like a seemlier version of the poll that’s depicted in the opening scenes of the Oscar-nominated The Social Network) offers some unique advantages over other polls: It registers unfavorable as well as favorable opinions; it displays the pictures of potential candidates — much as the candidates would themselves be visible on a debate stage — rather than merely listing (or asking people to conjure up) names and thereby favoring folks with strong name-recognition; it registers some degree of voter intensity by letting people vote multiple times, while protecting against “ballot stuffing” by only having a voter’s favorite candidate emerge periodically in its randomly generated sequences of pairings; and it has tallied a lot more responses than a typical poll: more than 1.6 million so far.
3. There are two striking exceptions to the general lack of overlap between the Tea Party favorites and the establishment favorites: Paul Ryan and Chris Christie. Ryan ranks 1st in the Tea Party poll, and Christie ranks 2nd. Since both men are also highly respected by the establishment, they have tremendous potential to unite the party and lead it to victory. Tim Pawlenty, relatively popular with the establishment in his own right, also possesses some crossover appeal, ranking 5th in the Tea Party Straw Poll. Mike Pence would also likely have done well in the Tea Party poll, had he not been omitted from it after he opted out of the race — but he could always opt back in.
In addition to his popularity among potential voters, Ryan is also a highly respected — perhaps the most highly respected — member of Congress. Sure, some establishment-types would probably balk at his “not waiting his turn,” but this nation-defining election doesn’t call for union-style, seniority-based thinking. This is an election that the Republican Party must win — for the sake of the country.
Others who are wedded to convention or recent history might balk at Ryan’s coming out of the House of Representatives. But that’s where the action is, where the battles over Obamacare, the budget, and the future direction of this country, have been taking place. Plus, no one really believes that the chairman of the House Budget Committee is less experienced, distinguished, or prepared, than a partial-term, back-bench senator — yet Barack Obama showed the courage to run “out of turn.” Ryan should as well — because, in reality, it is his turn (just like it was Obama’s).
Christie, likewise, has already proven his mettle as a leader. Though perhaps less experienced (in government) than Ryan, his unyielding, prosecutorial style would serve him well in a debate. In fact, is there anyone you’d rather see on the debate stage, looking eyeball-to-eyeball with President Obama, than either of these two? We’ve already witnessed two examples (here and here) of direct interaction between Ryan and Obama, and the prospect of interaction between Christie and Obama offers similar promise.
It’s simple, really: If Republicans want to be enthusiastically united behind a candidate who can lead them to victory in 2012 — and thereby save the country from Obamacare — they’d better coax these two (à la George Washington in 1789 and 1792, who ultimately decided that duty called) into the presidential race.