Policy Review Banner

The GOP’s 2012 Field

Monday, August 1, 2011

Election 2012 has already begun. In fact, it’s in full gear. To no one’s surprise, President Barack Obama in early April formed his reelection committee, which will allow his campaign to begin raising money for what is expected to be the most expensive presidential campaign in American history. His reelection, though, is by no means a sure thing — thanks in large part to the state of the U.S. economy.

With the U.S. unemployment rate hovering around nine percent, the national average price of gas approaching four dollars per gallon, and the housing market nationwide continuing to fall, Republicans are preparing for a presidential election that they hope will be a referendum on President Obama and his economic policies. A recent USA Today/Gallup poll should not give “Obama for America” (ofa) much comfort: Only 37 percent approve of the president’s handling of the economy.

With that as a backdrop, eight Republicans have already declared their candidacies for the Republican nomination — sensing a real opportunity to make Barack Obama a one-term president. The White House, of course, has taken notice of the polls and the competition. And it has readily acknowledged that the electoral map that won Obama the Oval Office in 2008 will be strikingly different in 2012. What follows is an evaluation of the Republican field for the nomination, who the White House fears most, and what will likely be the path to the presidency for the 2012 Republican nominee.

The candidates

With a war chest that dwarfs his closest competitor, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is seen by the White House as the early front-runner for the nomination. Money matters for Republicans — particularly in this election cycle. Obama the senator raised $750 million in 2008. With the power of the presidency, ofa is widely expected to meet or exceed that total in 2012. Romney’s fundraising prowess was put on display in mid-May when he raised $10.25 million in Las Vegas in a single one-day call-a-thon.

But it’s not just Romney’s network of wealthy donors that the White House fears. It’s his ability to appeal to independents that won Romney the governorship in “liberal” Massachusetts. Since losing the Republican nomination to John McCain in2008, Romney has never really stopped campaigning. From Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina and Florida — the states that vote first in the Republican nominating process — Romney has touted his business experience as a way to attack President Obama and his handling of the U.S. economy. The attacks on Obama (and Romney’s high name identification) appear to be working. Romney now leads most polls of likely Republican voters. Even more impressive, he is the only Republican presidential candidate who leads President Obama in a head-to-head match-up in some recent national polls.

Romney is betting that the faltering U.S. economy — combined with his business and executive experience — are the perfect ingredients to secure him the Republican nomination and ultimately the White House. As his campaign spokesman told me, “This election is about two things — jobs and the economy.” Romney gave a preview of his campaign message in the first Republican debate in New Hampshire. Obama, he argued, didn’t cause the economic recession. Instead, he said, his economic policies have prolonged it.

Romney’s message has found some resonance with voters. An nbc/Wall Street Journal poll released in mid-June found that 62 percent of those polled believe the country is moving in the wrong direction — a jump of twelve percent from a month earlier. Even the White House — both privately and publicly — acknowledges that the economy will likely be a focus of the 2012 presidential election.

As David Axelrod, President Obama’s senior adviser, put it on cnn’s State of the Union: “The fundamental issue is how do people feel? Do they feel like we’re making progress? Do they feel like we’re moving in the right direction? And do they feel like the person on the other side of the ballot would hold out greater hope?” Right now, if you ask the Romney campaign those very questions, the answers would be: “Pessimistic”; “No”; “No”; and “Yes.” And that, the campaign argues, has created a “perfect storm” for Mitt Romney.

Many Republican voters view the health care plan that Governor Romney signed in 2006 as the Achilles heel of his candidacy.

But with the Republican National Convention in Tampa still almost thirteen months away, Romney has quite a few obstacles to overcome. Many Republican voters view the health care plan that Governor Romney signed into law in 2006 as the Achilles heel of his candidacy. The plan, critics charge, bears a striking resemblance to “ObamaCare” — the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act — that Obama signed into law in March of 2010.

Although Romney has repeatedly said that ObamaCare should be repealed, he has not expressed any regrets for the Massachusetts health care bill that he signed into law, saying in a speech in New Hampshire in March that “our experiment wasn’t perfect; some things worked, some things didn’t, and some things I’d change.”

It’s that qualified support for his own health care law that complicates Romney’s efforts to win the Republican nomination. According to a recently released Rasmussen poll, 53 percent of likely voters favor repeal of ObamaCare. The number jumps dramatically higher when only Republicans are asked this question. If Romney hopes to win the nomination, he will need to explain to Republican primary voters exactly how his plan differs from ObamaCare. And he’ll have to fend off an onslaught of attacks in debates and in campaign ads. In 2008, the campaign of Senator John McCain was very effective in portraying Mitt Romney as a “policy-shifter” and “flip-flopper” on a slew of issues — including abortion, guns, and immigration. Mindful of that experience, Romney’s Republican challengers have already begun the attacks on the early front-runner. And for the conservative base of the Republican Party, Romney’s major sin of his public life is “RomneyCare.” If Mitt Romney can navigate himself through this gauntlet in the early primaries, he will be in a very good position to secure the nomination and take on President Obama.

Mitt Romney isn’t the only Republican presidential candidate talking about jobs and the economy. So is two-term Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty’s national stature rose in 2008 when John McCain let it be known that the now-50-year-old was on his vice presidential short-list.

For 2012, Pawlenty has positioned himself as the “solid conservative” alternative to Mitt Romney. As Pawlenty’s campaign puts it, “Governor Pawlenty has had real results and has been a consistent conservative.” In fact, Pawlenty has won praise from conservatives for: his own health care plan with market-based reforms; eliminating a $4.3 billion state budget deficit without raising taxes; and his record as a pro-life advocate. And he’s won editorial plaudits from the Wall Street Journal for his recent proposal laying out his economic growth plan: entitlement reform, slashing government spending, a flatter tax system, lower corporate income tax rates, and elimination of capital gains taxes as a means to spur production and investment in American businesses.

Although many publications have derided Pawlenty as “bland,” he is very good at retail politics.

The Pawlenty campaign argues that the former governor is the only candidate in the Republican field who can get the entire party united for the November 2012 election. Without mentioning any names (although the veiled reference is clearly aimed at Romney), a campaign spokesman told me that no other top-tier candidates will be fully acceptable to the Tea Party and no other candidate will contrast as well with Obama.

Pawlenty also has an interesting personal story. His father drove a milk truck, and his mother died of cancer when he was just sixteen. A trained lawyer and a native Minnesotan, Pawlenty got his start in politics when he was elected to the Eagan City Council at the age of 28. Throughout his political career, Pawlenty — despite his conservative record — has managed to appeal to moderates and independents.

Although many publications have derided Pawlenty as “bland,” he is very good at retail politics. With a pleasant demeanor, Pawlenty appears at ease talking to voters of all walks of life — a necessary skill to have in Iowa, and beyond. He also has an experienced group of political advisers — including campaign manager Nick Ayers, the former executive director of the Republican Governors Association; Terry Nelson, who was the political director of George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign; and Sara Taylor, who served as White House political director under Bush. The White House at this point in the campaign process does not view Pawlenty as a threat — and has derided his record.

In an interview with msnbc in early June, former White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that when Pawlenty left office at the beginning of 2011, Minnesota had added only 6,000 jobs. Still, despite trailing Obama by nearly fifteen percent in the latest nbc News/Wall Street Journal poll, the White House believes that Pawlenty — should he get the nomination — would be a formidable opponent and could compete with the president for independents, particularly in the all-important swing states.

For all the positive attributes associated with Tim Pawlenty, he has not yet caught on among Republicans on the national level. He failed to take on Romney over his health care plan at the New Hampshire debate — a mistake that Pawlenty now acknowledges. And the most recent Rasmussen poll (taken after the New Hampshire debate on June 13th) has Pawlenty at 6 percent among likely gop Primary Voters — with Romney earning 33 percent support. The Pawlenty campaign says the polls out now do not reflect how the campaign will sort itself out seven months from now in Iowa. And they certainly have a point. At this point in the 2008 presidential cycle, Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani were their party’s respective front-runners.

Pawlenty, though, is working hard to move higher in the polls and stand out in Iowa. The campaign has just launched the first television ad campaign by a presidential candidate in Iowa.

“In a liberal state, I reduced spending in real terms for the first time, took on the government unions and won, appointed a conservative Supreme Court, and passed health care reform the right way — no mandates, no takeovers,” Pawlenty says in the 30-second advertisement. “If I can do it in Minnesota, we can do it in Washington.”

Although the Pawlenty Campaign says it is competing everywhere — including hiring political directors in South Carolina, Florida, and New Hampshire — the reality is that Pawlenty needs to have a strong showing at the straw poll in Ames, Iowa, in August and at the Iowa caucuses in January. Anything less than a strong second-place showing would doom Pawlenty’s candidacy.

Money — or a lack of it — could also doom Pawlenty’s run for the White House. Campaign advisers acknowledge that fundraising has proved difficult for Pawlenty. The Pawlenty campaign reported raising $4.2 million in the second quarter — compared with $18.3 million by the Romney campaign. That’s another reason why winning Iowa is so important to Pawlenty and his path to the Republican presidential nomination. Win Iowa, and the money will follow.

Standing in Pawlenty’s way in Iowa is a fellow Minnesotan and native Iowan, Representative Michelle Bachmann. Now in her third term in Congress, the 55-year-old fiscal conservative has risen to prominence in large part due to her harsh attacks on President Obama and her courting of the Tea Party movement.

Prior to the first big Republican debate in June, many analysts saw Bachmann as a fringe candidate for the Republican nomination and a stand-in for Sarah Palin — because of their similar firebrand politics and personalities.

But the Minnesota congresswoman had what could be considered a breakout performance in that New Hampshire debate. She introduced herself to voters as the mother of five children and the foster mother to 23 others. She positioned herself as “true conservative” who has at times taken on the Republican establishment in Washington. And she struck a chord with Republican voters.

“This election will be about economics,” said Bachmann. “It will be about how will we create jobs, how will we turn the economy around, how will we have a pro-growth economy? That’s a great story for Republicans to tell. President Obama can’t tell that story. His report card right now has a big failing grade on it. Make no mistake about it; I want to announce tonight, President Obama is a one-term president!”

According to the Des Moines Register, Pawlenty has visited Iowa 30 times in the last fifteen months.

Her performance was called “dynamic” and “poised,” and her stock has been rising ever since. Bachmann comes in a surprising second (behind Romney), with the support of 19 percent of likely Republican voters in a new Rasmussen national telephone survey.

Representative Bachmann’s native ties to Iowa and her appeal to the Tea Party and religious conservatives, combined with her prodigious fundraising, make her a real threat to win the Iowa caucuses. That possibility has thrust Bachmann into the top tier of Republican presidential hopefuls.

The problem for Bachmann is that she has poor organization in Iowa — and for the caucus process, the so-called “ground-game” is everything. It’s what Tim Pawlenty has been building up for the past eighteen months and it’s what Mitt Romney has been looking to improve upon since losing Iowa to Mike Huckabee in 2008.

According to the Des Moines Register, Pawlenty has visited Iowa 30 times in the last fifteen months, compared to Bachmann’s ten days in the state during the same period. For Bachmann to position herself as the alternative to Mitt Romney, she needs to win Iowa. Her entire candidacy depends upon a victory in the Hawkeye State.

Although Romney is organizing in the state, he is downplaying Iowa’s importance in his path to the nomination. Indicative of that is his decision to skip the Ames, Iowa, straw poll in August. That decision leaves Pawlenty and Bachmann as the frontrunners for winning the Iowa Caucuses. The winner in Iowa will then emerge as the best-positioned candidate to take on Romney in New Hampshire, which votes eight days later.

Like Pawlenty, Bachmann’s chances at winning the Republican nomination hinges primarily on the Iowa caucuses. Lose here, and the path is not a clear one. Win here, however, and the momentum (and the money) follows. Still, even with a win, it’s not clear what states Bachmann sees as winnable after Iowa — particularly when the Tea Party vote will be divided among several candidates.

The White House, perhaps in a bit of electoral mischief, has been publicly heaping praise on Bachmann — complimenting her performance in the debate in New Hampshire — while privately deriding the quality of candidates on the Republican side. Because Bachmann is a lightning rod for voters, she is seen as unlikely to have a strong appeal beyond Tea Party activists and religious conservatives. As a result, the White House does not see her as a threat to President Obama’s chances for reelection — even with a weak U.S. economy.

The latest entry into the race for the Republican nomination, Jon Huntsman Jr., has perhaps the most unique take on President Obama. He used to work for him. The popular two-term governor of Utah served as Obama’s ambassador to China until late August.

Huntsman is a media favorite — but then again, so was Donald Trump just two months earlier.

“I respect the president of the United States,” Huntsman said as he announced his candidacy for the 2012 nomination at Liberty State Park in New Jersey. “He and I have a difference of opinion on how to help a country we both love. But the question each of us wants the voters to answer is who will be the better president; not who’s the better American.”

Huntsman is a media favorite — but then again, so was Donald Trump just two months earlier. He is also little known to most Americans, describing himself as a “margin of error” candidate, reflecting the single digits he garners in most public opinion polls. But the 51-year-old billionaire — who is considered a moderate Republican — believes there is a path to the Republican presidential nomination. And because Huntsman is skipping the Iowa caucuses, that path depends heavily on independent voters and starts in New Hampshire.

Although Huntsman has a record of tax cuts and opposition to abortion during the eight years he served as Utah’s governor, he has also taken moderate positions on same-sex civil unions, immigration, and the environment. It’s those positions — plus the fact that he served in the Obama administration — which make it difficult for Huntsman to find appeal among the conservative base. That’s why New Hampshire, whose election rules allow independents to cast their ballots in the Republican primary, is key to his electoral strategy.

“[I] think, given the fluidity of the race in these early states, that we stand a pretty good chance, and we’re putting that to the test,” said Huntsman in an interview with Politico.

For Huntsman, the blueprint is one that former California Governor Ronald Reagan followed in 1980 and Senator John McCain repeated in 2008: Skip the Iowa caucuses; make a strong showing in New Hampshire and South Carolina (which also has an open primary); and follow that up with a victory in Florida, the native state of his wife and the home to his campaign headquarters.

Although Huntsman has the fundraising ability to compete in those early primary states, the problem is that unlike Reagan and McCain, he is running a campaign in which he has positioned himself as a moderate. Moderates have not had a good history in winning the Republican presidential nomination. Just ask Rudy Giuliani, Richard Lugar, Lamar Alexander, or Arlen Specter.

Interestingly, the White House has not lost any time attacking Huntsman — their former man in Beijing. “Governor Huntsman called for a more competitive and compassionate country, but he has embraced a budget plan that would slash our commitment to education, wipe out investments that will foster the jobs of the future, and extend tax cuts for the richest Americans while shifting the burden onto seniors and middle class families,” the Obama campaign said on the same day Huntsman entered the presidential race.

Interestingly, the White House has not lost any time attacking Huntsman — their former man in Beijing.

The Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee are keeping tabs on Huntsman (as well as Romney and Pawlenty), reflecting the seriousness with which they regard his candidacy. If Huntsman can somehow secure the Republican presidential nomination, the White House sees him as the type of mainstream candidate who could go toe to toe with Obama in a handful of traditionally red states (such as North Carolina, Virginia, and Indiana) that the president turned blue in 2008. Getting the nomination, though, is the tough part.

Four other candidates have taken formal steps to enter the Republican presidential primaries: Former Godfather’s Pizza ceo Herman Cain; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; U.S. Representative from Texas Ron Paul; and former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum. Their chances of winning a presidential primary, let alone the Republican presidential nomination, are remote. The White House and the Obama campaign team in Chicago do not consider their candidacies a threat to unseating the president.

Radio talk-show host Herman Cain, who was chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s board of directors, has never been elected to political office. Despite the lack of political experience, Cain has fared surprisingly well in some early presidential polls. Rasmussen puts him at ten percent and the nbc/Wall Street Journal poll has him at twelve percent among likely Republican voters. He has also been a frequent guest on Fox News — which has helped his voter id among Republican voters. However, unless Tea Party activists and religious conservatives coalesce around Cain in Iowa — a scenario that is very unlikely — there appears to be no discernable path for Cain to be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee.

Newt Gingrich’s candidacy went into free fall June 9th, when his senior campaign staff resigned en masse. Two weeks later, Gingrich’s national finance chairman resigned. The mass exodus followed reports that the Gingrich campaign is already $1 million in debt.

The 68-year-old former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives has tried to run a campaign based upon his track record of helping to balance the federal budget in the mid-1990s. Instead, Gingrich has spent much of his time on the defensive. Since he announced his candidacy, the religious right has criticized his personal life. The former congressman from Georgia is married to wife number three, with whom he had an affair while married to wife number two. An appearance on nbc’s Meet the Press in which he criticized House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s Medicare reform plan led to an apology days later after criticism by fellow conservatives. Making matters worse: revelations that Gingrich, a fiscal conservative, owed more than $500,000 to Tiffany’s. Gingrich will be lucky if he’s still around for the Iowa caucuses in early February of 2012.

Gingrich will be lucky if he’s still around when the Iowa caucuses take place in early February of 2012.

Rick Santorum’s prospects are also gloomy. Once a leading Senate Republican, the 53-year-old was beaten by eighteen points in his bid for a third U.S. Senate term in 2006. Santorum has touted his unwavering opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage during his years in Congress — in an appeal to social conservatives. Although Santorum won informal Republican straw polls in New Hampshire and South Carolina, the reality is that the native Pennsylvanian has not caught fire. He remains in the low single digits in recent public opinion polls and is unlikely to win the a majority of the social conservatives and Tea Party activists that he has steadfastly courted. Like Gingrich, the real question is whether his campaign even makes it to Iowa in February.

Finally, although he was not a factor in his last run for the Republican nomination in 2008, Congressman Ron Paul is running once again. The 75-year-old, antiwar libertarian is known as “the intellectual godfather of the Tea Party.” Paul has had an unwavering record of calling for deep cuts in the federal deficit and cutting the size of the federal government. A just-released Des Moines Register poll of likely participants in the state’s Republican presidential caucuses has Paul garnering seven percent — putting him in a tie for fourth place with Gingrich. With Paul unlikely to win any Republican primary, his presence in the race for the nomination will likely only divide the vote of those who identify themselves first and foremost as Tea Party supporters.

Because Republican primary voters have not yet coalesced around the current front-runner, Romney, it has created a possible opportunity for three-term Texas Governor Rick Perry. Perry, as of this writing, has not declared his candidacy but has been flirting with a run. The nation’s longest-serving governor, a former Air Force pilot, has a compelling-enough story that he could shake up the nominating process.

For Perry, the pros of a presidential run are many. His aides boast of the success of the Texas economy. Since the economic recovery began in June 2009, Texas has created 37 percent of America’s new jobs. Its unemployment rate of eight percent is a full percentage point lower than the national average. In addition, Team Perry also claims that the 61-year-old governor, with his pro-life and pro-guns record, could unite social conservatives and Tea Party followers.

But Perry has a number of liabilities — chief among them a late entry into the race. Other candidates have been campaigning for months (if not years), building organizations in numerous states and raising millions in campaign cash. Although he’d be playing catch-up, getting in at such at late stage has been done before. Bill Clinton entered the race for the Democratic nomination in October of 1991. On the other hand, former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson declared himself an official candidate in September of 2007. That run went nowhere. Should Perry throw his hat in the ring, the White House is prepared to hammer home the theme that the country is not ready for another Texas Republican after two terms of George W. Bush.

Electability

Polls show that whichever candidate emerges as the 2012 Republican nominee will have a very good chance to defeat U.S. President Barack Obama. A mid-June Bloomberg Poll found that only 30 percent of respondents said they are certain to vote for the president; among likely independent voters, only 23 percent said they would back his reelection. Those numbers are the reason why the Republican presidential nomination in this election cycle is so valuable. If the 2012 election becomes a referendum on the president’s job performance — particularly in improving the nation’s economy — Republicans will be in a very good position to make Obama a one-term president. Of course, even with a weak economy, a growing federal budget deficit, and declining approval ratings for the president, nothing’s a certainty for Republicans.

Should Republican primary voters choose a nominee who cannot appeal to independents and moderate Democrats, President Obama, despite all the headwinds he faces, will likely win another term.

Senator Harry Reid’s reelection race in November 2010 should be instructive to Republican voters. Despite Nevada’s fourteen percent unemployment rate; despite the highest bankruptcy rate in the country; despite the highest home foreclosure rate in the country; Harry Reid won another six years in the U.S. Senate (and by a comfortable 5.6 percent margin). The reason: Sharron Angle. The Tea Party-backed Republican made no effort to reach out to independent voters or disaffected Democrats. Similarly, if the 2012 Republican nominee is someone who is portrayed by the mainstream media as extreme or overly partisan, Team Obama will have won half the battle. Harry Reid beat the odds and won a fifth term in a state battered by a bad economy. He won because he made Angle the issue, not the economy. Should the gop have such a flawed nominee as their standard-bearer in 2012, President Barack Obama will likely follow that same Reid blueprint to victory.