The State of American Democracy

Research-based Analysis and Commentary by the Department of Politics at the John-F.-Kennedy Institute

The GOP Field Shaping Up for 2012 But Social Conservatives Still Without A Favorite Candidate

An essay by Raphael Kurz

The GOP field of contenders to challenge President Obama is taking shape as we are heading for the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election. This might look as a surprise since the election is still far ahead and will take place 17 months from now, so still a long way to go. But especially since Bill Clinton, the phenomenon of “permanent campaigning” has taken hold in the American political system, which essentially means that after a presidential or congressional election, the next cycle of campaigning already begins and incumbents and potential candidates for office start to position themselves for the next election. The same phenomenon can be currently observed in the U.S. when it comes to the 2012 presidential election. As Obama is not likely going to be challenged from within the Democratic Party, it is interesting to look at the GOP field as it is shaping up and to illustrate which candidates have already declared their ambitions to become U.S. president and which ones will still enter the race for the White House. Furthermore, an assessment of the current field will be provided and strength and weaknesses of already declared candidates and potential ones will be worked out.

Several GOP hopefuls have already declared that they have the aspiration to become the next U.S. president. Among them are former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, former governor of Minnesota Tim Pawlenty, former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, ambassador to China under the Obama administration Jon Huntsman, Congressman and Libertarian Ron Paul, and several other less known candidates such as former Senator Rick Santorum, businessman Herbert Cain or former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson. Some of these candidates such as Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty or Jon Huntsman are considered to be more mainstream candidates that have good connection to the GOP establishment and potential appeal to independent voters in a general election and thus are preferred by it. In contrast, others represent a certain wing of the GOP such as Ron Paul who is the figurehead of the libertarian wing or Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum who like to position themselves more in the social conservative corner – two wings that can be found in the energized Tea Party movement that has significantly influenced the GOP since its founding in late 2008. Other potential and formidable candidates that would appeal to the establishment of the party and the general electorate have already declared that they are not seeking the nomination such as Haley Barbour or Mitch Daniels due to personal reasons, but also due to the fact that Obama will be hard to beat as an incumbent and a formidable fundraiser. Even on the social conservative wing (which can be to a certain extent also considered to be the Tea Party wing) of the party, GOP hopefuls are shying away from running such as the former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee who has a huge following among social conservatives and the Christian Right. Huckabee is said to have dropped out of personal reasons (he just has built a house in Florida is is earning a lot of money as a Fox News commentator), but also due to the fact that pundits predict that it will be quite difficult to beat Obama as an incumbent and Huckabee – at least in 2008 – had some difficulties in raising sufficient amounts of money to run a nation-wide credible campaign.

These recent developments raise some questions about the looming nomination fight. First, where does this leave the field with special regard to the aspect that the Tea Party – the driving force of the 2010 congressional victory of the GOP – still seems to lack a favorite candidate in the field, but is certainly a decisive force in determining the GOP nominee for 2012? Thus, who is likely to enter in order to represent that wing? And second, which candidate of the field is best able to unite the Tea Party wing and the GOP establishment in order to win the nomination or will there be a right-wing fringe candidate like in 1964 with Barry Goldwater?

Doubtless, all candidates (even the establishment ones) try to pander to the Tea Party folks in order to garner its support by pretending to be more socially conservative than their track record shows them to be, but so far, there is hardly any enthusiasm about the current field among Tea Partiers and even the establishment of the Republican Party. Ron Paul can certainly be considered to be a Tea Party favorite, but he just represents the libertarian wing and is by no means supported by the social conservative wing (which might be considered more influential inside the Tea Party) as he is very liberal on social issues such as drug use, gay rights and abortion, something that does not go down well with the social conservative and Christian Right wing of the GOP and the Tea Party.

So, after Huckabee has decided not to run, there is a gap on the social conservative side that is not yet filled by any viable contender. While for a long time it looked like former vice presidential candidate and social conservative “sweetheart” Sarah Palin would be a contender for the presidency, she has yet declared herself and indicators look like she is just up for making a lot of money by remaining in the public spotlight through books, media shows (mainly Fox News) and bus tours throughout the country. But while this is important for a potential candidate to have a lot of public attention in order to gain name recognition, she has not yet started to hire staff in the early primary states Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and her approval ratings among the general electorate has declined dramatically since the Tuscon shooting, where she reacted very self-interested and huffy about criticism for marking Gabriel Gifford’s district with a hair cross. Moreover, political experts and pundits rightly criticize her for lacking substance on political issues such as economic or foreign policy. So, while there is still speculation about a Palin run, political pundits do not really take her seriously and it seems to be rather unlikely that she will throw her hat in.

This reluctance by Palin has opened the field for another woman that has gained in popularity among Tea Partiers and social conservatives by sharply and shamelessly attacking the Obama administration calling it “gangster government” and by holding quite extreme social conservative positions on social issues, namely Michele Bachmann, a Congresswoman from Minnesota. And indeed, there are clear signs that Bachmann is preparing to run as she has started to hire experienced staff such as former adviser to Ronald Reagan’s reelection bid in 1984 and Mike Huckabee’s 2008 campaign Ed Rolins, who has also strong credentials among social conservatives, an influential segment of the GOP and the Tea Party. Bachmann has to win over that segment in order to win Iowa and South Carolina (tow states where social conservatives will be a crucial force for the Republican nomination) and thus gain momentum for other states. Bachmann certainly looks like the candidate that currently best can galvanize the social conservative Tea Party wing unless Palin gets in. Considering the energy on the right of the GOP through the Tea Party and the current lack of a candidate who fully represents that wing, a Bachmann run seems to be pretty likely.

Now let us turn to an assessment of the current field. Mitt Romney seems to have big liabilities that are likely going to hurt him in his nomination bid. He enacted a Health Care reform back when he was governor of Massachusetts which looks pretty similar to the one the Obama administration has passed. As Health Care is so strongly rejected by the Tea Party and the GOP in general and has become the focus point of criticism for the Obama administration among the conservative base, it will be hard for Romney to overcome that criticism among Tea Party people and other conservatives. Romney moreover has not distanced himself from his own plan and is still standing firm by it, which will make him vulnerable in the nomination fight. Moreover, Romney has flip-flopped on social issues such as abortion where he was pro-choice in former times and now he publicly has said that he is pro-life, something that does not bode well with social conservatives who want someone staunchly pro-life. While the establishment of the Republican Party might be more well-disposed to Romney, as he has strong business credentials and executive experience – which will be two important criteria for the general election – getting the nomination will be difficult considering his lacking conservative grass roots support and his religious affiliation with the Mormon Church. Nevertheless, Romney must be considered to be in a favorite position to win the GOP nomination, simply due to the fact that he is the current frontrunner in the polls and that he has the ability to raise a lot of money and spend a lot of his own money in the upcoming nomination process, which makes him likely to overcome setbacks in the Iowa caucus and in the South Carolina primary.

With regard to the others main candidates in the field, Jon Huntsman is likely going to be attacked for having worked for the Obama administration which is likely to pose a problem for him considering the aversion on the conservative side towards the Obama administration and its agenda. So he will have to explain why he worked for a government conservatives so despise. Moreover, he has shown some moderate position on issues like climate change by not denying that it is manmade and gay rights, which again might be hard to sell to the conservative grass roots base which is so essential for running a successful campaign. Furthermore, as well as Romney, he is a Mormon which might become a liability for getting the support of the Christian Right wing of the GOP. Besides these problems, Huntsman seems to be a secret favorite for the nomination as he possesses the ability to connect with ordinary voters and knows from firsthand about the economic and trade problems the U.S. has with China since having been ambassador there. But not only does he possess experience in trade and business issues, he is also regarded as a foreign policy expert, something all other major candidates lack. But questions remain if a relatively moderate candidate such as Huntsman, who will not be able to raise as much money as Romney, will be able to prevail in such a heated up nomination process were the right wing of the GOP and the Tea Party will be decisive forces in selecting a candidate and have positioned themselves so aggressively against any moderate positions.

Another potential nominee could be Tim Palwenty, the former governor of Minnesota. Of the current field, he seems to be the most suitable candidate to unite the establishment wing of the GOP with the Tea Party and social conservative wing as he has executive experience and portrays himself as a social conservative by e.g. demanding the reintroduction of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and by positioning himself on the right on other social issues important to social conservatives.  But his big problem is his lacking name recognition as he is hardly known around the country. Moreover, many pundits and political experts regard him as being “boring” and “unaspiring” simply lacking charisma, which is always an important character trait in American politics, especially for presidential candidates who by definition have to be appealing to the public in order to energize voters. Therefore, doubts remain if Pawlenty will be able to energize the conservative base for his campaign, while at the same time gain the support of the Party establishment and raise sufficient money to outlast potential setbacks.

For another potential nominee, the campaign seems to be over before it really has begun. Former speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has become the laughing stock of the GOP field, after he went on the MSNBC talk show Meet the Presswith David Gregory, and called the Ryan Budget Plan “right-wing social engineering”, causing severe criticism of him by the Republican establishment and Tea Partiers and making it easy for Democrats to further underline the radicalism of the Ryan Plan which aims at privatizing Medicare, something quite unpopular with the ordinary American people. This strategic blunder caused many potential donors to leave Gingrich’s campaign and revealed a lack of discipline by Gingrich who has alienated his base with his statements on Meet the Press. In addition, Gingrich was recently left by his campaign manager and other important staffers who all resigned over quarrels about how to run the campaign which must be regarded as a heavy blow to his aspirations for winning the Republican nomination. Theseresignations came certainly as a shock for him after he had returned from a two week vacation to Greek isles, which is another strange behavior by a candidate who is running for office to interrupt his campaign for vacation with his wife. All these events suggest that it will be rather hard for Gingrich to overcome questions about his political qualification, personality (he has been married three times and had an extramarital affair will he was speaker of the House and exploiting the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal for his own reputation as a staunch conservative,which are all liabilities that social conservatives were highly skeptical of) and his ability to raise enough money which is vital for minor candidates in order to stay competitive. Thus, in essence his campaign is over although he does not so far want to acknowledge it and still stays in the race.

Another candidate who seems to have grassroots support especially among Tea Partiers is Ron Paul, one of the figureheads of the Tea Party movement and Congressman from Texas. And indeed, the issues that are moving the Tea Party such as deficit reduction, big government spending, distrust in the GOP establishment and the failed U.S. foreign policy considering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan make him rather popular among a certain segment of the fired up conservative base. Moreover, his run in 2008 has proven that he has the ability to raise a lot of money for his campaign and his status as a rebel and Party outsider furthermore enhances his credibility among the Tea Party people who have been highly critical of the GOP establishment. But while libertarians certainly admire and support him, he will have a hard time to rally social conservatives and the Christian Right behind himself due to his libertarian attitude towards social issues such as drug use, gay rights and prostitution. In addition, as a Party rebel who has voted against the Patriot Act for example, he is not really liked by the GOP Party establishment. But without getting some support among social conservatives and the Party establishment, Ron Paul will have a hard time to gain the nomination although there seems to be some momentum behind his run.

All other minor candidates so far lack name recognition and media attention, two liabilities that will be hard to overcome as the primaries and caucuses are approaching. Lacking name recognition also makes it hard to find donors and to raise money. Thus, it is rather unlikely that candidates such as Herman Cain or Rick Santorum will have a shot at winning the nomination, but every election cycle has its surprises and the 2008 Democratic nomination with the unexpected win by Obama has shown that outsiders should not completely be underestimated.

To sum up, the GOP field for 2012 seems to be rather messy so far, but there are already some favorites emerging from the field. One of them is certainly Mitt Romney, despite him having huge liabilities with his own enacted Health Care Plan in Massachusetts that is quite similar to the Obama Health Care reform and his image as a flip-flopper on social issues, which certainly hurts him with the Tea Party and social conservatives in general. Moreover, Romney does not seem to have the conservative grass roots support so far and must be considered to be the establishment candidate. Besides these weaknesses, Mitt Romney seems to be the current front-runner in polls and the only candidate that has the ability to raise a lot of money and he also seems to be the only one that can afford to lose one of the first primaries or caucuses in Iowa or South Carolina without having to drop out of the race as he has the financial staying power which enables him to run a nation-wide campaignin all states. Thus, it looks like a matchup between Mitt Romney and a candidate that has Tea Party and conservative grass roots support, such as Michele Bachmann who panders to the far right and is very popular among Tea Party folks, social conservatives and the Christian Right or Tim Pawlentywho tries to gain support among this segment of the GOP coalition. But as Bachmann seems to have better credentials among these constituents, she must be regarded as a favorite to challenge Mitt Romney for the nomination in case she gets in. Thus, one can expect a showdown between the two big wings of the Republican Party, namely the business leaning GOP establishment and the populist Tea Party movement that has a significant social conservative stream in it which Bachmann represents best in comparison to other candidates. And if Bachmann carries Iowa and South Carolina (two states that have a large social conservative electorate), she will have the momentum to pose a serious challenge to Romney and she may have a shot at winning the GOP nomination.

It is safe to assume that the Obama people are hoping for a highly competitive GOP nomination process since it will drain a lot of resources out of potential general election candidates and reveal the internal divisions of the heterogeneous conservative movement and the GOP which can be perfectly exploited in a general election campaign by the Obama people. And who knows, maybe we just see history repeating itself and the emergence of another – this time – right wing female candidate just as in 1964, when right wing candidate Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination. The current move of the GOP to the right fueled by the Tea Party movement seems to make such a scenario look within the realm of possibility. But the Goldwater example should also make the GOP and the Tea Party folks quiver as he was crushed by Lyndon B. Johnson in the general election and the Obama people will certainly love to be challenged by a right-wing candidate that will likely turn of moderate voters  and independents. Thus, it remains interesting to watch if conservative voters will follow their hearts or listen to their minds when it comes to selecting their nominee in the caucuses and primaries ahead.


Der Beitrag wurde am Montag, den 20. Juni 2011 um 12:32 Uhr von Curd Knüpfer veröffentlicht und wurde unter Wahlkampf abgelegt. Sie können die Kommentare zu diesem Eintrag durch den RSS 2.0 Feed verfolgen. Kommentare und Pings sind derzeit nicht erlaubt.

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