2012 Republican Nominee Will Be …

With co-frontrunner Mike Huckabee out, Mitt Romney looks stronger than ever.

On Sunday’s “This Week” roundtable, George Will declared the 2012 contest “the most open scramble on the Republican side since 1940, when Wendell Wilkie came out of the woodwork and swept the field.” Rejecting the notion that the race is off to a slow start, he proclaimed “I think we know with reasonable certainty that standing up there on the west front of the Capitol on January 20th, 2013 will be one of three people. Obama, Pawlenty and Daniels.”

While Mike Huckabee’s announcement he was not running would seem to make last cycle’s other also-ran, Mitt Romney, the frontrunner, Will dismissed his chances, saying, “The Romney of 2012 cycle is hostage to the Romney of the 2008 cycle. When he changed on an array of social issues, stem cell research, gay marriage, right to life, all that stuff.”

That would indeed seem to be Romney’s main obstacle to the nomination, along of course with having signed something that looks a whole lot like the reviled ObamaCare–are, to be precise, vice-versa–into law while governor of Massachusetts. But Ramesh Ponnuru argues that Romney can overcome all these problems by allying himself with Michele Bachmann. Sort of.

Like Bob Dole in 1996 or John McCain in 2008, Romney is an establishment-oriented candidate with serious vulnerabilities on his right flank. To get the nomination, he needs (as they needed) to prevent the emergence of a single candidate to his right. So Dole made a tactical alliance with Pat Buchanan in Lousiana, helping to eject from the race the one candidate who could theoretically have denied him the nomination by consolidating voters to his right: Phil Gramm. McCain made a tactical alliance with Mike Huckabee against the candidate against whom both of them were competing and whom both of them hated: Romney.

Which candidate does Romney most need to worry about? In my view, it’s Tim Pawlenty. He can run to Romney’s right, but with establishment support, in a way that I don’t think Daniels or Huntsman can or want to.

The candidate who could play the Buchanan/Huckabee role this time is Michele Bachmann. Like her ’96 and ’08 counterparts, she cannot win the nomination but can prevent anyone to the establishment candidate’s right from getting it either. (I think she has greater potential strength in the primaries than Santorum, but if he took off he could play the same role.) So watch for Romney to start making a lot of positive comments about Bachmann.

I don’t believe Romney could win a Romney-Pawlenty contest. But he would almost certainly win a Romney-Bachmann race, and could well win a Romney-Pawlenty-Bachmann race. So to the extent he can boost her, it makes sense for him to do so. Having been on the losing end of this maneuver, Romney, I assume, knows how it’s done.

I’ve long thought something like this would happen organically, although I originally thought it would be Huckabee and Sarah Palin splitting the right wing vote and allowing the more Establishment Romney to benefit. But with Huckabee definitely out and Palin looking increasingly less likely to run, there are currently no frontrunning candidates to Romney’s right.

The most recent RealClearPolitics average still has Huckabee in the race–and in a virtual tie with Romney (16.4 to Romney’s 16.6) for the lead. Trump, whose numbers are plummeting, is third (12.9), followed by Palin (10.6). All the other candidates are in the single digits: Gingrich (7.7), Paul (7.3), Bachmann (4.3), Pawlenty (3.6), Daniels (3.3), and Santorum (2.0).  Jon Huntsman doesn’t register.

So, the most recent available polling has Romney with more support than Pawlenty, Daniels, and Bachmann combined–with a Bachmann to spare. The notion that we “know with reasonable certainty” that either Pawlenty or Daniels will win is nonsense–unless Will figures that no other nominee has a shot against Obama. But there’s no reason to think Pawlenty and Daniels have more national appeal than Romney.

The question now is who will fill Huckabee’s slot as the favorite among Evangelicals. It won’t be Gingrich, who’s changed religions as often as he’s changed wives. Bachmann has a chance, I suppose, but she’s largely unknown.

UPDATE: Daniel Larison identifies the most likely explanation for Will’s analysis:

This has nothing to do with their actual viability, and everything to do with what George Will hopes will happen. Several of the “plausible” candidates that Will identified earlier were not very plausible at all, but they are all acceptable to Beltway Republicans. I suspect that Will would like to see the Republican nominee be someone he would not be too embarrassed to support, and as of right now his list of acceptable candidates has been reduced to two.

Granted, I’m likely somewhat guilty of this myself, in that I’ve dismissed the chances of the more extreme candidates out of hand. But I’ve at least got the advantage of polling data being on my side.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    Go for it James!

  2. While I generally agree that Romeny is still well positioned in the race, a few caveats:

    First, the early polling is more a reflecting of name recognition than anything else. In fact, as others have noted, Romney’s numbers have declined somewhat as other candidates have gotten in the race.

    Second, Huckabee withdrawing probably helps Romney immensely unless his supporters end up uniting behind a single candidate

    Third, I don’t think you can underestimate the impact that RomneyCare will have on the GOP base. There were doubts about Romney in 2008 (the flip-flopper charge was made by more than one person) but given the current political climate that health care plan is a dealbreaker for many.

  3. Why does every discussion of who will win the Republican nomination make me depressed?

  4. sam says:

    Why’re you guys ignoring the Mormon issue?

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    Historically, the Republican candidate has been whomever is perceived to be next in line. Hence Bill Clinton’s comment that “In every presidential election, Democrats want to fall in love; Republicans just fall in line.”

    The key factors appear to be: regular Republican, in the public eye over a substantial period of time, previously sought the nomination. The last factor is probably the least hard and fast, cf. George W. Bush.

    If those remain the guidelines it would seem to rule out Michelle Bachmann and Ron Paul. Neither are regular, i.e. establishment, Republicans. That leaves Romney, Pawlenty, and Daniels. Romney has the baggage noted and is problematic for Tea Party Republicans.

    Pawlenty has been out of office for a while and wasn’t exactly a household word when he was in office. Will Mitch Daniels run?

  6. Dave Schuler says:

    BTW, IIRC Republicans only nominated two candidates with three syllables in their names during the 20th century (T. Roosevelt and Eisenhower). That would seem to rule out Pawlenty.

  7. PD Shaw says:

    sam, as I recall, Romney was doing well with Christian evangelicals in Iowa until Huckabee came along with overt Christian campaign messages, and questions were raised about whether Mormons are Christians. Romney is currently running second to Huckabee in Iowa and I think the issue remains minimal unless it gets raised again like it was before.

  8. PD Shaw says:

    Dave, they changed their names to Ike and Teddy.

    I like Pawl?

  9. @James:

    I interpreted Will’s assertion as meaning that the only three candidates are having a chance to win are Obama, Pawlenty and Daniels.

    He clearly dismisses Romney and Gingrich and of the Republicans left, the only serious types are Pawlenty and Daniels. The rest are either utter unknowns or on the fringe-y side.

  10. Rock says:

    If Obama is as unbeatable as some suggest, why would anyone, especially the Democrats, political pundits, pompous pontificators and other barking media moonbats, be concerned about who the Republican nominee will be?

  11. James Joyner says:

    @Rock:

    Obama’s not unbeatable. But Carter and Bush 41 are the only two presidents in my lifetime not re-elected–and both lost to highly charismatic opponents. So he has to be considered the favorite.

    Second, while there’s always attention on who the other party will nominate, it’s particularly interesting this year because of what happened in 2010. If the Republicans nominate Michele Bachmann, for example, Obama win in a landslide because swing voters will all swing his way. But if we nominate a bland centrist, the Tea Party types may stay home.

  12. Scott O. says:

    why would anyone … be concerned about who the Republican nominee will be?

    Some of us simply enjoy watching the circus.

  13. TG Chicago says:

    Of course, Carter and Bush 41 are two of the last five presidents to run for re-election, so recent history suggests that re-election is far from certain.

    That said, your comment about the opponents being highly charismatic is valid. But then, both 1980 and 1992 were economically troubled times, and 2012 likely will be as well (though perhaps on a slow upswing).

  14. michael reynolds says:

    I think you’re selling Huntsman short. Will the Mormon money stay with Romney or will they decide he’s damaged goods?

  15. Boyd says:

    I’m trying to remember, where did Clinton stand in the polls at this point in the ’92 election? Nowhere, right?

    The big difference here, though, and building on James’ most recent comment, the situation in ’92 (and ’80 as well) was not just that the incumbent was running against a very charismatic opponent, but the incumbent was very much the opposite of charismatic. It was not at all like the situation.

  16. Huntsman is potentially interesting, but he is radically unknown at the moment in the general public.

  17. James Joyner says:

    @TG Chicago: Bush and Carter were two of the weakest campaigners to win the presidency in the modern era and both were defeated by two of the strongest.

    But of the most recent elected presidents whose re-election fates we know:

    Bush 43 reelected
    Clinton reelected
    Bush 41 defeated
    Reagan reelected
    Carter defeated
    Nixon reelected

    Johnson didn’t stand for reelection and likely would have lost. Then again, one could just as easily consider 1964 JFK’s reelection.

    Eisenhower reelected
    Truman reelected
    FDR reelected three times

    @michael reynolds Huntsman’s so incredibly unknown–I’d never heard of him until the rumors started a couple months back–that I don’t see how he makes it to the top of the heap in 2012. Maybe 2016?

    s

  18. RickPatel says:

    The 2012 Republican nominee will be Alaskan Aphrodite Sarah Palin, if she is willing to accept the offer. The nomination has always been hers, to accept or to reject.

  19. michael reynolds says:

    There are a lot of people suggesting Huntsman is looking at 2016. I assume he is.

    Then again, the longshot horse has no chance when he’s running against Secretariat, but there’s no Secretariat in this race. This is a miserable field. Pawlenty, Daniels and Romney? Which one of these guys gets the base really excited? Which wins a debate with Obama? And on a side note, how do they avoid a Palin-like Veep that works for the Tea Party but creeps out independents?

  20. TG Chicago says:

    @Joyner:

    Bush and Carter were two of the weakest campaigners to win the presidency in the modern era…

    Can you elaborate? My understanding is that Carter’s campaigning was quite good, at least in regards to the 1976 nomination and general election contests. And in 1980, with the economy in bad shape, hostages in Iran, a primary fight with Kennedy and a major independent bid from Anderson, the quality of Carter’s campaigning was not that high on the list of his woes.

    (and it should be noted that 1992 was another year with a rough economy and Bush, like Carter, faced a primary challenge and a third party run)

    To bring it back to 2012, I don’t think Obama will have any serious trouble in the primaries or with third parties (though it’s not impossible), but the economy might be rough and you never know when a foreign policy problem will flare up.

    When did people first perceive Bush 41 as being vulnerable? I believe it was much later than this in the cycle.

  21. James Joyner says:

    @TG Chicago: Bush and Carter had uphill fights owing to the political and economic circumstances. I’m just noting that, in addition to that, neither were great communicators and they each lost to great communicators.

    Certainly, in May 1991 Bush looked like a shoe-in for reelection. The economy was strong and we’d just won our first war since Vietnam.

  22. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Romney is a helluva lot better general election candidate than a GOP primary candidate.

    If Romney did make it through the primary and provided he wasn’t completely torn to pieces then he’d be able to give the Media/Teleprompter a run for their money. Although in the end it’s difficult to envision anything other than a Media/Teleprompter victory, unless the economy nosedives further next spring and summer.

    Of course a Romney candidacy raises the ironic specter of Obama winning reelection by the margin of the bloc of social conservatives and others on the right or putative right who stay home and don’t vote or who vote third party. Deja vu all over again.

  23. JKB says:

    So what your saying is there is no way the Republicans are going to field a winning candidate. Romney for the DC Republican love is a loser candidate. He can’t fake sincerity and can’t realize a mistake (Romneycare) when he makes it, even years later when it has produced none of the promised results.

    Might be the year a third party candidate can run and win. We won’t know till we see a candidate with the willingness and strength to provide a vision for the future that includes jobs, prosperity and a correcting of the recent damage wrought by the Dems. But Reagan has passed and there doesn’t seem to be another one in the offing.

    But the hope could come from the hinterlands. To paraphrase Herman Cain, how’s that DC elite been working out for us?

  24. Trumwill says:

    A few observations:

    1) It’s not actually clear to me that Huck bowing out hurts Romney. It might, it might not. I think it depends on if Daniels gets in (maybe Huntsman). If no other major candidate gets in, there’s a good chance you’re looking at a two-person race, which forces all of the Romney-haters to coalesce around a single candidate. With Huckabee, they’d be divided in two. On the other hand, if Daniels does get in, Romney is in really, really good shape, and a four-person race would have been good for Huckabee and bad for Romney.

    2) While it’s true that the only two presidents to lose were GHB and Carter, GWB almost lost in 2004 to a remarkably lackluster candidate. I don’t think it would have taken Ronald Reagan to beat Carter and I’m not sure it would have taken Clinton to beat Bush. I think GHB or Dole and Tsongas would have been able to do it (less sure in the latter case). I believe the main determinant in 2012 will be Obama’s standing. The challenger will just need to demonstrate a readiness for the job (which I think Romney, Pawlenty, and Daniels would be able to do).

    3) Huntsman for 2016 sounds about right, though he would need to run in 2012 to get his name out there. On the other hand, he will have been out of office for quite some time. Pawlenty, by contrast, has been out of office for a year.

  25. TG Chicago says:

    Pretty much agree with Trumwill’s point #2.

    I do think that Joyner is hinting at an interesting point here when he talks about charisma or being a great communicator (I’d say those are largely synonymous in regards to presidential candidates).

    When a race features a noticeable charisma gap between candidates, that race always goes to the more charismatic candidate, right? Obama would never have even been nominated if not for his charisma. Bush 43 may very well have lost to Kerry and almost surely would have lost to Gore if not for Bush’s superior charisma.

    The only Republican who has been talked about who could possibly compete with Obama in the charisma department is Palin, and she’s clearly unelectable. On that basis, it should be easy for Obama to win re-election.

    Are there any examples I’m forgetting of charismatic candidates losing to less inspiring opponents? I don’t think it’s an ironclad rule; if the race was Palin vs Hillary Clinton, I think Clinton would overcome the charisma deficit to win. But I can’t think of any recent real-world examples.

  26. James Joyner says:

    @TG Chicago: Charisma and a sunny disposition aren’t absolutely essential but they help. In the TV era, we’ve had Kennedy, Reagan, Clinton, and Obama who clearly fit that mold. Nixon was the polar opposite of both and won on a combination of competence and ruthlessness. Carter was the consummate Outsider after Watergate. Bush 41 was Reagan’s heir. Bush 43 was exceedingly likable but not effective enough a communicator to qualify as charismatic–and lost in the popular vote to Clinton’s successor but wooden Al Gore.

    Obama is going to be hard to beat because he’s charismatic, likable, and disciplined. The OBL thing clearly helps, although it’s hard to say how much–the polls already show the bounce ending. The economy hurts tremendously, even though he inherited the mess. So did Carter, after all, but things worsened under both watches.

  27. Trumwill says:

    TGC, I can’t, but we’re looking at a pretty limited data set. Put another way, would John McCain have beat Hillary Clinton? I would say not, despite the fact that he is more charismatic, or at least inspiring. Also, I think that while GWB was immensely helped by The Beer Test in 2000, I think that he more-or-less lost it by 2004. On the other hand, he was running against Al Gore (whom, I should add, I believe would have decimated McCain in 2008).

    James, I think the main effect of the OBL event is less obvious than polls. Prior to that happening, the right was coalescing around a critique that could have been quite damaging: Obama is an indecisive lightweight who was unprepared for the presidency and has not risen to the occasion. OBL makes that case harder to make. My initial instinct was that it would have no bearing on 2012, but I’m now thinking it might.

  28. Kylopod says:

    >Bush 43 may very well have lost to Kerry and almost surely would have lost to Gore if not for Bush’s superior charisma.

    And we ought to remember that Bush, despite his superior charisma, lost the popular vote to Al Bore. So charisma may be overrated. As Trumwill alluded, the most notably charismatic presidents in modern times (Obama, Clinton, Reagan) came to office in elections that were basically shoe-ins for their party, due to poor economic conditions and unpopular incumbents. Furthermore, one of the most uncharismatic presidents of modern times–Nixon–was elected twice, the second time by a landslide. Though JFK’s defeat of Nixon in 1960 is often attributed to his superior charisma, it cannot be forgotten that he won only by a hair-breadth.

  29. jukeboxgrad says:

    RickPatel:

    The 2012 Republican nominee will be Alaskan Aphrodite Sarah Palin, if she is willing to accept the offer.

    I have been saying for a long time that Palin will run and will win the GOP nomination. With Huck and Trump dropping out, she looks stronger than ever. She will pick up their supporters.

    It will take a while before Cain drops out, but of course the excitement over him (and there’s a lot of that right now) will migrate to Palin. Same thing when Bachmann eventually drops out.

    Most human behavior is guided by emotion, not reason. This includes voting, and it definitely includes the voting done in GOP primaries (these days, at least). Yes, many GOP voters are strongly opposed to Palin, but none of the others (Romney et al) have a base even remotely as excited as her base. Therefore she will win despite the opposition. The excitement for her is basically unquenchable, especially when the other similar clowns (Trump, Cain, Bachmann) are gone.

    No one will be able to convince Palin that she shouldn’t run because Obama will beat her. Why will no one be able to convince her? Because her ambition, self-regard and drive for attention are extreme (even compared to other politicians, and that’s saying a lot). Palin herself is a good example of someone who is guided by emotion, not reason. Palin’s emotionalism is a big part of what makes her exciting and attractive. Compare to Obama, who is called ‘cold’ and ‘bloodless.’ Those are basically synonyms for ‘rational.’

    A few months ago, the GOP establishment was trying pretty hard to crush Palin. But they are going to give up on that. Why? Because Romney dug his own grave with that silly health-care speech. And Obama caught Osama. And the economy has a long way to go, but it’s getting better. So the serious people in the GOP know that 2012 is probably a lost cause (they understand what Joyner is saying about how presidents tend to get re-elected) and they’re looking ahead to 2016. From their perspective, letting Palin crash and burn in 2012 is a good way to solve the GOP’s Palin problem, and clear the way for a fresh crop of grownups in 2016.

    I think Palin will wait as long as possible before committing. And the narrative she presents will go like this: ‘I was really hoping for someone else to step up to the plate, but at this point it’s clear that no one else can do this but me; so I must say yes, despite the sacrifice for me and my family.’

    =================
    Trumwill:

    the main effect of the OBL event is less obvious than polls. Prior to that happening, the right was coalescing around a critique that could have been quite damaging: Obama is an indecisive lightweight who was unprepared for the presidency and has not risen to the occasion. OBL makes that case harder to make.

    This is a key point.

    Those defending the inexperience of a Palin or Cain have typically said something defensive like this: ‘yeah, but Obama also doesn’t have experience.’ That argument had some traction against Obama 2008, but you’re pointing out that it doesn’t work against Obama 2012.

  30. mattb says:

    Just responding to the last post, I don’t think there is much chance of Palin being the nominee, because, quite frankly, I don’t think she wants it.

    Further, I think she is smart enough to know that being the nominee would be the worst possible career move. And, I honestly don’t think she’s as delusional as Newt. By that I mean that up until a few days ago, I didn’t think Newt seriously though he had a chance.

    However, after someone stepped me through a number of the small moves hes made in the last two years, I actually think he does. Or he’s at least interested in risking being a “Dole” or a “Mondale.”

    I suspect that Palin is all to aware of what became of Dole and Mondale. And I think she also realizes that her brand cannot work in a general election (sorry Palinites, but you are quite frankly being unrealistic if you seriously think that she can win over independent voters). Her brand (and Newts) is with the “hard right/social conservatives.”

    Finally, if you’re going to be a pundit, it’s far better to be the person people wished ran (especially when the odds are still against your team) than being the person who did run and lost (compare Huckabee’s move to say Dole).

  31. Trumwill says:

    I don’t think Palin would be the nominee (if she ran) because I don’t think she has the organizational skills and she is not willing to hand control over to a Karl Rove who does have the requisite skills. There’s also the question of work ethic. Running for president is hard work. You don’t successfully do it half way.

  32. jukeboxgrad says:

    mattb:

    I think she is smart enough to know that being the nominee would be the worst possible career move.

    I basically agree with all your arguments. I think you’ve done a good job of describing why it would be smart for her to not run. And I agree with you that she is definitely smart enough to understand all those reasons. However, I think in the end she will be guided by her emotions.

    She loves attention. Why has she been getting lots of attention over the last year or so? Because lots of people (both fans and non-fans) think she might run and find that intriguing. The moment she declares that she’s not running, suddenly there isn’t much reason for anyone to keep paying attention to her. I think that’s an outcome she dreads.

    And on a rational level, look at it this way. She’ll never have a better chance at getting nominated. The GOP field is especially weak, for various reasons. It will probably be much stronger in 2016.

    Being the first female major-party candidate for POTUS would be a nice thing to have on her resume, and this might be her last good chance to achieve that.

    I realize that she’s young and could run in 2020 or beyond, but she realizes that she will be less pretty and her fans could be bored with her by then. And she’s not really planning on working hard to become more serious and educated (something the GOP was sort of assuming she would have been doing over the last couple of years). So her best shot is now.

    ===============
    Trumwill:

    I don’t think Palin would be the nominee (if she ran) because I don’t think she has the organizational skills and she is not willing to hand control over to a Karl Rove who does have the requisite skills. There’s also the question of work ethic. Running for president is hard work. You don’t successfully do it half way.

    I basically agree with your description of her personality. For these reasons (and for other reasons) she couldn’t beat Obama. But because the rest of the GOP field is so weak, I think she will get the nomination, despite her laziness. Because she’s the only GOP candidate with a core group of deeply infatuated, motivated fans.

    Obviously this is just my personal prediction. There’s plenty of room for me to be wrong. But there’s no doubt about this: it’s fun to watch the show.

  33. jukeboxgrad says:

    Oh yeah, when I say that Palin is the only GOP candidate with a base of highly motivated fans, of course that’s not quite right. Paul also has a healthy base of highly motivated fans. But probably Palin’s base is bigger and more riled up.