Why the Weak Republican Field?
By Taylor Marvin
Ezra Klein is curious why the Republican primary field is so weak:
“In 2008, Republicans fielded five candidates who looked, at various points in the process, like plausible nominees and even plausible presidents: Mitt Romney, John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, and Mike Huckabee.
In 2012, they’re fielding two-and-a-half plausible nominees/presidents: Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman.”
Andrew Sullivan agrees, but sees Republican candidates’ weakness as more due to chance than any structural factors:
“Christie isn’t ready. Daniels didn’t have the charisma or balls. Jeb’s last name is Bush. The new crop of governors – Rubio, Scott, Walker – is too green. Barbour is too Southern. Palin couldn’t handle more scrutiny of her actual life. Sometimes, no grand theory is needed.”
“Clearly there’s something to this. But less than you might think. In the first place, I don’t think Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, Chris Christie and Paul Ryan sat this one out. They ran, they just didn’t make it to the primaries. The “Invisible Primary” is still a Primary. A number of things persuaded them, as they convinced Tim Pawlenty, to withdraw from the race. Mainly, of course, the realisations that they didn’t want it enough and weren’t likely to win.”
I think that Massie is on to something here. Barbour, Daniels and company did run — though they didn’t embark on serious campaigning as early as Romney, they seriously competing for the nomination but were vetted out. Jonathan Bernstein convincingly made this argument months ago:
“Without further information, it’s hard to say whether Barbour (or any other candidate with a similar announcement) should be counted as ‘did not run’ or ‘winnowed out early.’ My inclination, again pending further information, is to put them all (Barbour, Thune, Palin and Huck if they don’t show up in Iowa) in the ‘winnowed out early’ category. At least those (unlike, say, Jeb Bush) who have sort-of, in-a-way run during the invisible primary stage.”
So that leaves us, as Ezra notes, with two-and-a-half plausible nominees, a field that is actually a fairly strong by historical standards. Romney, Huntsman, and Perry are all fairly charismatic candidates with strong resumes, and as former governors of large states they are exactly what political parties typically look for in a nominee. Yes, now that he’s actually begun campaigning in earnest Perry appears to be much less of a skilled politician than he did in Texas, but I’d argue that this is largely a fluke — Perry’s ineptitude in the debates is an individual weakness escaped vetting during his time campaigning against a string of weak competitors in Texas, rather than evidence that 2012’s Republican field as a whole is uniquely weak.
I also think that Andrew Sullivan is on to something. While Christie probably realized that his short tenure as governor would perhaps fatally weaken his campaign if he decided to run, Barbour and Daniels are both experienced politicians with the qualifications that would have catapulted them into top-tier status without Romney’s political baggage and Perry’s increasingly obvious personal weaknesses. While their decisions not to formally run were likely partially due to being vetted out of the race, I’d argue that there’s more going on here. This type of early-season vetting is typically driven by party elites. The problem is that we are seeing a historic shift in who these elites actually are — instead of party officials and influential donors, Republican primary vetting is increasingly driven by media figures like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News personalities. These actors certainly respond to traditional party elites, but they aren’t beholden to them. This shift, combined with Tea Party activism that’s pushed GOP primary voters farther and farther to the right, makes for a very unstable vetting environment.
The traditional rules of the primary process are less relevant now than they were in previous cycles, giving strong Republican candidates an incentive to wait for another election cycles, where the primary process will be more predictable. This isn’t an abstract concern — every day Herman Cain spends as the Republican frontrunner is a day that a serious candidate isn’t consolidating their campaign, a delay that will likely weaken whoever does eventually emerge as the Republican nominee. Though weak incumbents have historically encouraged strong potential opponents to run, despite Obama’s obvious weakness going in to 2012 strong Republican candidates are likely inclined to wait for another election cycle. Romney’s been committed since 2008 and knows that this election is his last, but young Republican stars like Daniels and Christie don’t need to run in 2012. Better to wait until 2016 or 202o, when the political landscape of the Republican Party is likely to be more stable and consequently predictable and safer than it is now.