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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.”

However, Alex Massie isn’t convinced (via Sullivan):

“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.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kim #

    Hey Taylor, I like this sum-up of the diff perspectives on why the heck the GOP is ridiculous right now. A few years ago I think we all realized the moderate right lacked leadership – no one to carry a message with charisma AND competence.

    I guess another thing to possibly consider is that it is not really acceptable or “cool” to be a young college-educated conservative (at least in CA!) They’re ostracized by just about everyone, knowledgable or not. Could that environment also be discouraging the development a of charismatic, educated, moderately conservative leader?

    My argument isn’t really about 2012. This upcoming race is affected by (like you/Sullivan argued above) TP politics, media and most of all, an economy thats getting everyone confused about what’s “right.”

    But if we don’t find a reasonable leadership counterpart from the right soon, we’ll have the same problem in 2024, too. It’s bad for both sides.

    October 21, 2011
  2. Bo #

    Is the question why the weak field?

    I liked the article. Some valid points, especially about Cain hurting the chances of it being Romney, who sadly will get it, because the only other intelligent and still relevant (soooo Huntsman is out lol) candidate is …is… Paul. (you know that hurt me)
    He has his ideology and he sticks by it. I disagree with him on pretty much everything but he seems to be the only one who knows who he actually is, and represents himself in the same way constantly. His debate answers follow his ideals and its kinda nice. I just think he is to far out there for most people.

    As for the weak field? Most of the heavyweights in the GOP seemed to stay out of it and I think this is why. Two things:

    1. That stereotypical time period when most candidates start to run, because of fundraising and publicity, was right when Obama seemed to be doing very well. There was the Tuscon thing which bumped dems, “He” just killed Osama, unemployment dipped a bit, his polls went up. So that deterred people.
    Just check Jan, 2011 out for Obama. Guy was killing it. (lol pun)

    2. The Tea Party. We elect moderates and thats not who the Tea Party wants. So you would have to appeal to independents, republicans, and the Tea Party. Thats really hard to do (look at the current candidates) They push you to the right and when you speak in front of them at these debates you wouldn’t dare say something for fear of getting booed. Then when you do it is going to be used against you in a few months.

    Since Running takes a lot of effort I think that those two things plus personal issues for each individual just made 2016 seems so much better.

    October 21, 2011
  3. Chris C. #

    I see no evidence that talk radio show hosts are playing a bigger role than they have before. Only Reagan and Goldwater fit the mold of the kind of beloved-by-talk-radio candidate since WWII and they’re definitely the exception, not the rule. The likely nominee will be Romney, who fits the mold of the fairly moderate kind of candidate nominated in the past. Fringe right-wing candidates getting momentum early on is also not new; see Pat Buchanan in 1992 or Steve Forbes in 1996. The primaries themselves have a remarkable way of sorting out the serious candidates from the not-so-serious and Herman Cain is going to experience his collapse soon enough. Yes, the Limbaughs of the GOP are a major obstacle to overcome–but they have been and will continue to be a powerful but not decisive voice.

    I agree with Bo’s point that Obama looked so strong at first that few potential candidates were willing to commit early on to launching the huge campaign apparatus needed to be competitive nationally. Romney was a notable exception and it’s paid dividends for him. Many of the other candidates running now (Paul, Bachmann, Santorum, Cain, Gingrich, etc.) would’ve run no matter what for their pet issues. Perry is a notable exception and his boom-bust collapse is simply indicative of how hard it is to just parachute into a presidential race late.

    I do feel bad for Pawlenty (whose Colbert interview post-dropping-out was grimly hilarious). But Pawlenty didn’t bring much to the table that Romney didn’t have and was nowhere near as skilled a candidate. It’ll be interesting to see what he does in the next few years if he wants to stay active nationally.

    The Republican bench will be quite deep for the future. Jindal’s doing great things in Louisiana, Christie will have more experience and hopefully a re-election victory under his belt, Huntsman will have more time to introduce himself to voters and gain some “street cred,” and there’s no reason why Daniels couldn’t change his mind if conditions are right (I’m very much for a Daniels-Christie ticket).

    Finally, pretty much everything you said may as well apply to the Democrats. Nominating a smooth-talking, inexperienced candidate who inspired strong emotions in the base instead of the establishment pick? Sounds like the 2008 primary.

    October 23, 2011
  4. HEy Miteinander in der Tat sinnvoller Lesestoff. I bin in aller Regel auf Webseiten und betrachte mir Neuigkeiten durch. Thanx und Liebe Grüße 😀

    December 15, 2011

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