Tradition means a lot in the Republican Party, and when it comes to presidential nominees, few traditions are more entrenched than that of nominating “the next guy.” For decades, the party and its primary voters regularly selected the veteran candidate in the field. Running for president as a Republican meant waiting your turn and the party regularly turned to candidates who had previously run, but come up short, as its standard bearer. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, and John McCain were all former primary losers who eventually became the party’s nominee. Given this tradition, conventional wisdom says former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee are best positioned for a 2012 run. If, however, 2010 taught us anything, it’s that there is nothing traditional about today’s Republican primary process.
Republican primary voters were in no mood to play by the rules last year. Insurgent candidates regularly knocked off heavily favored, establishment opponents in GOP primaries across the country. Candidates from coast to coast rode this anti-establishment wave — from Joe Miller in Alaska, to Marco Rubio in Florida, to Christine O’Donnell in Delaware to Mike Lee in Utah. The grassroots uprising by Republican primary voters — fueled by the Tea Party movement — created an environment where the traditional rules about who could win and how to win in a Republican primary no longer applied. In this new political bizarro world, conventional political assets were now poisonous political liabilities. Unless this political climate changes dramatically in the next few months, we should expect a 2012 nomination fight unlike any we have seen before.
This new political order — or maybe it’s better described as a new political disorder — creates a new lens through which we must view the 2012 candidates. As with every change, there are winners and losers.
By many traditional standards, a Palin candidacy is doomed from the start. A potential Palin run is savaged by the GOP’s elites, and thanks to the constant and unfair attacks by the mainstream media, Palin’s negatives are some of the highest of the 2012 hopefuls. Fortunately for Governor Palin, and for her cadre of supporters, the old rules don’t apply. The current environment favors candidates like Palin who refuse to play by the rules, who thumb their noses at the establishment and who consistently challenge conventional wisdom. Further, Palin, who is viewed as the public face of the Tea Party, enjoys a popularity and credibility among conservative activists that is unparalleled.
If Governor Palin is the public face of the Tea Party movement, then Herman Cain is the movement’s soul. Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, who has never held elected office and who is largely unknown to most of the American electorate, is a rock star on the Tea Party circuit. Like many of the successful insurgent campaigns of 2010, the Cain campaign can draw on a deep well of support among conservative bloggers, talk radio hosts and new media opinion leaders. Those who dismiss Cain as this cycle’s Morry Taylor do so at their own peril. Cain could surprise many at the Ames Straw Poll in August.
The mainstream media doubts Trump is actually running, in part because they are working off the old playbook. Trump would certainly be an unconventional candidate — fortunately, these are unconventional times. Trump’s larger-than-life persona and his populist message could excite party activists in a big way; and his ample personal wealth could allow him to outspend the rest of the field. Trump is the ultimate outsider, a self-made man who can not only talk the talk about shaking up Washington, he can walk the walk. The mainstream media thinks the Trump talk is just about publicity for Trump, but that doesn’t even make sense. Trump is a guy with 100% name recognition and a man who generates press just by walking out the door in the morning. Trump is serious and in this environment he should be taken seriously.
Never before has the perception of being the “front-runner” been so toxic. In a normal environment, Romney would seem to make the perfect 2012 candidate for Republicans. Telegenic, a presidential campaign veteran, a businessman, and well-liked by the Washington establishment, Governor Romney has done everything according to the book — unfortunately he is working off a book that is no longer operative.
No one polls better in hypothetical general election match-ups than former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Huckabee enjoys low negatives, a show on Fox News, and was the darling of evangelical conservatives in 2008. Huckabee’s record also includes tax increases, support for a cap-and-trade scheme, a protectionist approach to trade, and his own Willie Horton incident. Huckabee drew fire from the economically conservative Club for Growth in 2008 because of that record. Thanks to the Tea Party, the economic wing of the GOP is even stronger today than it was in 2008 and the base has shown little appetite for candidates with records of supporting any expansion of government.
Like Romney, Pawlenty is checking all the boxes a candidate is supposed to check when running for the Republican nomination for president. He’s a regular visitor to Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and he doled out plenty of cash to Republican candidates in the midterms. A fixture on cable news outlets, Pawlenty is the most aggressive 2012 hopeful. Not to mention he is a former governor of a battleground state — Minnesota. Sounds great, right? Yes, on paper it does. Unfortunately, Pawlenty’s relaxed style is a poor fit for the mood of the base. Pawlenty and his approach to a 2012 run are far too conventional for what is shaping up to be a very unconventional primary.
Christopher R. Barron is a Republican political consultant and Chairman of the Board of GOProud, a national organization for gay conservatives and their allies. He blogs at Red Barron.