Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Potential WH 2012 GOP Field

Jay Cost has a pretty good article out today arguing that the main reason Mitt Romney is doing so well is that he was lucky in one critical way: there just weren't very many potential serious opponents out there, thanks to GOP losses in 2006 and 2008 and some apparently random quirks of fate (such as that the Governor of California wasn't eligible, for example).

I think there's some truth to it, but one has to be careful with this sort of analysis. Cost notes that every GOP nominee since 1948 was either a Senator, a Governor of a decent sized state, or a high-ranking exec branch official. That's true...but it's also perhaps a bit misleading. If we expand to include both parties, we get Bill Clinton from small-state Arkansas. If we also expand to include candidates who came fairly close to winning, we might add Dick Gephardt from the House, and perhaps even Jack Kemp. Cost limits his potential field to Senators who have completed a full term, but of course Barack Obama didn't, and neither had John Edwards in 2004, who was just completing his term. Cost also includes recently retired Governors, but not recently retired Senators.

The thing is that thinking about this stuff is tricky. On the one hand, it's certainly a useful exercise to use the past as a guide to the future: knowing that no one similar to Herman Cain or Michele Bachmann had ever come close to a nomination was a pretty good indication that neither of them would, either. But caution is very much in order: I'm sure that it wouldn't take very long to imagine something that would seem to have disqualified every past nominee on the grounds of no one with that particular trait (or missing that particular trait) had ever won before.

I guess the other thing I'd say is that Cost's pyramid structure makes plenty of sense (with serious candidates at the thin point at the top, and all GOP voters down at the bottom), but he doesn't work it enough. I did a post a ways back in which I talked about various tiers of presidential candidates. The top tier would be former and sitting VPs (or Gore 2000 or Mondale 1984), previous runners-up (Reagan 1980 or Dole 1996). The second tier are the people Cost talks about: big-state current and recent Senators and Governors. And then you would have Senators and Governors from small states, and maybe cabinet officials, prominent Members of the get the idea.

Anyway, the point is that Romney was certainly lucky this time and in 2008 that there weren't any real top tier candidates available (although you can make a case that Dan Quayle was top-tier and could have been a formidable candidate had he attempted to revive his career). And then of the second-tier people...well, it's hard to know. Surely some potentially serious contenders, such as Bill Frist and Jeb Bush, really didn't want to run this time. But others -- Huckabee, Palin, Daniels, Pawlenty, Barbour, Thune -- sure seemed to at least kick the tires a little. As you've heard me say before, we really don't know whether they wound up not running now because they chose not to try or because they did try and were defeated: they were politely told that they would not win the support of party actors whose support is necessary to win. And if they were defeated, we don't know to what extent it was because of some weakness in them as potential candidates, or to what extent it was because they were beaten by Mitt Romney. And without knowing those things, it's hard to know how much of Romney's current position is luck and how much is skill.


  1. The reason we have a weak Republican field is the day after Obama's win in 2008, any sane Republican would say, let's wait 8 years. Nobody could have guessed how badly Obama has governed and how he allowed the Republican Presidential Party to come back.

  2. I've been thinking about the weakness of the GOP field lately, and I think people are overlooking a major structural difference between the two parties. One thing that unites the Republican Party is its contempt for government, and the feeling that anyone who makes a career out of politics is a loser or a thief. That's gotta limit the talent that enters GOP electoral politics, doesn't it?

    A talented, ambitious young person with Democratic leanings is going to think about running for Congress, with an eye toward making a difference in this country. A talented, ambitious young person with Republican leanings is going to go to Silicon Valley and become a venture capitalist, and complain about how awful the government is.

    Who are the most influential people in modern Republican politics? Roger Ailes, the Koch Brothers, Rush Limbaugh, Grover Norquist... all people who haven't spent a single day working in government. If the GOP wants to strengthen its bench for upcoming presidential elections, it's going to have to stop with the attitude that government is for chumps.

  3. Best part about that link:

    "Speaking in generalities, the “structure of political opportunity” for the presidency looks something like this:"

    Followed immediately on my page by:

    Mitt Romney 2012?
    Vote Here Now
    (You know, one of those silly "vote here" ads for Newsmax on the internet that just seeks to get traffic, with Romney's picture in it)

    I just was confronted by "the opportunity structure looks like".....Mitt Romney.

  4. @TN: I partly buy your argument about self-sorting and totally don't buy your argument about non-politicians' influence.

    1. Self-sorting definitely leads to different pools of people in different fields. (I speak as a woman in a field that is increasingly male-dominated at each next stage up.) But two comments:

    a. It happens on the left, too. In fact, it's what happened to the Left: after people started thinking bleeding hearts and Marxian critics of late capitalism &c. were unelectable, those people either changed their platforms, or stopped trying to get elected and went into third parties, non-profits, activism, journalism, or academia.

    b. Certainly Rockefeller Republicans now (after having been weeded out) self-sort out of politics. But going into business hardly precludes going into politics later in life, especially on the Republican side. Mitt Romney, Ron Johnson, Darrell Issa, &c. may have looked twenty years ago like they'd self-sorted out of politics, but here we are.

    2. As to "the most influential people in modern Republican politics" -- you seem to have in mind a very personalized and somewhat media-oriented conception of "influence." I don't think that's right. Roger Ailes and Grover Norquist don't matter per se; they matter insofar as they express the desires, demands, and priorities of various groups of Republicans. The right-wing media universe matters, and the anti-tax lobby matters, but not because of Ailes or Limbaugh or Norquist. Mitch McConnell and Jim DeMint, on the other hand, as individuals make a lot of decisions that matter. So do Rick Scott, Paul LePage, and so on. Because it matters a lot who's trying to execute party programs and different people really do tackle it in different ways. If you don't believe me, imagine that Bill Frist is still Minority Leader and Denny Hastert is still Speaker!

  5. Having thrown in with the Weekly Standard, Cost doesn't want to admit that the comical inanity and chaos on the R side says anything about the Rs.

  6. Romney is last man standing more as a result of shifts in the party, than to luck or skill. After the devastating losses in 2006 and 2008, the normal tack for a party would have been back to the center. Instead, the GOP doubled down on the extremism and the obstruction, managing to weaken Obama enough and rally their base to win big in 2010. The impact of this on the GOP nominating process has not been trivial. Given the extremist and anti-establishment bent of the GOP base right now, there just isn't a lot of oxygen out there for perceived moderates. Romney, as a result of his experience running in 2008, his fundraising prowess, and his decent debating skill, sucks up all that oxygen. The other properly credentialed candidates that kicked the tires on running basically figured that out. If they wanted to run, they would have to do it as being anti-establishment and extremist if there name wasn't Romney. The guys whose names were floated or toyed with running either couldn't do it or wouldn't do it. The luck for Romney comes into play if the early contests play out in a way that prevents the base from locking in on one anti-romney candidate before its too late.

  7. Romney is where he's at because of one thing and one thing ONLY: He pumped $40M of his own cash into his primary campaign of 2008, buying public recognition and setting the table for this latest run.

    Romney = Ross Perot, in other words. He bought a campaign for himself.


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