Thursday, April 21, 2011

Is 2012 The Year That Republicans Act More Like Democrats?

The Presidential Primary season is about to gear up over the next several months.  The primaries are still a year away but any serious candidate has to be establishing the necessary organizational and fundraising platform now if they are going to be competitive.

The perspective that I have on presidential primaries is similar to my view of the two parties. They fundamentally view the world in two different ways.  Democrats see the world in much more theoretical and idealistic terms.  Republicans tend to be more practical and pragmatic in their outlook.

Democrats tend to favor the most idealistic of the candidates. They seem to be more easily smitten with the new and fresh face. Who is the knight in shining armor that is going to make everything right?

Republicans have a tendency to nominate the most practical choice.  Or the steadiest hand with the lowest downside.  Being the fresh face in a field of Republican hopefuls has historically been a risky proposition.   Republicans have not been prone to roll the dice with their candidates.  Democrats are more like riverboat gamblers.

Look at the record.  The Democrats nominated the young JFK over Hubert Humphrey and Lyndon Johnson in 1960.  LBJ was not seriously challenged in 1964 but Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy caused him to withdraw from the race in 1968. Humphrey got the nomination that year but he did it by relying on the party bosses.  He did not run in one primary.

The Democrats came back in 1972 with liberal, anti-war South Dakota Senator George McGovern. They then turned to a relatively unknown Georgia governor in 1976.  Carter survived a challenge by Teddy Kennedy in 1980 who arguably had the more established political resume.  

The Democrats went against type in 1984 with former VP Mondale but not without becoming enamored with super-cool Senator Gary Hart. They came back with a big bet with Michael Dukakis in 1988.  Bill Clinton, another young first time Presidential candidate from a small state, prevailed in 1992.  They went against type with Al Gore in 2000 but he was only opposed by one candidate that year, Bill Bradley.  They then started a love affair with Howard Dean before he imploded early in 2004 and John Kerry was able to fill the vacuum.  Of course, untested Barack Obama then upset Hillary Clinton in 2008.

The Republicans, on the other hand, always seem to be looking for the most practical candidate they can find.  Nixon in 1960. Barry Goldwater won the nomination over Nelson Rockefeller and Bill Scranton in 1964 that was against type.  However, that was a watershed year that marked the end of the East Coast moderates influence in the GOP.  Nixon was the nominee again in 1968 and 1972.  Ford held off the emerging conservative movement with Reagan in 1976.  However, it opened the door for Reagan to be the practical choice for the nomination in 1980.  

Bush, another VP, gained the nomination in 1988 and held off challenger Pat Buchanan in 1992.  Steady Bob Dole was the guy in 1996.  George W. Bush was a newcomer in 2000 but he had the advantage of his father's name and an organization that positioned him as the establishment favorite from the start.  Of course, John McCain prevailed in 2008 against newcomers Romney and Huckabee.

What does this tell us about handicapping the 2012 Republican primary field? If past is prelude, look for the nominee to be Romney, Huckabee or Gingrich. Romney and Huckabee would seem to be the candidates that most closely fit the past profile. Gingrich is a riskier choice based on his more controversial past public profile.  Sarah Palin is Gingrich times two.  The rest of the field has an uphill battle considering past history.

Will the Tea Party movement change the paradigm?  That is the big question. Many Republican voters are clearly concerned about the status quo.  Tea Party supporters are not interested in business as usual. This may open the door in 2012 for a candidate that could catch fire like some of the past Democrat nominees. A pragmatic straight talker who says what he means and means what he says.  

Chris Christie has that type of persona.  The same for Paul Ryan. We are seeing the same thing out of Donald Trump. Christie and Ryan say that they are not running.  Trump is looking like he is going to take the plunge.  

John McCain named his campaign bus "The Straight Talk Express" in 2008.   My hunch is that this is what Republican voters are looking for in 2012.  This actually works against the top group. Their political brand is better known.  Can they be credible in challenging the status quo when they are viewed as the status quo?  Donald Trump's recent surge in the polls seems to bear this out.  However, I do not think Trump will be able to withstand the scrutiny that is required in the heat of the campaign.  He simply has taken too many inconsistent positions over the years.  

I look at Trump right now like the "rabbit" in a mile race when one guy is sent out to set the pace for the others in the field.  He starts fast but he cannot finish.  However, he has shown the type of straight talk that voters are looking for.  In that way he is like the "rabbit" pushing the other runners to run faster and harder and showing them the pace they need to win.  Trump is clearly showing the other candidates that politics as usual is not what voters are looking for.

This provides an opening for a new face to emerge.  A Mitch Daniels or Tim Pawlenty? A Michele Bachmann or Herman Cain if you want to stretch your imagination.  However, new faces need to gain attention and credibility early to attract the organization and money to survive the first votes.  Christie and Ryan have the platform to get the attention and credibility they need without getting in the race early.  The others are going to have to find their own ways to connect with voters to show that they are both an idealistic and practical choice.

Will 2012 be the year that Republicans act like Democrats?  The primary system we have today is not built for late entrants. Therefore, the remainder of this year will likely determine if a new face emerges from the crowd that captures the mood of Republican voters.  History has shown that is not easily accomplished.  It will take someone that can clearly distance themselves from the pack of fresh faces by early next year.  If there is uncertainty, Republican voters will likely gravitate to the most pragmatic choice.   

UPDATE: Charles Krauthammer handicaps the 2012 Republican field of candidates.

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