Friday, December 24, 2010

Handicapping the Republican Primary Field

Over the Christmas holidays, possible Republican Presidential candidates will be involved in important discussions about whether to run or not. We’ve already heard many of their names: Mike Pence, Mitch Daniels, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Mike Huckabee, Haley Barbour, Tim Pawlenty etc.

Before ranking the ones with the best chance of winning, it is helpful to think about what Republican primary voters will want out of their candidate, and what qualities will be helpful in a general election against Obama. The tea party is still ascendant, so fiscal issues will be top priority. They want to repeal Obamacare and dramatically reduce the deficit. To make a strong candidate against Obama, the nominee will need to make a coherent conservative critique of Obama’s economic policies in a way that doesn’t alarm moderates. In other words, someone with a strong policy background who can make a credible case, but in a way that resonates with voters is needed. Anyway, here’s the list!

1. Mitch Daniels

I’m sure this comes as a surprise pick to most. But I think there is good reason to give him this ranking. Daniels has a record cutting government in Indiana that he can point to on the campaign trail, which will make him appeal to tea partiers in the primary. But he also extended health insurance to more Hoosiers and hired more welfare caseworkers, two facts which will immunize him to some extent to charges that he is an anti-government zealot. He has a mild demeanor and his talk of a “truce” on social issues might end up helping with moderates in the general election. While he has spent the last several years as a Governor, he was also an insider who worked in the Bush White House and for Ronald Reagan, so he will have important connections to raise money for the long haul.

2. Mike Huckabee

Huckabee has been an outspoken critic of many recent measures such as Obamacare. These criticisms should mollify the “Club for Growth” set that had issues with him in 2008. He is charismatic and will retain a strong following with evangelicals, who dominate in Iowa and South Carolina. He has a fair amount of experience as Governor of Arkansas, which will help differentiate him from Sarah Palin. The one thing he will need to work on is making sure that he can raise enough money to be truly competitive all through the primaries.

3. Tim Pawlenty

Pawlenty has a decent policy background as Governor of Minnesota and a mild manner which should avoid startling moderates. He has worked hard at putting together a good organization. I see him being a good second choice for a lot of voters because he is disliked by almost no one. This could really play to his advantage in Iowa’s caucus, where there is second choice voting.

4. Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin has a devoted following, and she will be especially popular with women and evangelicals. Her big problem is her perceived lack of gravitas because of her short experience as Governor of Alaska. It is too late in the game to rectify the problem. While many in the Republican base like her, they will start to wonder, will the general electorate take her seriously? This coupled with her divisiveness among moderates will make primary voters pause long and hard before they vote for her.

5. Mitt Romney

Romney has a strong organization, access to lots of money, and gravitas when it comes to economic issues. What’s the problem? It might be more accurate to ask what are the problems? He supported universal healthcare in Massachusetts; the system implemented is quite similar to what Obama ended up doing. Conservatives hate the law. So Romney will be faced with a choice: he can repudiate his support, and reinforce his image as a flip-flopper without convictions, or he can continue to embrace something so similar to the Obamacare conservatives so detest. I don’t see how Romney can get around this issue easily. That is to say nothing of Romney’s Mormonism, or his image among many as a slick politician.

It’s a shame, because Romney’s credibility on economic issues might actually make him the best candidate in the general election.

Merry Christmas!

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