Welcome to the inaugural 2012 Republican Cattle Call. Welcome back to presidential politics. Welcome back to the land where Road to the White House is more watched than American Idol, where the Des Moines Register is more important than the New York Times, and where fringe House backbenchers delude themselves into believing that they could somehow catch fire and ride a $2 million treasury and a small, regional email list to the West Wing.
Four years and nearly two months ago, I wrote the first Republican cattle call of the 2008 cycle. At that point, three of the five leading candidates (McCain, Romney, and Huckabee) had already either officially declared or were pretty clearly committed to run. And while part of the reason for the delayed premier of the 2012 cattle call is undoubtedly my own sloth, the fact is that it's a far more fluid and late-developing field this time around. No serious candidate has even formed an exploratory committee yet -- in fact, the only Republican to even file exploratory papers thus far is Herman Cain, a millionaire best known as the former CEO of Godfather's Pizza. (NB: If you've been lucky enough to avoid it, lemme give you a tip: Godfather's Pizza is awful. Really, really bad. Like a Wonder Bread and Hunt's Ketchup toaster pizza.) And while Cain may add some Morry Taylor flavor to the campaign, he ain't winning. By contrast, McCain, Huck, Mittens, Rudy, Ron Paul, and a couple others had all formed exploratory committees by the end of January 2007.
So that's one big difference between '08 and '12 -- we just don't know who's going to end up running. Sure, it's almost certain that Romney and Pawlenty are in, and Santorum is working toward Platinum Diamond Elite status at the Manchester Holiday Inn . . . but beyond that, there are some mighty big and relevant questions. Huck is dragging his feet despite some obvious early advantages, Newt is playing the same coy game he played in 2008, and, of course, Sarah Palin is toying with the hearts of mama grizzlys and their gun fetishist husbands across the Heartland.
But the most important difference between this primary season and the last one has got to be the rise of the Tea Party. The Republican Party is, quite simply, a helluva lot angrier, stupider, and less in thrall to the Wall Street establishment than it was in 2008. That's not to say that the 2008 Republican electorate was some sort of mid-'60s Nelson Rockefeller/Jacob Javits salon at the Russian Tea Room; after all, the GOP has been heading due right for 30 years, and was dumb enough to elevate Sarah Palin to national prominence in 2008. It's not like right wingers just took over a moderate party a couple months ago. And despite all their professed populism, even the most dedicated teahadists continue to advocate policies which will line the pockets of plutocrats and further impoverish the tea part base.
But the GOP of the Reagan/Bush/Bush years had a handle on their crazies. There was a Republican establishment which could sell warmed-over Chamber factotums like Trey Grayson to the gay-bashing, abortion-hating, flag-waving base. Now, they reject the Graysons in favor of Rand Paul and Sharron Angle. And that marks a real change.
In one of the early cattle calls in January 2007, I suggested the following methodology for handicapping Republican primaries:
There's this trend in Republican primary campaigns, identified by jimsaco in the December Cattle Call, where the Establishment Candidate -- the guy who has the money and the institutional backing -- always wins the nomination, no matter how bleak his chances appear at any given time. Jimsaco dates the trend back to Dewey in '44, and it holds up reasonably well -- with the possible exception of '52, when Ike beat out Taft, and the more concrete exception of '64, when Goldwater upset Rocky.
What we'll call the "Establishment Candidate theory" has certainly held true since 1980, when Reagan entered the race with friends and momentum from '76 and plenty of money, and ended up fairly cruising to victory in Detroit. In '88, Poppy Bush overcame Reagan-era scandals, his own inadequacies as a candidate, a well-funded, well-run challenge from Bob Dole, and disillusionment among the hard right cadres to win the nomination -- in what probably is the premier example of the predictive value of the Establishment Candidate theory. In '96, it was Dole's Turn, and he had all the institutional backing he needed (especially after the flameout of his potential rival for the Establishment nod, Phil Gramm -- more on Gramm later) to earn the right to lose badly to Clinton. And in the year 2000, W was in the lead from the get-go -- check out the polls from as early as late '98, when Bush was just crushing the field -- and bested an inspired McCain campaign due in large part to his institutional support throughout the country (but especially in the state party in SC).
The post went on to identify McCain as the Establishment Candidate, and posit that he'd ride the Establishment advantages to the nomination. And even when McCain looked dead as Duncan Hunter, I never abandoned the idea that he'd be able to salvage his campaign by virtue of his position as the candidate of the Establishment. As he turned out, he did.
But I'm pretty sure that the "Establishment Candidate theory" won't help us much this time around. Today, we've got to try to figure out who has what it takes to both placate both the Gadsden Flag set and appeal to the waning, yet wealthy, party establishment. So without further ado, let's get to it.
As always, we'll use Markos's formula: "the rankings will be based on where I think they would place if the elections started today, using a mix of poll results, CW, media attention, buzz, and other intangibles." That's not to say that we won't project the rise and fall of various candidates; that's half the fun, after all. But the rankings will always be based on where the candidates would stand if Iowa unexpectedly caucused tomorrow.
1) Mike Huckabee. I'm not at all convinced that Huck is definitely running. First, he's pretty definitively postponed the decision till summer. Second, as he implied -- consciously or not -- in the interview linked above, he's concerned about fundraising, which isn't all that surprising, as he was really, really bad at it four years ago. It's a testament to his skills as a retail campaigner and his well-honed message (not to mention the generally weak '08 field) that he was able to come as close as he did to winning the nomination; but he knows that he's going to need to come a lot bigger this time around, and my hunch is that he's concerned about his ability to do so. After all, wouldn't it make sense, in light of his high name recognition and generally solid poll numbers (leading nationally, up big in Iowa, in a not-dispiriting third in NH) to gain a first-mover advantage by declaring now? As the only serious candidate in it to win it (sorry, Godfather), Huck would be well-positioned to start collecting checks from both GOP investors looking to get in the ground floor of a good bet and grassroots donors across the country eager to help someone, anyone, beat Obama.
The fact that he may well be squandering his favorable early positioning puzzles me, and causes me to seriously wonder whether he's genuinely got cold feet. It's not as if he doesn't have his weak spots beyond his past fundraising woes; his pardon, as Arkansas governor, of a felon who went on to kill four cops in Washington could set up as a Willie Horton meme, and there are plenty of ticky-tack, quintessentially Arkansas financial irregularities which were exposed in '08. Huck might just not have the stomach for the race, preferring to serve as a wise party elder and possible veep choice. But if he does run, and doesn't wait till his polling and recognition advantages have been erased, he's obviously going to be formidable -- particularly in light of the fact that the field, while arguably stronger than the last go-round, isn't exactly a clash of the titans. Palin's decision may be more momentous in terms of its effect on the overall campaign, but Huckabee's is far more fascinating.
(Not at all sure what Huck's thinking by getting on the Hosni Mubarak bandwagon -- that really doesn't seem like a smart way to appeal to the lovers of liberty in the Tea Party. I guess that it could be an implicit tip toward the Israel-fetishizing red heifer set among the evangelicals, who might see Mubarak as a bulwark against the Islamist hordes, but that's awfully subtle.)
2) Mitt Romney. If the Establishment Candidate theory still prevailed, Mittens would be sitting pretty. It's His Time, after all, and he can raise great gobs of money, and he's got solid name recognition, and he's more than acceptable to Wall Street and Walmart. Under the old rules, he'd be in great shape. But the old rules are no longer operative, and Mittens has to be petrified that he's going to be tarred as the intellectual father of Obamacare. I can think of no easier job for a media consultant than to write ominous ads morphing Romney into Obama, as the similarities between the Massachusetts health system and the Patient Protection Act are gravely noted by some guy who sounds like Sam Elliott witnessing a To Catch a Predator gotcha moment. Sure, he's gonna flip-flop and try to squirm his way out of it, but I just don't see the tea-infused GOP letting such an unctuous chameleon fool them into forgetting his past. Moreover, the rise of Glenn Beck notwithstanding, I'm still not all that sure that the Mormon thing isn't going to hurt him with a substantial portion of the base. His clearest road to the nomination is to hope that Huck and Palin and Santorum and hopefully a couple other hard righters get in, and that Huntsman and Daniels either stay out or fail to gain any traction, but I'd say it's pretty damn unlikely. Still, he's number 2 right now, as he's near the top of national polls and secure for the time being in NH, and as he's gonna have what Bob Dole called a lotttttta moneeeeey. Just don't count on the good times lasting.
3) Sarah Palin. Cillizza calls her the "prime mover" in the field, and that seems about right to me. So much about the race hinges on whether she gets in. If she runs, Santorum is done, Huck is compromised (particularly if he keeps up the Cuomo act for a few months after Palin's entry), Mittens has a foil, and she hogs a lot of the free media limelight, undercutting the lesser known candidates. At the same time, given Romney's obvious deficiencies, the prospect of her victory -- so disturbing to a ridiculously large number of Republicans -- could open the door for a tabula rasa white knight, backed by the party bosses, to be offered up to the masses. (See, e.g., Thune, John.) If she doesn't run, then Huckabee is the lone big dog truly of the social conservatives, Romney is foilless, Santorum has an opening (however small) to become the bearer of the true believer standard, and there's more of an opportunity for Daniels and T-Paw and the like to get their faces on TV.
The argument against her candidacy is pretty simple: she's taken few steps toward a run (passing up the keynote at CPAC!), doesn't have a team together, is undisciplined, and likes making money too much to do the hard work of running.
I don't buy it. Palin may be lazy, and she may be dumb in a sense that you don't want your president or governor or small-town mayor to be, but she's pretty damn smart about what's good for Sarah Palin. And what would not be good for Sarah Palin would be to sit on the sidelines and watch the candidates slowly but surely eat away at her ecological niche. Her money machine is dependent upon her being the leader of her disaffected followers. If she stays out, they'll need to back someone else in the primaries, and that person -- Santorum? Newt? Dare I say, Bachmann? -- will be able to at least partially supplant Palin's primacy. And that means less money for Sarah. Running, on the other hand, is a can't-lose proposition. If she loses in the primaries, she loses to someone less pure than her, and she's a martyr. If she loses to Obama, she's a martyr. If she wins the whole shooting match, she's president, and can find jobs for all of her Mat-Su buddies and develop new forms of graft. She has to run to feed the beast.
And if she runs, she's got a damn good shot. Money won't be a problem -- can you honestly see anyone else raising from the grassroots as easily as her? -- and, as Cillizza notes (really, read that piece), she's got a solid base of around 20% in just about every primary or caucus. If Huck stays out, there's no doubt in my mind she commands a solid chunk of his votes. So if the field is as big as it looks like it might get, a 20% floor is a damn good place to start.
But, you know, you actually have to run and stuff and hire qualified people and stuff to win.
With the exception of T-Paw, these rankings aren't all that precise -- it's pretty much a randomly ordered collection of those who have a realistic chance of winning, but who have a lot of ground to make up.
4) Tim Pawlenty. Gets points for looking like a guy who is really planning to run for president, which separates him from all all the delicate flowers who are waiting for a little voice to tell them what to do. Actually taking steps to run will get you places, as there's a certain breed of activist that's just champing at the bit to back any acceptable candidate because goddamn it it's February and it's time to fight! Also gets points for that ad. Hey, make fun of it all you want. Call it a movie trailer. It's the future. There will be a point in the not-too-distant future when a presidential nominee gives his or her acceptance speech with a full orchestral score, just like the presidents do in action movies or the West Wing. And when this happens -- and it will -- you'll remember T-Paw's ad as the breaking of the fourth or fifth seal.
Of course, Pawlenty's problem is that he doesn't have a great rationale for his campaign just now. I guess he's the working-class kid who made good and is socially conservative enough and isn't a nutjob and was a reasonably competent executive, but that's Daniels, too. There's room for him in this race, and he's got a leg up on the rest of the second string, but he's going to need to work hard to define himself as someone whom people really want to be president. Not a bad start, though. (Minor data point in favor of the notion that Pawlenty is running well -- he's the only candidate in the Egypt reaction piece linked above to present a simple, coherent, and non-Mubarkak-cuddling criticism of the Administration's actions.)
5) Newt. The only reason I've got him this high is that he polls well, due no doubt to his universal name rec. I'm just not convinced he's really running, though Cillizza says it's a dead cert. He made every sign of getting in last time, too, and yet somehow never did; I certainly bought into his noisemaking in '08. So, once bitten, twice shy, I guess. Even if he does run, he just seems guaranteed to do something unbelievably dumb or venal -- getting caught screwing a lobbyist for ashleymadison.com, or something -- and in so doing sink his candidacy. Newt's never been one not to let his hubris get the best of him. But the money will be there, and he's famous, and he does bridge the establishment/crazy gap pretty well, so . . . nah. God doesn't love us that much.
6) Mitch Daniels. If the economy is still in the toilet next fall (which seems likely), this is the guy I'd least like to see. I'm of the opinion that simply projecting competence while being reasonably affable and not frothing at the mouth is the best way to run against Obama. Daniels can do that. And I think he's got a good shot of picking up a lot of establishment support as the best alternative to Palin/Huck once Romney starts swooning, particularly if Thune doesn't materialize. But T-Paw could fill that role too, and Daniels probably needs to start running for real in order to begin building his niche.
7) John Thune. If you had a committee of experts design a Republican presidential contender, they might well -- independently of nature and Mr. and Mrs. Thune -- have created John Thune. Youngish, good looking in an entirely masculine but non-threatening way (think Brit Hume), conservative in all facets yet entirely orthodox, from the heart of the Heartland, very few notably controversial views or deeds . . . it's a nice combo. The problem is that no one knows who he is yet. Now, some folks, such as Mitch McConnell, want to change that. And he does sound like he's going to jump sooner rather than later. (Although a Thursday interview in Politico reveals more hedging than we'd seen in the last few days.) The trick is going to be developing that elusive rationale for running (beyond being the largely blank slate on to which folks of all stripes can project their desires), and selling himself to the less extreme portion of the electorate while not alienating the crazies.
8) Jon Huntsman. This week's flavor. He's attracting a lot of attention for his resignation of his China ambassadorship, which is presumed to be the prelude to a run. A favorite of Beltway types who dig his "bipartisan" willingness to serve the Obama administration, he'll have to overcome the base's abhorrence of those who aid and abet the enemy if he hopes to have a chance. An interesting possibility, but not much more that that at this point.
And the rest
I don't believe that Haley Barbour is going to run, because while I find him abhorrent in almost every facet of his being, I do have a ton of respect for him as a political strategist. And I think Haley Barbour is too damn smart to run, because he knows that -- while he could swing the nomination -- a bloated redneck ex-lobbyist with a dubious racial history is not the guy to run against Barack Obama. That said, if his ego prevails, and he runs, he's definitely a strong contender, if only for the nomination . . . Santorum could make some waves if Palin stays out, but it's hard to overcome the memories of the assbeating that Bob Casey laid on him . . . Rudy Giuliani, aka America's Playa, is making noises about running, but the four years since his doomed 2008 run have further dimmed the 9/11 Rudy myth, and seen an influx of rightist ultras which is almost guaranteed to make a '12 bid futile . . . And if Rudy can't win, there's surely no hope for the kinder, gentler, Gerald Ford Mark II stylings of his longtime gubernatorial counterpart, George Pataki . . . Bachmann would be awesome . . . John Bolton will give us a chance to bring back the Plato's Retreat jokes and mustache graphics . . . I doubt there's much to the Jim DeMint talk, but if he gets serious about running, look out, because he'd be a contender . . . Remember how I said Bachmann would be awesome? Sharron Angle would be even better.
If you're as dedicated to following these folks as I am, you're likely already reading the inestimable and indispensable The Right's Field, which takes the lefty lorgnette and popcorn approach to the race. And the Hill's GOP12 is a a reliable first stop for daily news.
Looking forward to reading your rankings below.