Two potential candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have been described as “frontrunners”: former governors Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin. According to pollster Scott Rasmussen, they’re the candidates with the most supporters among likely Republican-primary voters: Romney has 24 percent, Palin 19 percent. Intrade, the prediction market, has them as the most likely nominees: Romney is given a 23 percent chance of winning, Palin 15 percent. Each of them has a claim to being “next in line”: Romney because he was arguably John McCain’s strongest rival for the nomination in 2008, Palin because she was his running mate.
So there is a non-trivial chance that the Republican nomination contest could come down to Palin vs. Romney, and that their conflict could define the primaries. And that’s very bad news for the Republican party. A campaign that pits the two against each other would divide the Republican party along each of its fault lines. Such a race would almost certainly become bitter and leave the eventual nominee damaged.
A Romney vs. Palin match-up would, for one thing, be a straight-up power struggle between the tea parties and the Republican establishment. Romney has avoided association with the tea parties and Palin has courted them. In a Palin vs. Romney race, the party establishment would rally behind him because it regards her as a certain loser in November 2012 — and fears that she would lose big enough to do damage to Republican congressional and gubernatorial candidates.
Other presidential candidates could bridge this divide. Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, for example, might gain tea-party support because of his budget-cutting record, but also enjoys establishment support. Neither Palin nor Romney is likely to have the same breadth of appeal. Romney’s past liberal positions are likely to strike tea partiers as evidence that his conservative principles are insincere, and his championing of a health-care law in Massachusetts that strikingly resembles Obamacare will make them even more hostile. Palin, meanwhile, revels in the opposition of establishment figures. Their opposition is a key part of her strategy for mobilizing grassroots conservatives. Watching the party establishment line up behind Romney — and thus, from their point of view, behind Obamacare — would enrage the party’s populists.
Class is another increasingly uncomfortable fault line in the party (as Reihan Salam and I recently described in these pages). Romney’s supporters tend to be college-educated, while Palin draws her support from people who didn’t get college diplomas. In recent elections, upper-middle-class voters have left the Republican party in part because they regard it as dominated by yahoos and know-nothings. But other voters, particularly in the party’s base, resent what they see as a tendency to overestimate the importance of degrees from prestigious colleges. In the Delaware Senate race, populist candidate Christine O’Donnell started an ad by saying, “I didn’t go to Yale.” (Romney has two degrees from Harvard, Palin one from the University of Idaho.)
There would even be religious overtones to the conflict. Some voters find his Mormonism, and some voters find her evangelicalism, problematic. (And some voters would probably prefer to have a candidate without a strong religion at all, although few of them vote in Republican primaries.) Even if both candidates tried to keep the race from becoming a religious conflict, hotheaded supporters could draw them into one.
The 2008 presidential election was a festival of identity politics in both parties: upper-middle-class white women voted for Hillary Clinton, Mormons and rich people for Romney, evangelicals for Mike Huckabee, young and inexperienced voters for Barack Obama. If Romney and Palin are the top Republican contenders, the next presidential race could become even more tribal.