Rudy Giuliani’s candidacy for president is a paradox. He comes out on top in Republican primary polls, leading in the most recent national surveys by Fox, CNN, ABC, and Gallup, yet hardly anyone thinks he can win the Republican nomination.
Strength in early polling sometimes masks the inherent limitations of a candidacy. The pervasive skepticism about Giuliani’s chances, however, is not rooted in a nuanced view of poll numbers. Nor does it stem from doubts about his fundraising ability, candidate skills, or level of experience. Rather, it is widely believed that he cannot win the GOP nomination because of his liberal positions on social issues, principally abortion and gay rights.
Given Giuliani’s background, and the unique features of the 2008 primary calendar and GOP field, the widespread dismissal of Giuliani’s prospects should be reconsidered. His positions on social issues present a significant obstacle for his gaining the nomination, but it is an obstacle that he very plausibly could overcome.
The Big Three
The compressed nature of the primary calendar means the electoral phase of the race is likely to have two stages. The first stage is Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. As it frequently has in the past, that series of contests is likely to winnow the field down to at most two candidates who stand a credible chance at the nomination. The intense media saturation ascribed to the winners of those three elections, and the attendant evaporation of fundraising capacity for the losers makes that winnowing almost inevitable. No serious candidate will make it into the second stage with poor showings in each of the first three contests. The second stage is the “runoff” between the two finalists in the primaries that quickly follow South Carolina.
So the initial task for any GOP candidate is making it into the runoff. To do that, a candidate must come in first or second place in at least two of the initial three tallies. For a pro-choice, pro-gay rights New York City politician, the fact that two of the three winnowing states are socially conservative Iowa and South Carolina would seem to be a very bad draw. In fact, it is a better draw for Giuliani then it appears.
At present there are eight other Republican candidates, each of whom is pro-life. Some, like Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee, have a strong focus on social issues. Others, like Mitt Romney and John McCain, are making strenuous efforts to demonstrate their social-conservative credentials. For the lone pro-choice candidate in the field, therefore, it is much better to face the strongly pro-life electorates in Iowa and South Carolina when he’s in a crowded field in the first stage, then when he is one of only two candidates remaining in the stage that follows.
The South Carolina Republican primary electorate is instructive of the strategic challenge and opportunity that confronts Giuliani. GOP primary voters in the Palmetto State are approximately 65-percent pro-life and 35-percent pro-choice. But that split does not tell the full story. The pro-life majority divides into two groups. Roughly 25 percent cite moral issues like abortion and preserving traditional marriage as their top priority. That strongly pro-life portion of voters will be highly unreceptive to Giuliani. The remaining roughly 40 percent, while pro-life, place a higher voting priority on other issues, foremost among them are economic and security issues. That segment of voters should be open to the Giuliani candidacy, notwithstanding disagreements on social issues. The 35 percent who are pro-choice will likely be very receptive to Giuliani. This threefold breakdown holds true in Iowa and New Hampshire as well, although the percentages vary. The Iowa GOP caucus electorate is slightly more social-issue driven, while New Hampshire primary voters are significantly less so.
Giuliani’s task in the first-stage primaries is one of niche marketing, and his background makes him unusually well suited to this assignment. He is unlike previous pro-choice Republican presidential candidates Pete Wilson and Arlen Specter, who made their “moderation” an essential rationale for their candidacies and were rejected by conservative primary voters because they did so. Giuliani, by contrast, is a celebrity, much better known for his 9/11 security credentials and his record of taming the beast of New York City than for his “moderation.” He actively downplays the role of social issues in his message. While the media and his GOP rivals will undoubtedly make early primary voters acutely aware of Giuliani’s liberal social positions, Rudy will presumably stress his conservative credentials in other areas. In a field of eight other candidates, all of whom are stressing their social conservatism to varying degrees, Giuliani’s social positions give him the largest uncontested block of voters in the electorate. If he’s able to capture the bulk of the socially liberal voters (35 percent in South Carolina), and combine that with a portion of conservatives who are drawn to his security, fiscal, and management records, Giuliani could very plausibly win the 30-40 percent of votes he needs in the three early states to make him one of the two finalists.
Then Comes Round 2
Should he accomplish that feat, his next hurdle is winning 50 percent of the vote in the second round of primaries. The good news for Rudy is that the terrain gets easier. At present, it appears that the next set of primaries will include New Jersey, California, Illinois, and Florida. Pro-choice Republicans have frequently won primaries in New Jersey, often won them in California and Illinois, and even occasionally in Florida. None of those states are as socially conservative as Iowa or South Carolina.
Notwithstanding the positive runoff terrain for Giuliani, he would be certain to face a concerted effort by the pro-life community to rally around the one remaining alternative candidate. Who that candidate is would say a lot about Giuliani’s ultimate prospects for winning. There are two possible profiles for the alternative to Giuliani: one is an overtly social-issue oriented candidate like Brownback or Huckabee; and the other is a more broad-based candidate like McCain or Romney.
If the runoff were between Giuliani and one of the social-issue candidates, Rudy would have substantial financial and political advantages. There is no doubt that a majority of GOP primary voters in most states are socially conservative; but, it is also the case that candidates whose focus is too narrowly defined along social issues face a ceiling on their support that is below 50 percent. The presidential candidacies of Pat Robertson and Pat Buchanan illustrate the inverse of the social liberal problem. While they did well in the early stage primaries in which 30 percent of the vote was all they needed to make a strong showing, they failed in the second stage as the narrowness of their focus prevented them from coming close to 50 percent. Neither Brownback nor Huckabee has as narrow a focus as Pat Robertson had. Nonetheless, the only avenue they have for becoming a finalist is to score extraordinary well among the strong social conservative voter segment, and in so doing, they likely would face the same limits on their growth potential in the runoff.
The more difficult runoff for Giuliani would be against either McCain or Romney, as their appeal goes well beyond social-issue voters.
In a runoff contest between Giuliani and either McCain or Romney, in states like California, Illinois, and New Jersey, it would be a mistake to assume that it would boil down to a pro-life versus pro-choice affair. First, given their histories, neither McCain nor Romney offers a natural rallying point for pro-life voters. Second, it is likely that national-security and economic issues, as well as qualities such as managerial competence and leadership abilities, would hold equal or greater sway. Third, whereas in South Carolina about 25 percent of primary voters are single-issue pro-lifers, that percentage is considerably lower in the next round of states where the pro-choice voter segment is generally large enough to counter them. It is the soft pro-life voters, who focus more on security, fiscal, and management issues that likely will determine the nominee.
In this vein, it is worth recalling that Giuliani’s persona and record is not that of your typical pro-choice northeasterner out to make the world safe for moderate Republicans. Giuliani is no Christie Whitman. He’s a tax-cutting, crime-busting, welfare-repealing, terrorist-fighting national celebrity. His 9/11 heroism makes him presently viewed as the most hawkish candidate in the field on security issues, certainly more so than Romney who is a blank slate on the issue, and even more than McCain. On fiscal issues, Giuliani’s robust tax cutting record compares extremely favorably in conservative eyes to McCain’s votes against the Bush tax cuts. As for management skill, Giuliani’s considerable success in New York came over a longer tenure, and over a larger and more politically difficult constituency than Romney’s in Massachusetts.
Put simply, Giuliani is not running as a moderate Republican. Rather, he is running as the hero of 9/11 who is conservative on most issues but who happens to hold liberal positions on some important social issues. In a runoff between Giuliani and McCain or Romney, the strongest pro-life voters would assuredly oppose Giuliani, but it is possible that Rudy’s advantages in other policy and personality areas would give him the prize.
Giuliani’s candidacy might well fall short. His liabilities are real, including not only his social positions, but his personal and business life, and blemishes on his record as mayor. But his strengths, combined with the unique features of the 2008 battleground, make Giuliani’s candidacy a force to be reckoned with.
– Jon Lerner is a Republican pollster and media consultant.