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.
Not to mention ugly. Palin is not the type of politician who ignores unfair attacks. Instead she invites her fans to share her grievances. Any presidential candidate, and especially a polarizing one, will be on the receiving end of a lot of cheap shots. (Also on the other end.) Count on her or her supporters to turn every dismissive remark or ambiguous statement into a sexist or elitist putdown of millions of voters — and to make sure that everyone hears about every actual offense against her.
At this stage of the campaign, Palin and Romney help each other’s candidacies. To the extent the many Republicans who do not want her to win the nomination think that she could, they will feel compelled to get behind whoever they think can stop her. They may well think that Romney is that man — or, what amounts to the same thing, that enough other people will think so that he is the anti-Palin. To a lesser extent, Republicans who disdain Romney may prefer her as a way to stop him.
If Palin won the nomination, she would have a steep uphill climb as a general-election candidate. An average of recent polls shows that 54 percent of Americans have an unfavorable impression of her and only 32 percent view her favorably. She would also have the burden of having gone through a bruising primary in which she would have won with a message that turns off millions of upper-middle-class voters.
If, as seems more likely, Romney won the showdown, he would have alienated a large chunk of the party’s conservative base. He would therefore have to solidify core Republicans before, and sometimes at the expense of, trying to court independent voters. And he would have another problem as well. In his 2008 run, he showed almost no ability to win over middle-class voters. If he beat Palin, he would almost certainly have won with an affluent coalition inside the party and while being mocked as a blueblood. He would then have to turn around and win both downscale conservatives and middle-of-the-roaders.
This scenario is obviously speculative. Palin might not run. Romney might not run, either. And there are a lot of other candidates in the mix. But that’s part of the problem: There are too many candidates with less support than Palin or Romney competing with one another.
Four important early contests will be in Iowa, New Hampshire, Michigan, and South Carolina. In Iowa and South Carolina, both of which have large evangelical populations, Palin would have a natural constituency. Romney won Michigan, where his father was governor, in 2008, and will have appeal in New Hampshire as a northeasterner. If they split these states, it’s going to be hard for anyone else to get the nomination.
If there are Republicans who would rather not see either Romney or Palin on the ticket, or just don’t want to see a bloody primary between them, they had better unite behind another candidate. And given the speed with which the primaries are approaching — the Iowa straw poll is in August — they had better do it fast.
— Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review. This article originally appeared in the February 21, 2011, issue of National Review.