Politics & Policy

The Options for 2012

A guide to the Republican presidential race

A number of recent developments — the dropout of several high-profile candidates, the GOP’s special-election defeat in New York’s 26th congressional district, and the emergence of the future of Israel as a national campaign issue, among others — have greatly clarified the landscape of the 2012 Republican presidential campaign.

As recently as April, a Gallup poll had Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump tied for the lead among Republican and Republican-leaning independent voters. Today, Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin are alone in Gallup’s first tier. Romney leads at 17 percent, with Palin at 15 percent. Palin has embarked  on what appears to be an exploratory campaign involving a full-length biographical film premiering in Iowa and a historical tour of eastern sites beginning in Washington, D. C., and concluding in New Hampshire.

That Romney  and Palin are standing at the top of the field is consistent with Republican history. To a far greater extent than Democrats, Republicans tend to favor presidential candidates who, if they are not incumbents, have run national campaigns before. Romney was a prominent player in the 2008 presidential primaries, and Palin was the GOP nominee for vice president that same year. With the exception of the 75-year-old Ron Paul, who ran as a marginal Republican candidate in 2008 and as Libertarian-party nominee in 1988, none of the other active or probable candidates has ever before sought national office. (The only exception since 1964 to the GOP’s pro-experience pattern, George W. Bush in 2000, involved the son of the previous Republican president.)

Gallup’s data on Romney vs. Palin indicate strikingly different voter bases for the two candidates in terms of both issues and demographics. While they are roughly equal among voters focused on two categories — “business and the economy” and “national security and foreign policy” — Romney leads Palin 17 to 11 percent in “government spending and power,” while on “social issues and moral values,” Palin bests Romney, 23 to 18. Romney overwhelms Palin 25 to 8 percent among college graduates, while Palin leads 18 to 13 percent among non–college graduates.

Though Gallup’s polling indicates that the “government spending and power” group constitutes a much larger portion of Republicans, Palin’s advantage among social-issue voters has favorable implications in two of the first three state contests, those in Iowa and South Carolina, which could counter Romney’s solid lead in New Hampshire. In competitive Republican nomination fights, Iowa and New Hampshire have invariably picked different candidates, with the South Carolina primary serving as the tie-breaker: Since its debut in 1980,every South Carolina winner has gone on to secure the Republican nomination. As to the perennial water-cooler argument in both parties on the relative importance of Iowa and New Hampshire, the Granite State last picked a new president in 1988, while the election of George W. Bush in 2000 and Barack Obama in 2008 both began with victories in Iowa followed by defeats in New Hampshire.

What about the theory, most prominently voiced by Mitch Daniels, that the 2012 election will turn almost exclusively on the Obama administration’s record of radical increases in federal spending and escalating budget deficits? If the NY-26 special election, with its focus on Paul Ryan’s Medicare-reform plan, is any indication, Republicans should be hoping additional issues emerge as part of the mix. Specifically on economics, they’re in sore need of a broader growth agenda, including monetary and tax reform, to counter the Obama/Bernanke-era stagflation and minuscule job growth.

With the surge of popular opposition to federal and state funding of Planned Parenthood, there is today far less talk of dropping social issues than there has been in recent years — particularly given how liberal Democrats keep returning to the sexual revolution as their ideological center of gravity. This obsession is also evident in the constant barrage of mainstream-media-sponsored polls proclaiming a stunning rise in nationwide support for “marriage equality.”

This groundswell was extremely hard to discern during the recent rejection of same-sex marriage in the legislatures of Rhode Island and Maryland, socially liberal states where the Republican party barely exists. It’s even harder to imagine same-sex marriage as a non-factor in the Republican caucuses of Iowa, where in November 2010 voters threw out all three state-supreme-court justices who were on the ballot and had earlier voted to impose same-sex marriage on the Hawkeye State.

Until recently, it has likewise been widely assumed that foreign policy would play a peripheral role in 2012, at most giving Republicans a quasi-isolationist talking point critiquing the administration’s military buildup in Afghanistan. This perception was reinforced by the vocal opposition of second-tier Republican candidates Ron Paul, Michele Bachmann, and Newt Gingrich to the NATO intervention in Libya.

Then came the administration’s brilliant operation that took out Osama bin Laden. Suddenly there was a prospect that foreign policy could actually turn into a net plus for Obama. This was confirmed by a moderate gain in the president’s approval rating, which seemed to indicate that the public had a reassuring sense that the administration was more competent overall.

But the president’s blatantly pro-Palestinian speech and confrontation with Benjamin Netanyahu strangled that possibility in its crib. Support of Israel is today by far the best known and most widely shared foreign-policy tenet in American politics, especially among Republican voters. Thanks to Obama, there is now certain to be a foreign-policy component in every Republican debate, with isolationists such as Ron Paul once again finding themselves in a distinct minority.

The Republican race is just beginning, and Gallup finds more than a fifth of the party’s voters undecided. No one knows if Sarah Palin will run or, if she does, what her issue strategy will be. It’s also possible a new candidate or two will get into the race, particularly if Palin stays out. But compared with just a few weeks ago, the Republican race has assumed a considerably clearer shape, and one that does not look as different from past races as earlier believed.

— Jeffrey Bell served on the national staff of five presidential campaigns and is author of The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism, which will be published by Encounter Books on Jan. 2, 2012.