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Presidency 2012: The Invisible Primary Begins

A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato

Friday, May 08, 2009

We at the Crystal Ball must beg your forgiveness. With fewer than 1,300 days left until the next general election for President, we have failed to offer a single analysis of this historic upcoming battle. With humility, and hoping for mercy, we submit this first update on 2012.

The start of the nomination battle is even closer, of course. The two major parties are fiddling with their primary and caucus calendars again, probably in order to delay the start of the process from early January until February 2012. That will be welcome, after the ridiculously early January 3rd Iowa kick-off in 2008. Even political types ought to get an end-of-year holiday.

Yet no one should plan on the upending of the Iowa-New Hampshire duopoly. As often as we and others have argued that these two small, unrepresentative states should be replaced by other states at the start of the nominating season, you can be certain they will lead the parade once again. Hawkeyes and Granite State citizens simply want to be first more than anybody, and they'll do almost anything to keep their head-of-the-pack positions.

Candidates are not openly campaigning in Iowa or New Hampshire, and no one has declared a formal bid for the White House. But behind the scenes, the so-called "invisible primary" is starting to organize, at least on the Republican side.

Almost everyone assumes that President Obama will run again and be re-nominated without serious opposition. Obviously, this is a strong bet, but anything can happen in the two years before any decisions would have to be made by Obama or potential adversaries. Was there an analyst in spring 1977 who foresaw that President Carter would face a serious challenge from Sen. Ted Kennedy in the 1980 Democratic primaries?

It's pointless to speculate which Democrat might step up to the plate if Obama has a troubled Presidency. Vice President Joe Biden, who owes his political resurrection to Obama, can safely be counted out. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might be tempted, but she would have trouble separating herself from the administration she serves at a senior level. Biden and Clinton prefer to aim at 2016, when he'll be 74 and she'll be 68--both arguably too old to run (especially Biden).

Therefore, if Obama has a Democratic foe in 2012, it will probably be a Young Turk from Congress or a Governorship. Would the challenge come from the left or the middle? It all depends on the course of the country and Obama's performance during his current term. Let's stress again: We doubt any of this comes to pass, but at such an early stage, one never knows.

One thing that will come to pass is a GOP presidential nominee for '12. So far, the party has an underwhelming field, though one suspects it isn't complete. The shape of the economy and President Obama's popularity in late 2010 and early 2011 will expand or contract the GOP list. If (1) the economy has rebounded nicely, (2) there isn't an unpopular foreign war, and (3) no significant scandal that directly touches the President has arisen, then nothing the Republicans do will matter. They will lose the election handily, regardless of the identity of the nominee. It could even be a landslide for Obama.

Of these three factors, the most electorally weighty is the economy. Obama himself understands he will be judged primarily on that issue, so the degree of prosperity existing by 2012 is fundamental. Should Americans think they are considerably better off economically than they were at the end of the Bush administration, then Obama might likely survive both an unpopular war and a scandal, were these factors extant.

Since presidential campaigns have to be organized and funded years in advance of Election Dday, the potential Republican candidates won't have the luxury of waiting to see whether their prospects are bright or dim. They'll have to plunge right in, and hope that unforeseen circumstances make them competitive. History is full of examples of candidates who took that chance and won (Bill Clinton in 1992, for instance) and politicians who held back to wait for a better year and then never became president (Mario Cuomo in 1992 as well).

Therefore, Republican politicians longing for a Pennsylvania Avenue address might simply say, 'Obama's high poll ratings be damned.' When in doubt, run--that's the motto of most ambitious pols.

The 2012 GOP list is headed by several recycled candidates. Some Republicans believe the early (if weak) frontrunner is defeated 2008 candidate Mitt Romney. He carries over considerable assets from his last campaign: a solid national organization, fundraising capacity and network, and good positioning on the economy (his strong suit). Of course, the reverse is also true. He lost rather badly to McCain, and while he was a good soldier and helped the GOP nominee, there are hard feelings--and a loser's image. The former Massachusetts Governor's business background makes him fluent on the economic crisis, yet his wealth and corporate past are mixed blessings at a time when those qualities have lost their luster for many in the wake of the Wall Street and banking scandals. Romney can also come across as artificial, and his image and family are so perfect that he has a hard time connecting with average voters. Lastly, as wrong as it is, there is still a negative attached to his Mormon faith.

Another potential 2012 GOP candidate is much better known than Romney: 2008 Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin. There is no question that the Alaska Governor is interested in the next round. First, though, she has to get reelected to her current post in the Frontier State in 2010--and the gloves are off in Alaska as other politicians go after Palin and her national ambitions. It is possible, though improbable, that she will shock everyone, decline reelection, and run flat-out for the White House. A third option, running for the U.S. Senate seat of fellow Republican Lisa Murkowski in 2010, is not considered likely. This is despite the fact that Palin defeated Murkowski's father, Frank, in his 2006 gubernatorial reelection bid and there is no love lost between the Palins and the Murkowskis.

Palin brings to the table high name identification, an intensely loyal base of the most conservative GOP activists, and the diversity element of her gender. More than balancing these positive attributes is that much of her non-GOP name ID is negative, given her poor performance in media interviews on the campaign trail in 2008. It's a rare McCain staffer who has much good to say about her privately, and one can only imagine the information dump coming if she runs for President. Independent swing voters have been so unimpressed with Palin that, were she to get the Republican Party nomination in 2012, a Democratic landslide would be a live possibility. However, the GOP base, ever eager to make a principled statement, may not care.

Still another 2008 veteran who is in the hunt for '12 is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. For an under-funded candidate, Huckabee did well in the early going last year. Like John McCain, the middle class Huckabee has a visceral dislike of Mitt Romney and may well relish another match-up with the rich doyen of a famous political family. Fox News Channel has also given Huckabee a weekly TV talk show to display and hone his audience skills, while maintaining visibility. Rare for a politician, Huckabee also has a delightful sense of humor, which can produce self-deprecating, endearing comments aplenty. Still, Huckabee's 2008 problems are front and center: a lack of financing (personal and political), a Southern pedigree in a party that needs to broaden its base, very conservative positions on social issues that do not appeal to many swing voters, and the absence of an indefinable element called presidential stature.

One other retread from the party's past, Newt Gingrich, is making noises again about running, though many doubt he'll pull the trigger in the end, just as he did not in 2008. The architect of the GOP congressional landslide of 1994, Gingrich was a hot property for about a year, when he was viewed as almost the proto-President. Bill Clinton quickly gained the advantage, though, in the disastrous (for Republicans) "government shutdown" crisis of late 1995. Afterwards, Gingrich became increasingly controversial, not least because of his messy private life of infidelity and three marriages. The Republican caucus dumped him as Speaker in late 1998. While a fount of creative ideas, Gingrich is still radioactive in many quarters, and widely regarded as someone too divisive to serve as President. Republicans love listening to Gingrich, but they would be reluctant to nominate him for the White House.

Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who completes his second and final term in 2010, also appears to have caught the presidential bug. He could be popular with the GOP base, which is disproportionately Southern. A very conservative officeholder, he gained national attention for resisting the Obama stimulus plan and objecting to the President's plans for spending it in the Palmetto State. But just like Huckabee (and Gingrich, too), Sanford reinforces a big Republican problem, its increasing identity as a Southern regional party of white males. It's hard to see how Sanford could win enough Obama states to construct an Electoral College majority. Sanford also has a mixed record in South Carolina; he is unpopular even with many GOP state legislators, being widely regarded as stubborn and difficult to work with.

Until recently, many Republicans hoped that Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana would prove to be their 2012 savior. One of the boy wonders of American politics, the bright and savvy Jindal was elected the Bayou State's chief executive in 2007 after a stint in Congress (and an unsuccessful bid for Governor in 2003). Jindal is all of 37. As the first Indian-American Governor of any state, he solves the GOP's need for a more diverse image while he remains strongly conservative, and his youth may enable the Republicans to do better with voters under 40. On the other hand, his recent amateurish performance as the responder to President Obama's semi-State of the Union address suggested that Jindal needs more seasoning. Jindal himself has hinted as much, and likely he will aim at 2016.

Two moderate-conservative Republicans who are fresh faces could give the GOP more of a fighting chance in 2012. Two-term Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota has found a way to win in a Democratic state without abandoning most traditional conservative positions. He is also in his 40s, with a blue collar background, possessing a pleasant demeanor and a sense of humor. (Having been on John McCain's short list for running-mate, he joked to this analyst after Palin was selected that he was "just one chromosome away from the vice presidency.") Whether Pawlenty intends to run for President is uncertain, and he has to decide about offering for a third term as Governor in 2010--always a risk in a Blue state. Will Republicans even accept a less harsh version of conservatism that isn't located in the Sunbelt?

An intriguing dark horse candidate is two-term Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. A proponent of gay civil unions and some other surprisingly moderate stances despite hailing from one of the nation's three or four most conservative states, Huntsman is openly testing the waters, and arguing that Republicans are headed for a long spell in the wilderness without a major ideological facelift. Wealthy and smooth in his public appearances, Huntsman makes a vital point, but undoubtedly he will strain the patience and tolerance of a fiercely right-wing party. His tiny base--Utah has but five electoral votes--doesn't help, and his Mormonism possibly will be a detrimental factor with many fundamentalist Christians, just as for Romney.

In any event, be sure to keep this essay. Why? Because in 2012 we can all have a good laugh re-reading it. Unimaginable developments in the next four years will overtake this extremely preliminary analysis. Some of the candidates we have discussed won't toss a hat into the ring. Others who aren't on the list--perhaps including some surprise winners in key 2010 midterm contests--will catch the White House bug.

But that's why we watch presidential politics so closely. The stakes are high, and the distant future is unknowable.

Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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