Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Will the Tea Party Pull Extend to the 2012 GOP Nomination?

The back and forth this morning concerning the long-term impact of Christine O'Donnell's primary victory in Delaware last night has been interesting to say the least. First of all, I don't think we know the long-term effect of her victory or those of other Tea Party-backed candidates during the 2010 primary season. Talk coming out of the 2008 election was that the Republican Party had a choice in the face of such a sweeping defeat: 1) shift to the right in an effort to purify the party or 2) take the pragmatic route and just win, baby. Last night's results were a microcosm of that battle. A moderate, electable, yet not terribly popular candidate (Mike Castle) lost to a more ideologically, if not extreme, candidate (O'Donnell). But will this rightward shift in some primary races in 2010 extend to the battle for the Republican presidential nomination race in 2012?

First Read answers with the question with an absolute: "One thing is certainly clear, however: This temporary evolution within the Republican Party will end up pushing the 2012 GOP presidential field more to the right."

Joe Scarborough finds a surge and decline type of pattern in past midterm to GOP nomination elections. In other words, a rightward, corrective shift in the midterms will yield a more establishmentarian two years down the road in a presidential nomination race.

Hmmm. Which one is right? In FHQ's mind, neither. Scarborough cites the 1966 Republican Revolution followed by the nomination and subsequent election of Richard Nixon and the 1994 Contract with America wave and the 1996 nomination of Bob Dole as examples. Well, 1966/68 is not particularly applicable since it occurred prior to the McGovern-Fraser reforms that reshaped how presidential nominees were (and are) chosen. Primary and caucus results were not binding on the nomination decision made later at the convention. To say, then, that an establishment candidate was chosen is a no-brainer. Of course an establishment candidate was chosen. The establishment chose them; in this case, Richard Nixon. That leave us with the 1994/96 example. Even if we could count 1966/68, we're talking about just two data points and that just isn't often going to yield anything conclusive. It is all we have, but it isn't necessarily a representative sample. In fact, the odds are that those two examples are not representative at all.

But let's focus on 1994/96, but let's take a micro view of the context of those two elections instead of the macro brush Scarborough is painting this with. If we follow the surge and decline theory that 1992 and Clinton's victory brought with it a series of Democratic victories that otherwise wouldn't have been in Congress, then 1994 was a huge, rightward correction to that shift. But was 1996 and the Republican nomination of Bob Dole that year an example of a correction to that "overreach"?

Possibly, but how could that be measured? One way to look at that race is by looking at the field of candidates. Gingrich was the face of 1994 and there really was not a Gingrich-type candidate who entered the race for the 1996 Republican presidential nomination. Pat Buchanan made some waves with some early primary victories and could stake some claim to the mantle of rightward shift representative, but to FHQ's recollection he was not a direct extension of Gingrich and the Contract Republicans he brought with him in 1994. The story of that race was that Dole outlasted both Buchanan and the self-funded effort Steve Forbes made. It had little to do with a battle for the soul of the Republican Party. There was no purist versus establishment battle in 1996, and if there was the establishment won a pyrrhic victory. Dole was so cash-strapped from winning the nomination race that he had no way to counter Clinton's efforts to define the Kansas senator and former majority leader over the summer.

But was Dole an establishment counter to a purist overreach in 1994? I don't know that that is the conclusion to be reached. Given a limited field of candidates against a president on the rise after the 1995 government shutdown, Republican primary voters opted for their best chance to win. That just happened to be the next guy in line.

All told, 1994/96 is 1994/96 and 2010/12 will likely hold some similarities, but also some differences. First Read takes things too far in terms of the likelihood of a shift to the right in the Republican nomination race. It should be said before I go any further that a lot of this talk hinges on the assumption that the 2012 environment will (closely?) resemble what we are witnessing in 2010. That obviously isn't necessarily the case. Much can change in two years. It wasn't all that long ago that some were speculating on the potential impact the Sonia Sotomayor nomination would have on Democratic chances in Texas (in the electoral college) in 2012. However, if we follow that assumption and 2010 manifests itself in the form of presidential candidates (Palin or Jim DeMint, for example) in 2012, then perhaps there is something to the theory of a rightward shift in the 2012 Republican nomination race. The impact is likely to be similar to 1994/96, but for different reasons.

The end result -- a weakened nominee -- will be the same, but how Republicans get there will be slightly different. In that scenario, the fight would be between the grassroots and the establishment. Let's say that both factions quickly narrow their options down to one each. Let's say Palin and Romney for illustrative purposes. At that point, the reaction in some Republican circles will be that a competitive, two-person race is a good thing for the party in the same that Clinton and Obama yielded an energized base of Democrats in 2008. There is one major flaw in that premise though: While Clinton/Obama felt like a fight for the soul of the Democratic Party at times, the truth was that the two potential nominees were not all that fundamentally different. They weren't candidates from two different factions of the party so much as they were candidates who fared well with particular constituencies within the Democratic primary electorate. A Romney versus Palin or establishment versus grassroots battle for the 2012 Republican nomination is a different animal. That is a fight that potentially tips the balance of the race from beneficial due to competitiveness to detrimental because of divisiveness.

In the end, will 2012 represent a correction or a continued shift to the right? The answer is somewhere in the middle of those two absolutes and much of it depends on the environment in 2010 extending to 2012.

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Robert said...


Interesting commentary. I agree that Morning Joe is out to lunch on this one. I think much depends on how the 2010 election comes out and who can claim victory. If the Democrats lose the Senate, particularly with new Senators Angle, O'Donnell and Paul, the establishment will be on the run. At present Romney represents the next-guy-in-line establishment candidate with Palin the most obvious leader of the Tea Party Express, but I'm not sure either one is whom the party will turn to. I think the nominee will be the one who can bridge the gap between the establishment and the disenchanted. I think the establishment is very wary of DeMint. I still think the person best able to bridge that gap is Gingrich, but he has the unique ability to alienate both the establishment and the disenchanted. I am hearing rumblings that establishment money is getting behind Mitch Daniels. Nobody appears to be working harder to establish a grass-roots organization than Pawlenty unless it is Willard who doesn't need the establishment's money.

At this point I still see an Obama-Gingrich race in 2012. I think the primary issue to Democrats will be Afghanistan. If troops are not starting to come home in July, 2011, someone like Feingold (whether he wins or loses this November) will give Obama a challenge. I also think, as I've stated before, that Obama wins the election if the unemployment rate drops below 8% and loses if it doesn't go below 8.5% by October 2012.

Josh Putnam said...

I think this "bridging the gap" angle is a necessary addition to this post. Thanks. I agree with you that Newt is well positioned to be that candidate.

However, it should be noted that that is an extremely difficult balancing act to pull off. It is hard to be all things to all people. In politics you just have to be enough things to enough people to get by though.

Already people are looking at that balancing act:

Robert said...

Agreed. Newt has one foot in each camp. However, as that piece you referred to mentions, he makes bold statements that can get him in trouble in either camp. I suspect that most of his statements now will be for the Tea-Party faithful with a wink and a nod to the establishment. It remains to be seen how much establishment money he can amass.