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If Giuliani Is Back, It Won’t Be By Popular Demand

Let’s not indulge in any equivocation: Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s 2008 presidential campaign was a flop. Though he was an early front-runner in national surveys of potential Republican primary voters, Mr. Giuliani placed a distant sixth in the Iowa caucus, fourth in the New Hampshire primary, sixth again in both Michigan and South Carolina and then, finally, a distant third in Florida, a state where he had allocated much of his resources. Mr. Giuliani then dropped out of the race and endorsed John McCain.

Mr. Giuliani may try his luck again, according to the New York Post, which thinks he might be interested in the 2012 race — although Mr. Giuliani himself has worked to tamp down such speculation.

Supposing that he did enter the presidential sweepstakes again, would Mr. Giuliani be any more likely to win?

Unfortunately, I don’t see how he would be.

The rationale — according to one of The Post’s anonymous sources — is that Mr. Giuliani “thinks the Republican race will be populated with far-right candidates like Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee, and there’s opportunity for a moderate candidate with a background in national security.”

In 2008, indeed, roughly one-third of Republican primary voters described themselves as liberal or moderate. If Mr. Giuliani could win most of those voters — while picking off a few others who described themselves as conservative but emphasized national security issues — he could plausibly emerge with a plurality, assuming that the conservative vote was split among several other candidates.

The problem is that Mr. Giuliani is unlikely to be the only moderate running. Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, who called for a “truce” on social issues, might also get into the race. Rumors have swirled around the moderate governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie and (less plausibly) a former Utah governor, Jon M. Huntsman Jr. — now the United States ambassador to China — who broke with many in his party by endorsing civil unions for gay and lesbian couples. A libertarian candidate, like Gary Johnson or Ron Paul, might also suck up a few votes that could otherwise potentially go to moderates.

We don’t know, of course, which of these candidates are ultimately going to run. But it’s not clear that there will be any shortage of moderate candidates in the Republican field. Many primary voters would consider Mr. Romney to be a moderate, too, and if candidates like him or Tim Pawlenty — with somewhat amorphous images — conclude that the field is too heavy with conservative candidates, they might run more toward the middle.

Nor is it clear that the issues that will be debated among the Republican candidates are going to be any more favorable to Mr. Giuliani than they were in 2008. Gay rights, perhaps, will be somewhat de-emphasized — but immigration, another issue on which Mr. Giuliani is seen by some conservatives as soft — is unlikely to be. There is no evidence, meanwhile, that Republicans have become any more pro-choice, as Mr. Giuliani is.

Four years further removed from the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, meanwhile, national security issues — undoubtedly a strength for Mr. Giuliani — may also receive less, rather than more, emphasis in 2012. National security might also get less traction in a year in which the Democratic opponent will be an incumbent Commander in Chief who has hardly been dovish, stepping up American troop commitments in Afghanistan. Mr. Obama generally receives approval ratings above 50 percent for his handling of terrorism, which is not true of his performance on the economy or on most other issues. Barring another attack — and even then, the behavior of the electorate would be difficult to predict — national security is not an issue where the Republican candidates are liable to be either interested in or able to draw their sharpest distinctions.

There is also the matter of the calendar. Among the four states that will be permitted to vote early in the nominating race without penalty, the Republican electorate is extremely conservative in two of them — Iowa and South Carolina — and in the other two states, New Hampshire and Nevada, Mr. Romney appears to have an advantage because of geography and the affinity that Mormon voters have for him, respectively.

Mr. Giuliani’s decision in 2008 to in essence concede Iowa the other early primary states to focus on Florida is often derided as a poor strategy. But the other early states all presented problems for him, and his poll numbers there were fading. Although Mr. Giuliani could perhaps have fought harder for New Hampshire, ceding the state was mostly a choice borne of necessity.

Finally — and in part because of his unsuccessful 2008 campaign — Mr. Giuliani would enter the race with more baggage than he did four years ago. In late 2006, when Mr. Giuliani declared his candidacy, his favorability ratings averaged about 60 percent among the American public, against just 20 percent unfavorable. By the time he ended his campaign in January 2008, however, the Mr. Giuliani’s favorable/unfavorable numbers were about evenly split, with roughly 45 percent on each side. While it was probably inevitable that his standing would be damaged a bit once he traded his reputation as a hero in helping New York recover from the Sept. 11 attacks for the banalities of a presidential campaign, he would nevertheless not be the fresh face that he was four years ago.

Unless the dominant issue in the 2012 Republican primaries is blizzard management, then — an area in which Mr. Giuliani excelled and which might win him a few votes in New York and Minnesota — it is hard to see how a presidential bid in 2012 would amount to much more than a vanity candidacy, if Mr. Giuliani chooses to mount one at all.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.