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A Starry-Eyed Look at the 2012 Republican Field

A long time ago in a galaxy not too far away, I introduced something called the “Planetary Model of Primary Politics”. It is basically just a fancy way of noting that there are generally two dimensions by which candidates position themselves in Presidential primaries. One is along an ideological axis (liberal/conservative). The other is what I then called an institutional axis — whether a candidate seeks to work within existing institutions or to reform them.

I now conceive of the institutional axis as more of a populist axis. Does the candidate stress his connections within the elite, usually expressed in terms of his purported experience, competence, or technical knowledge? Or is he an “outsider” who claims to represent the people in contradiction to the elite? Is he a technocrat or a populist?

These two narratives are so fundamental to American politics that they permeate virtually every election campaign, and allow candidates who are relatively ideological similar (or are dissimilar, for that matter) to differentiate themselves from one another. So why do I call it the “planetary model”? Because it looks something like this:

That is, it looks like a “galaxy” of ideological space, with the candidates representing the equivalent of stars or planets. Depending how fanciful we want to be, we can imagine the planets exerting gravitational forces upon one another, seeking to carve out their own safe space in the universe while at the same time stealing matter (voters) from their opponents.

In looking at the galaxy of prospective Republican candidates, we can divide it into four quadrants:

Conservative Insiders/Technocrats

This is a very crowded space, although it could become more or less so depending on the behavior of two individuals: Mitt Romney and Bobby Jindal.

I think Romney has wasted an awful lot of time over the past couple of years trying to run as a social conservative, chasing voters he’s unlikely to obtain because they don’t trust either (i) his faith or (ii) his track record (and subsequent reputation for flip-floppery) as governor of Massachusetts. To the extent there’s any early indication about Romney’s direction for 2012, he seems inclined to continue playing to the right, having recently used his PAC to donate to stimulus opponents. Then again, that strategy wouldn’t be mutually exclusive with a campaign based on fiscal conservativism and social moderation, which is what everyone but Mitt Romney seems to think they’re getting from Mitt Romney, no matter what Mitt Romney says or does.

Because of his fundraising prowess, Romney should have the first mover advantage in deciding how he wants to position himself; everyone else will have to follow. But there would seem to be more open space to his left than his right if he is bold enough to go there. The one wild card is Jeb Bush, who seems cut from the same sort of cloth as Romney, but even Jeb would probably have to defer to the Mittster.

The whole appeal of Bobby Jindal is that he can play the part of both the technocrat and the populist, a fact perhaps symbolized by his Cajun-fried heritage. The question is whether Jindal will at some point have to decide between the two. Going the populist route would lead to an eventual high-stakes confrontation with Sarah Palin, either early in the primary cycle or perhaps even sooner. Jindal’s alternative is becoming the choice of the conservative cognoscenti, which could cut off oxygen from alternatives like Newt Gingirch, John Thune, Eric Cantor and to a lesser extent Kay Bailey Hutchison. Gingrich is the only one of those alternatives who might exert enough gravity on his own to alter Jindal’s strategy, although it’s a unclear how Gingrich would position himself in the event of an actually running, rather than merely threatening, a campaign.

Conservative Outsiders/Populists

This is Palin Country, and the ‘Cuda would appear to have a free ticket to the semifinals unless she is challenged aggressively on her populist credentials by Jindal or perhaps by Mike Huckabee (although I think that Palin and Huckabee can co-exist until a fairly advanced stage of the process). The other potential candidates in this category, such as Fred Thompson, are mere nuisances to Palin, and are probably just hanging around hoping she goes supernova. Mark Sanford and Haley Barbour also seem inclined to move in this direction following their threatened rejection of stimulus monies, but they are poorly-defined candidates in a field with plenty of name recognition, the Doddering Richardsons of the GOP hopefuls.

Moderate Outsiders/Populists

This quadrant is generally sparely populated by the GOP, whose liberal wing owes its heritage to the highly wonkish traditions of the Rockefeller Republicans. Several candidates, however, brush up against its fringe, most notably Huckabee, whose Main Street economic populism creates differentiation with almost every other candidate in the Republican field.

Tim Pawlenty fits vaguely into this category (especially if one believes that having a mullet gives you populist cred). But I’ve also never particularly understood what Palwenty’s appeal is supposed to be: he got a fair amount of free airtime during the Republican veepstakes last year and didn’t leave much of an impression.

This is also probably where Ron Paul belongs, although really Paul is in a sort of libertarian hyperspace that few of us can hope to understand. Fellow traveler and former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, who endorsed Paul in 2008, could provide for a more credible version of the libertarian message, but is probably too unorthodox a candidate for a party that lacks self-confidence and is groping to find a leader.

Moderate Insiders/Technocrats

This is supposed to be Charlie Crist‘s space, but I just don’t get the sense that Crist is particularly serious about running, having cozied up to Barack Obama while teeing off the Republican establishment. If Crist does not run, or waits until 2016, that could vacate this space for Utah Governor John Hunstman, who perhaps sensing his opportunity is moving hard and to the left on issues like civil unions and the stimulus. A reform-minded candidate like Mitch Daniels could potentially fill this space, as could a recycled one like Rudy Giuliani; this is also where a wild card from the business or the military communities might wind up fitting in. But it will be filled by somebody, as it’s a valuable space to own in a year where the other party won’t be hosting competitive primaries, leaving independents and Democrats free to weigh in on the GOP contest. The Republicans could wind up with a moderate nominee on accident.

So, What Happens Next?

I don’t know. Ask me again in a year or so. But I think it’s not too early to be talking about this stuff, because the primary wars are also a proxy war for the future of the party.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.