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The Very Open GOP Field

The Washington Post ran an article in conjunction with a new poll it conducted about the 2012 Republican presidential field. With all the Afghanistan focus—and an unusually busy week on campus—I just haven’t had time to sit down and think about the poll results until now.

The poll shows a highly fractured Republican electorate. Asked who best reflects the “core values of the Republican Party,” none of the names surveyed received more than 18 percent support, with Sarah Palin leading at that level, followed by John McCain (13 percent), Mike Huckabee (7 percent), Mitt Romney (6 percent), and Newt Gingrich (4 percent). “Other” got 23 percent and “No leader/no opinion” got a whopping 28 percent. Tim Pawlenty couldn’t have been too happy he didn’t rate at all, even if he claims otherwise and now seems to want to seize the darkhorse role.

What to make of these results and, moreover, what do they tell us about the possibilities for the 2012 GOP presidential primary? With all the usual caveats about how far out we are—although I should remind readers that the so-called “invisible primary” has in some senses already begun, and regular Iowa and New Hampshire visits will start in about 11 months—the obvious conclusion is that the GOP is presently leaderless. This doesn’t mean there aren’t leaders or leadership, a frame national Democrats are all-too-happy to insert. It’s just that there is no obvious star, and barely something close to an heir apparent. Subtract out the 13 percent share given to McCain, the party’s 2008 nominee, by reflex, and Bush’s laughable 1 percent, and you have only 35 percent of Republicans naming somebody who is a potential contender for the 2012 nomination. Some of that 23 percent for “Other” include names, like Pawlenty’s, of possible candidates, but still.

Tomorrow, I’m going to do a bit more 2012 speculation—scenarios where this or that candidate emerges as the new face/identity of the GOP—but for the moment, I mostly want to raise a few points about the poll.

The obvious starting point is Palin. If 18 percent is a small number, it’s large by comparison to the rest of the field. This may not make me feel more comfortable about my bet with Nate, but her support represents a fixed, core group of cultural conservatives who love her and are going to be with her if she runs. Put another way, because she attracts those who are intense and likely to commit early, I don’t think that as the 60 or so percent who didn’t name anyone start to line up they will do so in the proportions that those four names got in this Post poll. That is, Palin’s support is deep but not necessarily wide. As the Post’s Dan Balz notes in an analytical follow-up to the Post’s cover story pegged to the poll, Palin “has particular appeal to the loyal followers of Limbaugh and Beck, two of the most popular conservative talk show hosts in the country.” No shocker there, of course, but remember that the votes of those who roguely commit early and earnestly still count the same as those who are taking a wait-and-see attitude. An intense vote from an early adopter and a reluctant vote from a late adopter count the same: once. Just ask Howard Dean.

Second, I’m surprised Huckabee didn’t do better, especially given how strongly he finished in 2008, and despite having so few resources. To me, he’s the real wild card in the 2012 race. Why? Two reasons. First, if he does run, he complicates and threatens Palin’s possible bid more than anyone else. Second, figuring out the calculus of whether he runs or not in the first place is tricky. He seems to like doing TV, and by next year the opportunity costs for him to run in 2012 may be too high.

Finally, I have to say something about Gingrich. Though my politics don’t much line up with his, I like Gingrich. You may think his big ideas are kooky, and some are, but at least he has big ideas. He’s a thinker. He also knows something how the government in Washington actually runs (and not to foolishly shut it down)–unlike the rest of the field, including Romney. And the fact that a politician who lost his last substantive electoral job over a decade ago can still register 4 percent—a small share until you consider that Huckabee and Romney, who were in the national spotlight just a year or so ago, got little more—says something about his staying power. The other thing about Gingrich: He personally went down in flames, but unlike GWBush, who ruined the modern GOP’s brand and destroyed its majorities, the congressional majorities Gingrich, more than any other Republican brought to Washington, were still intact when he exited political stage right. Also, and despite his potentially backfiring move of supporting Dede Scozzafava over Doug Hoffman in the GOP’s moment-of-truth NY23 House special election, Gingrich is the one guy in the field who has sufficient legitimacy among both the Washington/policy/insider wing of the party and the base/cultural/heartland conservative wing to unify the Republicans. Something in my gut says he’s a guy not to ignore.

Anyway, I will game this out a little more—contextualizing the race based on some assumptions about the state of the economy and politics by 2011-12; who decides to run and who doesn’t; and what the GOP primary electorate looks like—tomorrow. In the interim, I’m curious to hear readers thoughts about the poll and its meaning.