My colleague Karl writes today about the retirement from the GOP horse race of Tim Pawlenty, and the settling of the race into a “Romney vs. Not Romney” dynamic. Pawlenty didn’t succeed in being crowned Not Romney in the Iowa straw poll yesterday, but how secure is the tiara on Michelle Bachmann’s head? Is Rick Perry destined to step into a phone booth and turn into Not Romney? What will the voters’ judgments be in the bellwether states of South Carolina and Florida?
The whole question is interesting, and begs in turn the question whether the 2012 campaign will be the clear-the-decks, all-bets-off political turning point that many are hoping for. I think, to begin with, that a lot of people would find the “Not Romney” category an incomplete formulation. It’s not so much “Not Romney” as “the category voters are looking for that Romney doesn’t fit into.” Which, granted, has no future as a bumper sticker – but the point is that the thinking of non-Romney voters isn’t “anyone but Romney,” it’s “where’s the candidate who reflects what I want and believe in?”
Rick Perry may fill that bill for an electorally useful number of voters. I don’t think he’ll have much trouble with Romney in South Carolina, and I’d call it even-Steven for the two candidates in Florida. There are a lot of retired Northeasterners there to whom Romney appeals, but Perry can expect to do well with Florida’s Cuban-American Republicans, small business owners, and military. Jeb Bush’s and Marco Rubio’s endorsements will carry weight. I think I know which way Rubio will go, but I’m not sure what Bush will do.
I’m also not sure Florida will be a make-or-break state. Assuming its primary is in January (as proposed), the early vote and the likelihood of a close split will mitigate the impact of a loss for either Romney or Perry. Other states are likely to be more significant tests of the dynamic Karl outlines; the primary schedule has Missouri probably voting in early February, and the very interesting states of Illinois, Tennessee, and Virginia voting in March, along with the Colorado precinct caucuses. Those states may well be a better test of the electorate’s mood. Will Romney win where we would expect him to?
The campaign may well come down to the convention vote, as it did in 1976. It’s very possible Romney and Perry will both have good reason to consider themselves “still alive” when Pennsylvania votes in April, and Indiana and Ohio in May. (I’m using the proposed primary schedule; not all dates may come off as currently envisioned by the states.) If Bachmann stays in the race, racking up strong third-place finishes, the likelihood of the decision being delayed to the convention goes up.
It’s tempting to say that the question in 2012 is whether there will be a single Republican brand the voters will line up behind. I think a more basic question is whether we have reached a tipping point in the popular sentiment that things not only have got to change, but that they already have. We saw some evidence of that in the primary nod to Christine O’Donnell in Delaware last year, as well as in Florida’s revolt against the national GOP establishment in picking Marco Rubio over Charlie Crist, Nevada’s choice of Sharron Angle to face off against Harry Reid, etc. There are multiple factors at work in the ongoing saga of Wisconsin, but one of them is the major shift in voter sentiment: voters are willing to endure civil unrest, and the unhappiness of taxpayer-dependent constituencies, and continue to endorse the political leaders who are standing against those eruptions and doing what the voters asked them to do.
Have we reached the tipping point? Are voters ready to buck conventional expectations and do things differently? If they aren’t, and they hand the nomination to Romney, even a GOP win in 2012 will be taken as evidence that politics as usual is what people really want. Opinions will differ on whether endorsing Rick Perry instead is a signal that voters seek real change. It’s possible that he will function as a sort of operational pause for GOP voters and the republic: conservative enough that he’ll get a lot of Bachmann and Palin supporters, but with a standard political resume of reassuring length and girth. A Perry candidacy could well serve to postpone the kind of transformative reckoning the GOP had between 1976 and 1980.
The coming primary season is likely to be the most significant, informative one the GOP has had in decades. We will know some things at the end of it that we don’t know today. The biggest thing, I think, will be whether voters are still hoping to identify a standard-bearer for the “Reagan consensus,” or whether they see a need to rewrite the consensus. If it’s the latter, my money is on an updated “Coolidge consensus”: something starker, simpler, and purer than the Reagan consensus.
Are we ready for that consensus to emerge yet? That is the question. We’re closer than we were four years ago. Because words matter, I don’t even want to hazard a guess about 2012. But I do think there will be a sign one way or the other: whether Sarah Palin gets into the race, and what happens if she does.