Bernstein Brothers Handicap GOP 2012

Michele Bachmann

David S. Bernstein: I invited you to have this email conversation about the 2012 GOP Presidential campaign because you and I both follow politics, but from different angles. I, of course, am an award-winning journalist for the Boston Phoenix. You are a political scientist in San Antonio with a PhD from UCal-Berkeley, who blogs at, and has guest-blogged for the likes of Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic and Ezra Klein at the Washington Post. And, for the sake of full disclosure for my readers: we're brothers -- you're four years older, I'm several inches taller, and despite your claims to the contrary you haven't been able to throw a Wiffle Ball past me since I was about 10. Have I left anything out?

Jonathan Bernstein: Don't make me tell them about your infamous Trivial Pursuit games.


DSB: Yeah, we’ll skip that, thanks. So, you've seen my latest rankings of the GOP Presidential contenders.  Anything jump out at you?

JB: Sure. I've said this before, but I still think you're overrating the chances of people who haven't won statewide office, which at this point means Mike Pence. I don't think it's just happenstance that no one has done that since the 19th century. I wouldn't want to say it's impossible, but it seems to me far less likely than you believe. At least you've moved Newt down over time. 

I think Rick Perry is your best call: it makes all kinds of sense for him to run. He should have no trouble raising money, he's clean of anything that would draw a veto from important GOP groups, and he would be taken extremely seriously by everyone if he got in tomorrow. At least, I don't think he draws any vetoes -- there's some land use stuff in Texas that locals care about that I don't think would hurt him in Iowa, and some personal stuff that's been reported but certainly hasn't been an issue among Republicans here. 

Beyond those two points, let me ask you a question. You note that not much has changed over two years. Do you think there's something systematic that locks in the plausible field early in the game, or do you think that it's just the way things worked out this time?


DSB: Past might not be prologue for Pence. House members haven’t had the power base to raise money and name recognition -- but today, any random unknown Republican can get plenty of both just by yelling something rude at the President.

I think the stable field may be a result of the state of the GOP. In addition to the usual barriers to entry for a Presidential run, there’s the obvious calculation that you’re either too moderate to have any chance at the nomination, or too extreme to have a chance in a general election.

(Which reminds me -- did you see that Rudy Giuliani got his name floated recently as a 2012 possibility? On the logic, I suppose, that the one thing we learned in 2010 is that Republican primary voters are looking for candidates with moderate-to-liberal views on domestic issues, right?)

The other factor is that the field seems frozen waiting to see if the “Sage of Wasila,” as I believe you’ve dubbed her, is running. How do you handicap her?


JB: Ah, Sarah Palin. I've been firmly in the middle ground on her: I've thought that those who thought she had no chance because of her weak poll numbers were wrong, but so were those who thought she was a lock. Palin, so far, has been running as a factional candidate, not of a conservative or Tea Party faction but of the Sarah Palin faction. Since 1980, factional candidates haven't been able to win presidential nominations, or even come close. So the question about Palin is whether she will attempt to run a coalition-style campaign, and as she continues not to do so, I've started to think her chances are decreasing. 

As for Pence... I'm not at all convinced. Joe Wilson money is a long ways from presidential nomination money. And money is only a piece of it. I don't think it's as impossible as a pro-choice former Mayor of New York City winning a GOP presidential nomination, but that's not saying much, is it.

As far as the process is concerned, odds are we'll get a consensus pretty rapidly and it won't matter, but if the nomination is closely contested, then I have a question for you. Do you think that Gary Johnson will get Ron Paul's 10%? A bit more? Less? What if Michele Bachmann winds up running? Can she also get a solid 10%?  Or does that melt away quickly? Joe Wilson money isn't enough to win a nomination, but it is probably enough for candidates like these to stick in the race as long as they want -- and I can see the partisan press giving Bachmann plenty of free media whether the party in general wants that or not. 


DSB: Bachmann for President -- as a reporter, I say from ABC News’s lips to God’s ear. I hadn’t heard a peep from New Hampshire GOP insiders about her before that report. I assume she’d only run if Palin doesn’t, so maybe her overtures mean she got word that there’s an opening for a God-fearing brunette?

The Ron Paul vote -- assuming he doesn’t end up running himself -- could find its way to a Rick Perry, or maybe Mitch Daniels; I think it’s enough of a force to get co-opted into someone’s broader coalition. Especially if Palin takes her faction off the table; then the others need to reach into those libertarians.

I’d argue that one big reason John McCain won the nomination (a result I brilliantly predicted) was that the party’s factions were so split. Mitt Romney’s wealthy business/finance and movement conservatives (who hated McCain for campaign finance and immigration reform) didn’t trust Mike Huckabee or Paul to do right by business interests; Huckabee’s religious conservatives didn’t trust Romney or Paul on their issues; and Paul’s libertarians balked at Romney’s and Huckabee’s records as governor.

So I guess the question is, will those various coalitions split off into their separate corners again, sustaining multiple candidates, or will it shake out into a cleaner two-person split? I’m guessing the latter, but could easily see the former. You?


JB: Remember, in most years things are really wrapped up by the time that Iowa votes, and certainly after the New Hampshire primary. 2008 was unusual. Sometimes it's wrapped up but still has to play out a bit, as was the case for George W. Bush in 2000. If that's the case, then it doesn't really matter much how various smaller blocks of votes wind up falling.  But if it's really fairly wide open by Iowa...well, in the immortal words of Joaquin Andujar: youneverknow.


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