I’m not sure I remember a political primary quite like the 2012 GOP primary. There have been primaries with weak fields (the 1988 Democrats, the 1992 Democrats, the 1996 GOP, the 2008 GOP), and there have been candidates who have gained traction, only to implode (Gary Hart, Pat Buchanan, Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani). But there’s never been quite the combination of weakness and collapse that has been the hallmark of this year’s GOP matchup. Bachmann, Perry, and Cain all have spent time atop the polls, and all have seen that support fall apart. Meanwhile, the only candidate in the race with any legitimate chance of winning the presidency is despised by pretty much all Republicans.
This isn’t to say that one of these chuckleheads couldn’t come out of the pack and somehow beat Obama next November. We’re a long way from the election. If the economy keeps improving, I think it’s likely Obama wins reelection. But if Europe collapses, the economy tanks, and the GOP nominates one of its few credible candidates, Obama could lose.
All of those are big ifs, of course. First, the Republicans have to pick a standard-bearer. But who? Let’s play Power Rankings.
1. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. (Last Rank: 8 )
Newtmentum is running wild. He’s leading in several national polls, and at least one poll has him within striking distance in New Hampshire. Is Newt the Republicans’ Mr. Right? I don’t know, but he is certainly Mr. Right Now.
As Cain has slowly sunk, the anti-Romney voters have apparently begun to move to Gingrich by default. It makes a certain amount of sense. As I said way back in 2009:
That doesn’t mean Newt couldn’t get the nomination. In many ways, he’s the best sacrificial lamb in the race for the GOP. He doesn’t have a political future, so there’s no reason he can’t go out and get destroyed by Barack Obama in 2012. And like Tim Pawlenty, he allows the party to sidestep the rifts that a Romney or Huckabee nomination would expose. For those reasons, I can see Newt getting establishment support to prop him up as a bulwark against Huckabee and/or Romney, and I can see him getting the nomination in an effort to hold the party together.
This is why Newt is still hanging around: he’s a good compromise candidate. The establishment can accept him because he’s One Of Them, while the tea party folks like him because he’s a complete, raving asshole. And best of all, he’s not Mitt Romney.
Of course, Newt still has a ton of downside — from his work as a “historian” for Freddie Mac to his raving dickishness — which makes it possible his bubble could burst before Iowa gets here. He also lacks an organization, which could cause him to underperform in the Hawkeye state, even if he gets ahead of Cain. And if he gets the nomination, I think he’s easy pickings for Obama. But right now, at this precise moment, he’s the candidate with the best chance of winning the nomination, because the guy in the second spot is so despised.
2. Former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney (LR: 2)
Let’s say that in a year or two, Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., decided to start talking in populist terms. He’d run around the country quoting Paul Wellstone’s Conscience of a Liberal, and praising Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., for his strong liberal economic views. He’d claim to be not just pro-choice, but he’d start advocating federally funded abortion. He’d claim not to be pro-gay, but he’d start advocating a constitutional amendment to make same-sex marriage legal. He’d push for high taxes on the rich, demand increased spending, and he’d claim that his decision to oppose the public option on health care was a huge mistake.
Then he’d announce he was running for president.
Would you trust him?
Of course you wouldn’t trust him. You know who Ben Nelson is. You know what he’s stood for his entire political career. At best, you’d welcome his conversion while supporting anyone – anyone– else. Because even if you thought he was now sincere, you’d never quite know. And you’d know full well that if he was able to shake off a lifetime of beliefs over a year or two, he could shake off a year or two of beliefs in a minute.
And so it is with Mitt Romney. The Republicans don’t trust him. And why should they? Mitt once claimed he was more pro-gay than Ted Kennedy. He’s advocated state funding for abortion. He put in place a health care plan that was nearly identical to the Affordable Care Act. During his term as governor of Massachusetts, he governed as a pure centrist, or perhaps someone who was center-left. The Mitt who governed Massachusetts would fit comfortably in the House Democratic Caucus.
And so when he now claims to support Question 26 in Mississippi, or to be opposed to same-sex marriage, or to be eager to strike down Obamacare, who can trust him? Certainly not Republicans. Which is why, despite the inability of any candidate to demonstrate any electoral viability, Mitt’s poll numbers are dropping.
Quite simply, Republicans don’t like Mitt. They don’t trust him. They don’t believe in him. They may have to accept him by Hobson’s choice, but if they can find anyone – anyone– else, they will.
Mitt has so far been having about as good a run as he could hope for, as potential challengers have collapsed along the way. But with each collapse, we see more and more clearly that Republicans are trying to find someone else to support. The flavor-of-the-week appears to be Newt Gingrich right now, and he may be the most dangerous candidate left to Mitt’s hopes. Newt is at least sort of credible. He’s not anathema to the right. He’s acceptable to the Wall Street wing. If Newt becomes the anti-Mitt, Mitt probably loses.
His best hope is that Cain avoids total collapse, but those hopes appear dim; Cain’s support appears to finally be falling off the cliff. If Cain can arrest his collapse before Iowa, or if someone else can rise, the rest of the field might be muddled enough that Mitt ekes out a win, closes things out in New Hampshire, and effectively sews up the nomination. But if Gingrich continues to rise, then Mitt is probably toast.
3. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas (LR: 5)
Paul won’t get the nomination, of course. But as I’ve said many times, he’ll keep floating around, pulling around 10% of the vote in every state, occasionally saying something in a debate that makes his fellow GOPers uncomfortable, and then following that up with some bizarre goldbug argument. He could even win a state or two, given the churning in the race — Iowa appears within reach, at least for the moment — but he has t00 many views out-of-step with the GOP to earn the nomination.
A Paul win in Iowa would be hilarious, but ultimately, he’s not going to win the nomination, and if he fails, he’ll leave without causing much of a wake; his supporters are generally not going to go to anyone if he drops out. But he continues to remain a presence in the race, and as long as he keeps floating around 10%, he’ll keep showing up at debates and in forums, and that’s mainly why he’s running, anyhow — to push the party toward libertarianism. It won’t work, of course, because libertarianism is a childish, unworkable political system, but it’s better than the bizarre blend of state support for the rich and laissez-faire for the poor that the GOP currently espouses.
4. Herman Cain (LR: 3)
I guessed last time around that Cain would lose support. I didn’t expect it to be due to a sexual harassment scandal. But that, combined with his disastrous non-answer to the Libya question, has caused his support to crater.
Cain’s support is still in double-digits simply because the far right has not seen another viable alternative to Romney. Perry is a train wreck, Bachmann is Bachmann, Santorum has his Google problem, Paul doesn’t hate gay people or Muslims enough, and Huntsman is like Romney only more liberal. Given that it’s too late for a white knight, conservatives have held onto Cain as their life raft.
The question will be whether Gingrich’s apostasies and mess of a family life will keep the far right from embracing him. I don’t think it will; Newt has said all sorts of dumb things, but he’s got a three-decade career of being a douchebag of conservatism. That will count for something.
The best hope for Cain is that Newt’s lobbying and infidelity cause him to fall. If that happens, then Cain could end up rebounding and regaining his standing as the best candidate to stop Mitt. But I don’t see that happening. Even though the Republicans tried valiantly to prop Cain up in the midst of the his sexual harassment scandal, they know in their hearts that it’s dealt a fatal blow to his chances in a general election. Newt still has a chance; they’ll back him before they back a sure loser. And if Newt fails, they’ll find someone who isn’t Cain.
5. Texas Gov. Rick Perry (LR: 4)
Perry has had a collapse unparalleled in modern political history. Sure, Fred Thompson burst onto the scene four years ago and made some noise before disappearing. But Big Sleepy’s fall was not so precipitous, and not nearly as visible. Thompson fell slowly, because he wasn’t that exciting and didn’t run a particularly vibrant race. Perry has collapsed through gaffe after gaffe, horrible debate performance after horrible debate performance. His epic, never-ending debate gaffe was just the final nail in the coffin. It confirmed what everyone in the nation had already concluded: the man is not bright enough to be president.
Perry has a lot of money left, but at this point, I can’t imagine how he undoes the damage he’s done to his own image. Not only can’t I imagine him winning the GOP primary, I can’t imagine him winning another election, even as a Republican in Texas. Rick Perry’s political career is over; he talked himself to death.
6. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Penn. (LR: 6)
There were two candidates who could have been beneficiaries of a Cain drop-off. Rick Santorum was one, and Newt Gingrich was the other. And the GOP voters appear to have chosen Newt.
I’m not sure what it is about Santorum; whatever appeal he once had, it’s gone. I think it’s the vibe he gives off, an old-school fundamentalist vibe — one more of the 70s and 80s than today. Santorum feels like he would fit right in with Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, but that’s not the manner of today’s evangelical right. They’re more Bachmann — angrier, more strident, more in-your-face.
Maybe it’s something else. I don’t know. All I know is that whatever the GOP is looking for, it isn’t Rick Santorum. He’s done.
7. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn. (LR: 7)
Our Michele is showing no indication of regaining her previous lofty heights. She remains an afterthought in the polls, and for whatever reason, she seems mired in also-ran territory. Which is, of course, where a ludicrously conservative conspiracy theorist backbencher belongs.
That Bachmann ever had a lead in the polls is a huge indictment of the state of the current Republican Party. Sure, someone like her can get elected to Congress — there have always been extremists, in both parties, who have managed to bubble up through the ranks and get elected from safe districts. But that’s the ceiling for them; they don’t get taken seriously for president, not by serious parties. The Republicans of 2012, of course, are not serious. And while Michele Bachmann may have been an awful candidate, she is — and I can’t believe I’m saying this — no less awful than the three men who have succeeded her as front-runner. Perry is foolish, Cain is vacuous, and Gingrich is licentious. Michele Bachmann may have spouted bizarre gibberish on Libya, but she would have spouted it immediately, and with fervor. She knows damn well what 37 agencies she wants to cut, and she sold out to Fannie Mae for far less money than Newt sold out to Freddie Mac. And say what you want about Michele Bachmann, but she is no flip-flopper. She’s held the same ridiculous positions her entire political career.
Michele Bachmann is superior in many ways to the men who have surpassed her in the polls. That should terrify America. It terrifies me.
8. Former Ambassador Jon Huntsman (LR: 9)
Huntsman is doomed for the same reason Huntsman has always been doomed: he’s far too moderate for the Republican Party. Don’t misunderstand me: Huntsman is not a moderate. He endorsed Paul Ryan’s debt plan, which would be seriously damaging to America. But he’s at least willing to entertain the idea that political parties should work across the aisle. He’s not dedicated to destroying the Democrats at all cost, even the cost of the nation itself. And for that reason, he will never get the nomination of today’s GOP.
The only impact Huntsman will have on this race is by possibly making things interesting in New Hampshire. Huntsman has gone all-in on the Granite State, and while that state will most certainly be his Waterloo, he could still cut into the support of fellow moderate Mormon ex-governor Mitt Romney. Cut in enough, and Mitt could find himself underperforming expectations there — and that could sink Mittens. Of course, more likely is that Huntsman gets his gentleman’s three percent, and vanishes until 2016.
9. Former La. Gov. Buddy Roemer (LR: 11)
Roemer rises because a few of his positive quotes about Occupy Wall Street have trickled into the mainstream media, so…that’s something, I guess. But running for president as a Republican opposed to money in politics is like running for president as a Democrat opposed to Social Security. Getting more money into politics is a core Republican value. Indeed, it’s arguably the glue that binds the whole coalition together. Roemer is right that money in politics is a problem, and that we need to find a way to regulate it. But he’s wrong to think that he’ll ever convince a significant number of Republicans of that.
10. Former N.M. Gov. Gary Johnson (LR: 10)
Remember Gary Johnson? He’s still running for President. Honest, he is. No, seriously — he’s on the ballot and everything. If you are heavily invested in smoking pot, you might have heard of him, or maybe not — it’s hazy. If you aren’t, you haven’t heard of him. Don’t feel bad. Neither has anyone else.
11. Jimmy “The Rent is Too Damn High” McMillan (LR: 12)
With the ouster of protesters from Zuccotti Park, a prominent challenge to the too highness of the damn rent has been eliminated. That leaves Jimmy McMillan to save the day, reminding Americans of a simple truth: The Rent is Too Damn High. And it is, my friends. It unquestionably is.
12. Fred Karger (LR: 13)
Karger gets an up arrow because I actually heard something he said about Florida’s GOP chair. I don’t remember what it was — he was upset, as I recall — and I’m too lazy to look it up. And I’m not sure if it was on the radio or Twitter or something. But still, I actually heard Fred Karger’s name mentioned by someone somewhere. That’s progress.
1. President Barack Obama (LR: 1)
Obama’s nomination is assured, of course, but it should be noted that his polling is continuing to improve, and that he is looking much stronger going into 2012 than he was coming out of 2010. For this, he owes a huge thank-you to the Republican Party, which has managed to do just about everything conceivable wrong in the past year.
As of right now, I’d rate Obama’s chances of being re-elected as 70-30; if the Republicans nominate anyone who’s name doesn’t rhyme with “spit,” those odds go 90-10.
2. Randall Terry (LR: 2)
Terry continues to get absolutely no traction, but that’s okay; his main goal is to run disturbingly graphic anti-choice ads during the Super Bowl. Of course, everyone thinks the fetus-picture people are a bunch of douchebags, even most conservatives, so I welcome that. Far from being shocked that surgery is messy, Americans will draw the conclusion that anti-choicers are assholes. Which they are.
Ralph Nader (LR: 2)
Nader and Cornell West missed the deadline to get anyone on the ballot to challenge Obama in New Hampshire, and they’re unlikely to succeed elsewhere. For all their griping, the overwhelming majority of Democrats are behind Obama, and while I have no data to back this up, my guess is that the overwhelming majority of those most disaffected with Obama still understand that challenging him in the primary is a disaster waiting to happen.
In a way, I think Occupy Wall Street sucked the wind out of Nader’s sails. They conclusively demonstrated that there are other, more effective ways to get a politician’s attention than mounting a primary challenge. And Obama’s embrace of their core message undercut the emoprog argument that Obama is a secret Reaganite.
Whatever the reason, any hope of a primary challenge against Obama has fizzled. This doesn’t mean Ralph might not mount yet another independent run for the White House, of course. He’s like Pat Paulsen, only he isn’t funny.