Can a Republican Nobody Win the Nomination?

It is the June, 2012. The Republican candidate, recent winner of the party’s presidential nomination, rises up to deliver a triumphant victory speech. He launches a full-throated defense of conservatism, inserts a few sly attacks on the Democratic president, and thanks his opponents for endorsing him.

Just six months ago nobody had heard about him. Yet then he won the Iowa caucuses, shocking everybody in the political world. New Hampshire followed, then a string of victories that utterly defeated his remaining opposition. Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, and Mike Huckabee never stood a chance.

How likely is this to happen?

Well, it is certainly within the bounds of conceivability – although admittedly somewhat unlikely. There are several factors that ought to be considered.

Firstly, there is the state of the current Republican field itself. This is a surprisingly weak selection. There are a number of potentially strong candidates out there. The problem is that none of them are running.

Unlike most previous contests, there is no obvious front-runner such as Governors George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan. Former Governor Mitt Romney is the one who best fits the definition. But Mr. Romney’s political skills are uncommonly weak; there is something about him (and this is a personal characteristic, not his Mormonism) that just turns-off voters.

So, unlike previous nominations, there is still plenty of space for a surprise Republican candidate to enter.

What about historical precedent? Here the picture is still pretty good. History is full of surprise candidates taking the nomination by storm. The most recent instance is, of course, the president himself (although he was actually pretty well known amongst the Beltway before 2008).

Even more encouraging might be example of President Jimmy Carter. Nobody, not even those immersed in politics, had heard of the peanut farmer before he ran for president. As late as January 1976 – the equivalent of January 2012 today – only 4% of Democrats chose him as their candidate. But Mr. Carter won the Iowa primary through retail politics, and then a string of other small primaries to build momentum.

There are other examples: Senator John Kerry in 2004, Governor Bill Clinton in 1992, and arguably Governor Mike Dukakis in 1988. These should hearten an ambitious yet unknown Republican.

On the other hand, all these examples come on the Democratic side. For whatever reason, political unknowns haven’t been as successful in the Republican Party. The last time the Republican frontrunner lost was in 1964, when Senator Barry Goldwater won the nomination (probably not the most inspiring model). Perhaps there is something in the nature of conservatism that is less attracted to exciting, new candidates of change.

At the moment, however, the chances that an unknown Republican will win the nomination better than they have been since – well – 1964.

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