I must beg to differ with my esteemed colleague, Michael Scherer. Michael this morning posted a CNN poll as proof that Republican voters are pragmatists who will bear an open mind to moderate candidates such as former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman in the 2012 presidential primaries. Michael cited John McCain’s selection in 2008 as proof of GOP voters’ practicality.
Big supporter, in the 2008 campaign at least, of confronting global warming. Big supporter, in the 2008 campaign at least, of comprehensive immigration reform. Huge campaign finance reformer. [McCain] liked some Democrats so much that he wanted to pick one as his running mate. And yet, after hundreds of articles were written about why McCain was not conservative enough, after months of talk radio condemnations of McCain, he won the Republican nomination. Why? Because Republicans have a long history of being (small-c) conservative in their selection of nominees. They tend to go for the guy they know, the one they think can win.
Laying aside the fact that national polls of registered Republicans are never good indicators for what’s on the minds of Iowa caucus goers and New Hampshire primary voters, I would argue that this cycle has the potential to be different. If 2010 proved anything, it’s that Republican primary voters valued ideology over electability. Look no farther than the 2010 Senate primaries in Nevada (Sharron Angle) and Delaware (I’m-not-a-witch Christine O’Donnell). Indeed, New Hampshire just picked a Tea Partier to lead its Republican Party over the establishment candidate and Nikki Haley won South Carolina’s governor’s mansion last year after Sarah Palin endorsed and swept her up from fourth in the polls. Not to mention that Iowa Republicans are hardly known for their practicality — they picked Mike Huckabee last time and few Iowa winners have actually gone on to capture the GOP nomination. Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — these are the first four voting states.
And if these states fail to pick someone who excites the base, more so than any other cycle since 1992 there is the potential for an Independent challenge. And just as Ross Perot drew millions of votes from George H. W. Bush, handing Bill Clinton the presidency, so too could a Tea Party general election insurrection only work to President Obama’s benefit. Many Tea Partiers will tell you they only voted for McCain because of Palin’s presence on the ticket. These people are engaged and agitated and they will not hold their noses and pull the lever two presidential elections in a row. If a candidate of their liking isn’t on the ballot, they are far more likely this cycle to seek an alternative.