Anyone's Game

The 2012 GOP presidential primary race begins to take shape.

As the Obama administration begins digging its campaign trenches for the 2012 presidential election, the matter of the president's Republican challenger is becoming much more discernible. On Saturday, 2008 presidential-hopeful Mitt Romney earned an easy victory in the first New Hampshire straw poll of 2011. In many eyes, this has affirmed Romney’s status as front-runner for the Republican Party presidential nomination. However, this win is not necessarily predicative of Romney's ultimate success and other dark horses are waiting in the wings -- but who among them has the greatest likelihood of success?

Just over 21 months until the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney is in a very good position. Although a recent Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey shows Obama ahead of all leading GOP contenders nationwide, Romney rated the second highest in PPP’s Iowa poll and second highest in its national poll, trailing Mike Huckabee by only a few points in each. Romney consistently ranks as one of the highest (sometimes tying) in polls of Republican and mixed Republican-Independent voters. In the New Hampshire straw poll, Romney came in with a 24-point advantage to the next most popular Republican, Ron Paul. As a primary candidate in 2008, Romney came in second in New Hampshire to John McCain, who went on to win the GOP presidential nomination.

One of Romney's frequently cited drawbacks is his role in “RomneyCare,” Massachusetts’ state-administered health care system, which bears many resemblances to President Obama's health care plan, including having an individual health insurance mandate. In addition, RomneyCare has been unsuccessful on many fronts, which is likely the reason the former Massachusetts governor said little during the national heath care debate that consumed much of the last two years. This is unlike other potential presidential candidates -- Sarah Palin, Huckabee, Newt Gingrich, etc. -- who led relatively vocal opposition to the program.

Doubtless, other GOP contenders who unequivocally opposed the heath care overhaul bill (virtually all of them) will exploit Romney’s baggage in this respect -- which is certainly burdensome given the great animus conservative voters have toward the bill and its unpopularity among independents. After all, how could Romney possibly respond to this constituency’s clarion call if he is not, in principle, opposed to state intervention in the health care system? Two items are worth mentioning here:

First, although the Massachusetts health care debacle will surely be a sticking point in the presidential primary -- just as it was during the 2008 primary when many voters were actually sympathetic to health care reform -- it may not be as crucial a factor in the general election of 2012. Support for repeal of ObamaCare among the general public has steadily waned since the debate was as its zenith. As the majority of voters turn to the economy, jobs, and the deficit (which is implicative of, but not coextensive with, ObamaCare), the health care bill seems to influence voter opinion less and less.

Secondly, Romney’s role in Massachusetts’ health care system is regrettable, but not indefensible. The notion that what Romney oversaw in Massachusetts is somehow comparable to ObamaCare, a claim often touted by ObamaCare supporters, is fundamental misled. Although the bills share some functional similarities, it certainly comports with conservative federalist principles that states have the right to conduct their business according to the wishes of the public. But when these same policies are proposed on the national scale (and are clearly against the better judgement of most of the population), such a program becomes decidedly un-conservative. That is to say, there’s nothing inconsistent for a conservative to believe that state democracies ought to enact statist policies if the public sees fit, while also believing that these same policies would be unconstitutional on a national scale.

Although Romney is the apparent front-runner at this time, he has tough competition with former Arkansas governor and 2008 presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee. In another PPP poll from the 21st, Huckabee had a 10-point lead ahead of Romney (and Palin), although he curiously achieved little more than 3% of the vote in the first New Hampshire straw poll. Huckabee also had a narrow victory in a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll. After coming off the campaign trail, Huckabee has remained relatively visible as a part-time Fox News personality, hosting a show called “Huckabee,” and contributing political analysis at the network.

After his surprising win in the 2008 Iowa caucus, Huckabee’s star was on the rise until he lost subsequent caucuses and eventually bowed out altogether.Three years later, Huckabee still holds sway in in Iowa. In August 2010, he won the Iowa straw poll, just edging out Mitt Romney. Huckabee’s security among Iowa Republicans gives him a notable head start over other candidates, except, perhaps, for Romney.

Deference must be paid, of course, to Sarah Palin. As much as she is maligned, Palin enjoys the most devoted and enthusiastic group of supporters. In many respects, she is the Tea Party favorite, which cannot be said for front-runner Romney. In most every recent poll, Palin vacillates between the 2nd-4th most supported Republican -- and this really says something for a woman so hated. Palin has much more support than many other well-qualified candidates, including Tim Pawlenty, the governor of Minnesota, who is widely predicted to make a run for the presidency. Palin polls significantly higher than Pawlenty, and also Newt Gingrich, and Reps. Ron Paul, and Michele Bachman. (Ron Paul did come in a distant second in the New Hampshire straw poll, but he generally polls below Palin.)

Palin’s serious deficit is in her marketability outside of conservative precincts. Her rating among liberals is usually in the single digits and she is only marginally more well-liked among Independents. In the national PPP poll cited above, Palin was viewed at least somewhat negatively by 49% of respondents. Furthermore, her general favorability falls far short of Obama (a third or fewer voters have a favorable view of her), while Mitt Romney’s is much closer to Obama’s favorability level and at one time, he was viewed more favorably. Will Palin take these figures to heart and decide to serve the party in another capacity? That is the crucial question.

In the end, the overriding issue for most of these candidates -- whether he or she is a front-runner or an underdog -- will be how they view the competitiveness of President Obama as an opponent. Obama will have an immediate advantage over any Republican candidate, not the least because the arduous primary process will drains candidate coffers. This is precisely what caused Mike Huckabee to recently quip that, although he was still considering running, he did not necessarily want to be the “sacrificial lamb.” However, with his positive figures and competitiveness against Romney, it is difficult to believe that he would pass up the opportunity. A struggle between Romney and Huckabee for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination seems to be in the making. In 2008, we saw them exchange some stinging barbs -- are more indecorous aspersions in store?