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Palin, Romney, and the 2012 Nomination

How the midterms tilted the GOP battlefield.

How will the Republican primary election of 2012 unfold? It's impossible to predict the exact result, but now that the midterms are over, we are in a position to make some educated guesses. Below is a state-by-state analysis of the early Republican primary contests, and a look at how Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and the whole presidential field will fare in a landscape altered by the Tea Party wars and the Democratic Shellacking of 2010.

Nobody 'Won' the Midterms

One determining feature of the 2012 field is that no potential candidate so distinguished him or herself on the midterm campaign trail as to vault—as Richard Nixon famously did back in 1966—into a front-running position. And despite talk about the midterms producing a fresh new batch of presidential timber, the reality is that no one first gets elected to major office and then runs for president the very next minute. (Barack Obama had four years to make the switch, and was already a national celebrity before he was elected to the Senate.) The unquestioned new GOP superstar, Marco Rubio, is already being fitted for the vice presidential nomination in 2012, but no one thinks he’s moving to Des Moines or Manchester to campaign a few days after he's sworn in.

Tea Party State of Mind

The key effect of the midterm campaign was psychological. The conservative base of the Republican Party, which now calls itself the Tea Party movement, is fully convinced that the conventional wisdom holding that trans-partisan appeal and “moderation” are the keys to electability is a total crock. After all, the Republican Party just moved aggressively to the right after two straight defeats, and proceeded to rack up a historic victory. This is precisely the formula conservative activists have been touting for over four decades. Now that they've been vindicated, it’s most unlikely they'll want anything less than a fire-eating conservative as their presidential nominee in 2012. In particular, those polls showing that a candidate like Sarah Palin is a sure loser in a general election will be dismissed as elitist BS designed to keep the RINO establishment in the driver’s seat.

For the same reason, the GOP establishment has almost surely lost its alleged power to dictate a presidential nominee. The idea that Republicans are sheep-like “hierarchical” voters who will always go for the presidential candidate that is “next in line,” or favored by national party bosses, isn’t terribly compelling in a climate where members of the establishment are visibly struggling to keep up with their followers' demands. Indeed, according to a much-discussed Politico piece that appeared just before the midterm elections, party insiders are pretty much focused on the more limited task of keeping St. Joan of the Tundra from the nomination.

They have their work cut out for them. No politician in recent memory—or maybe ever—has her ability to channel the deepest resentments, and most vengeful hopes, of her fans. And that makes her remarkably immune to criticism, and even to self-inflicted political damage. Who else could have survived a fiasco like her baffling resignation as governor of Alaska? And why would anyone who has experienced her rapid rise from obscurity to almost limitless celebrity—she's even capable of making her teenage daughter a major global entertainment figure by mere association—exhibit modesty or “wait her turn”?

So Much Depends Upon the Iowa Caucus

But the story doesn't end there. At first glance, the Iowa Caucus appears to be friendly territory for a candidate like Palin. Republican caucuses are dominated by conservative activists, and Iowa is especially partial to social conservatives, including Palin’s old comrades in the Right-to-Life movement. Yet the way endorsements shook out during the 2010 election, a different candidate may have the advantage: Mike Huckabee.

Huckabee is the unquestioned organizational kingpin of Republican Iowa. He humiliated Mitt Romney there in 2008, and his Iowa chairman that year, Bob Vander Plaats, has maintained his status as the most important right-wing figure in the state. During the 2010 election, when Vander Plaats was running for governor, both Romney and Palin endorsed his opponent Terry Branstad (a bit of a RINO), who ended up eking out a win by a surprisingly narrow margin. Yet Vander Plaats then rebounded by heading up a successful ballot effort to deny “retention” in office to three members of the Iowa Supreme Court who supported the 2009 decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

These dynamics may seriously affect the way the campaign unfolds. Even though Vander Plaats lost his bid for statewide office, he walks tall in the activist-controlled Iowa Caucuses. So, if Huckabee decides to run, he'll probably control the strongest organization against a divided field of opponents, and he would have to be considered the Iowa frontrunner. If he doesn't run, his base of support could be up for grabs.

For his part, Mitt Romney will face a painful choice about whether to compete in Iowa. Like Hillary Clinton in 2008, he may think it necessary to go all-out in the state because he is the frontrunner; and like Clinton, that could be a choice he comes to regret. Other candidates will see Iowa as do-or-die: Nobody will take Tim Pawlenty seriously if he doesn’t run, and run well, in the state next door to his own Minnesota. And potential “dark horse” candidates like Hoosiers Mitch Daniels and Mike Pence, who have no obvious early-primary base, are in a similar situation.

The New Hampshire and Nevada Backstops

Whether or not Romney commits in Iowa, expect him to treat the next contests in New Hampshire and Nevada as a firewall. In those, there will be high expectations: New Hampshire is next door to his home state, and Nevada—which he won handily in 2008—has a significant Mormon vote. He leads in early surveys of both states by Public Policy Polling.

But by that point, Romney’s more basic problem for 2012 is likely to have been resolved one way or another. It’s important to remember that Romney ran in 2008 as the “true conservative” candidate against Rudy Giuliani and John McCain; he was also much preferred to Mike Huckabee among the conservative establishment, thanks to the Arkansan’s heretical attacks on Wall Street and the Bush economy. If Romney runs in 2012, much of the field will be positioned to his right, and he is likely to become the default-drive candidate of what’s left of the moderate wing of the GOP. This is not a very comfortable place to be, given the rightward trajectory of the party, and Romney has two problems in particular: His unrepentant support for TARP, and above all, his championship of a health reform initiative in Massachusetts that shares many features with the current demon of the conservative imagination, Obamacare.

Texas Governor Rick Perry’s recent demand that Romney repudiate his Massachusetts health care plan is just the first thump of an endless drumbeat which will play all the way to 2012, a period during which Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare will be featured on Fox News every day and night. If Romney persists in making convoluted distinctions between the two plans, he will simply draw more attention to his problem. If he finally bends at the knee and disavows his own proudest domestic policy achievement, he will add another chapter to his long history of flip-flops. Like Jonathan Chait, I don’t think Romney can get out of this trap, particularly if his main credential is that establishment Republicans, the 'lamestream media,' and Democrats think he’s the sanest Republican option.

Romney may not draw the terrifying Palin as an opponent in 2008, or Huckabee, who beat him before. But in a smaller field then he’d be in peril of a united conservative opposition consolidating behind someone else—perhaps a Rick Perry or a Mike Pence pulled into the race by the vacuum on the right.  Romney was beaten in New Hampshire in 2008, in part, because the New Hampshire Union Leader made a surprise endorsement of John McCain. And it seems unlikely that New Hampshire conservatives will get behind Romney this time around with so many more ideological options available. It’s worth noting that Palin offered an endorsement of Kelly Ayotte in the New Hampshire GOP Senate primary that almost certainly helped her survive a conservative challenge from Ovide Lamontagne, and go on to the Senate as the state’s highest-ranking Republican. In general, the well-known delight of Granite State presidential primary voters in surprising frontrunners cannot be reassuring to Romney.

As a caucus state, Nevada is more manageable for the cash-rich Romney, who should be strongly favored there again. And if one of the dark-horse candidates comes out of Iowa with a decent showing, he or she would need to score big in either of these states, preferably New Hampshire, given the vast media attention the state’s primary obtains.

South Carolina and Florida: Last Stand?

South Carolina is the only state guaranteed an early primary after New Hampshire, and it’s there that the eventual nominee will probably have to make a good showing. Romney’s likely financial advantage over the field would help him at this point, if he’s still around. But again, it’s unclear where his 2008 supporters in the Palmetto State would go. His most visible South Carolina endorsements back then were from Senator Jim DeMint and an up-and-coming state legislator named Nikki Haley. It's unlikely that they would endorse Romney two years from now, given another option: DeMint is unlikely to give his "true conservative" imprimatur to the race's main perceived moderate, and Haley owes a lot more to Sarah Palin for her victory in the 2010 gubernatorial race than she does Mitt.

A big factor in South Carolina will be whether there is at least one surviving conservative candidate from the South—most likely Huckabee or Gingrich—to draw off support from someone like Palin, perhaps helping a relative “moderate” win just as Romney and Huckabee split the conservative vote there in 2008 and tossed the contest to McCain. And if, as in 2008, Florida’s primary occurs right after South Carolina’s, Romney may again have an edge because of money and the fact that he performed very well there in 2008. However it’s worth noting that the new titan of Florida Republican politics, Senator-elect Marco Rubio, backed Mike Huckabee in 2008.

The Weak Republican Field

If no one nails down the nomination after the early states, it's very likely that the field will have polarized between two viable contenders, and we'll see the election play out as a Hillary-versus-Obama–type slugfest. But even that is extremely difficult to be certain about, not just due to unexpected events, but because the entire Republican field looks weak: I've already discussed Romney’s Achilles' heel. Palin and Gingrich both have “electability” problems, for voters who care about that, and Gingrich’s marital history will trouble some socially conservative voters. Huckabee may be able to play kingmaker at key moments, but he seems to possess almost no skill at raising money.

Among the dark-horse possibilities, Tim Pawlenty is abundantly available, but he’s vulnerable to an early exit if he fails to win in Iowa. (T-Paw is also not exactly a ball of fire.) The fundraising genius Haley Barbour is magic in Washington circles, and seems to want to run, but his background as a lobbyist’s lobbyist is ill-suited to a Tea Party-driven primary season; he would seem certain to follow the path of past GOP candidates John Connolly and Phil Gramm to ignominious defeat in a sea of wasted money. John Thune has reportedly decided against a run already. Mitch Daniels called for a truce in the culture wars, which is a deadly insult to Christian conservatives. Maybe he can flip a coin with fellow Hoosier Mike Pence to see who will try to become known outside Indiana in time for 2012.

How can Republicans save themselves? The best way would arguably be for the Republican establishment to coalesce behind a least-bad dark-horse candidate as early as possible in the process. It could be easier this time because 2012 will be the first presidential election after Citizens United, and it might be the first cycle in recent memory where big sacks of shadowy outside money have an impact on the primaries. Yet it's still a long shot, and whether the ultimate nominee is a dark horse, an insider, or an inflammatory Tea Party favorite like Palin, the nominee will still be hobbled by the demands of the incredibly excited conservative base. Advantage: Barack Obama.