A long-time reader asks a reasonable question: if we assume Herman Cain is out of the race–not official as of this evening, but looking like the probably outcome, soon–then where to anti-establishment Republicans go? Will they really coalesce around Newt Gingrich, who has spent decades longer in Washington than Mitt Romney? Our reader writes:
Herman Cain is assessing whether to continue with his faltering presidential campaign. Even if he assesses that he should persevere, the allegations of marital infidelity will almost certainly end his time as a force in the race. As Scott Johnson might say, Cain is on the midnight train to single digits.
Cain’s downfall will raise interesting questions for anti-establishment, hard-core conservative Republicans. Until recently, Cain was the favorite of such voters. That status, had he maintained it, would have propelled him to a strong showing, and possibly a victory, in Iowa. That showing, in turn, would likely have forced two contenders for the anti-establishment, hard-core conservative vote – Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum – out of the race. The other potential contender for that vote, Rick Perry, would probably have limped out of Iowa on life support. Thus, after Iowa, Cain might have nearly cornered the market on this category of voter, making him a strong force in South Carolina and beyond.
If Cain is now a non-factor, to whom his anti-establishment, hard-core conservative supporters turn? One possibility is that they will coalesce around Bachmann, Santorum, or Perry, thereby reviving one of these candidates (most likely Bachmann, at least in Iowa). Another possibility is that they will divide among these candidates, and possibly Gingrich and Romney, thereby evaporating as a meaningful force in the nomination process.
A third possibility is that anti-establishment, hard-core conservative Republicans will opt in large numbers to vote for one of the front-runners – Romney or Gingrich – despite the fact that neither is an anti-establishment, hard-core conservative. This approach would represent something of a reversal of form for this voting cohort, but perhaps not an unreasonable one. For, it would enable anti-establishment, hard conservative Republicans to have a decisive say in selecting the nominee. And in this scenario, it seems to me, that nominee would likely be Newt Gingrich.
Whether this scenario comes to pass depends on (a) the extent to which anti-establishment, hard-core conservatives consider Gingrich more anti-establishment and hard-core conservative than Romney and (b) the extent to which these voters are willing to overlook Gingrich’s electability problems.
Since Gingrich seems at least as electable as Cain, there’s no reason to think that electability in itself will be a stumbling block for the former Speaker, as far as ex-Cain supporters are concerned. However, contemplation of some of the personal shortcomings that underlie voter antipathy towards Gingrich may give some of them pause.
As to the comparative conservatism of Gingrich and Romney, neither can plausibly claim to be anti-establishment or reliably hardcore. Romney used to take moderate positions, but that was when doing so maximized his electoral prospects. Now, he takes mostly conservative positions, and this maximizes his electoral prospects.
Gingrich too has taken both moderate and conservative positions at various times, including on key issues where Romney has flipped. The differences between the two front-runners in this regard are two-fold. First, unlike Romney, Gingrich was at his most conservative at precisely the time when he was most influential, and thus can point to conservative accomplishments. Second, Gingrich is more likely than Romney to have strongly believed his positions – be they conservative or moderate – at the time he espoused them. This, I suspect, is a tribute to the fact that Gingrich, the intellectual, tends to fall in love with ideas, whereas Romney, the manager, does not.
In the next few months, we should learn what anti-establishment, hard-core Republican conservatives make of these marginal differences in the conservative credentials of Romney and Gingrich.