In search of Mr. Generic

A long-time reader writes:

The fact that President Obama is struggling in the polls against a “generic Republican” has some Republicans lamenting that, with the demise of the Pawlenty candidacy, the Party has no one generic to nominate. Is this true?

It depends on how we define “generic candidate.” One fair definition is a nominee who has no serious warts and falls well within the ideological mainstream of the party.

This year’s Republican field struggles with the second of these criteria. Thanks to the health care system he instituted in Massachusetts, Romney doesn’t seem fully mainstream from a Republican perspective. Michele Bachmann, who would not even vote for “cut, cap, and balance,” doesn’t either. We’ll have to see about Governor Perry.

As for warts, they are never difficult to find, if one looks carefully. This year is no exception.

This observation points to a problem with the yearning for a “generic Republican” – it will always be difficult, if not impossible, to find one among the credible candidates in a presidential field. All serious presidential candidates have a record (a candidate who lacked a record would not qualify as generic for that reason) and a strong personality. The record, examined closely, will almost always yield ideological deviations from the Party mainstream because that mainstream tends to shift. For Republicans, it cannot be found today where it was ten, or even three, years ago.

Moreover, some candidates will have developed their record in states where certain Republican mainstream positions would have made them politically unviable. Mitt Romney is a good example. And this problem is not unique to Blue State candidates. It affected Mike Huckabee to some degree in 2008.

Thus, while it’s not difficult for a presidential candidate to be in his or her party’s current mainstream during the primary season, it is difficult to have been there all along. This gives rise to credible allegations of flip-flopping that will cause the candidate to lose the “generic” label.

Personal warts are also quite difficult to avoid, particularly in those with strong personalities. And the mainstream media is tireless when it comes to uncovering the warts of Republican presidential candidates. It has been working overtime to find some on Bachmann and almost surely on Perry as well.

The main purpose of both opposition research and MSM research (in the case of Republican candidates) is to make candidates seem worse than generic. It’s a job Democrats and their media pals do quite effectively.

But there’s another definition of “generic candidate” that I find more useful. It’s an operational (and some might say circular) definition: a generic candidate is one who, on election day (as opposed to in early polling) will run as well in the general election as Mr. Generic does in the polls. The warts/ideology definition discussed above is intended, of course, to tell us which candidates will meet the operational definition. However, history suggests that it fails to do so well.

History tells us, I think, that it is not terribly difficult to nominate a candidate who meets the operational definition of “generic” to run against an incumbent president, and I’m far from pessimistic about the chances of doing so next year. Barring a significant economic turnaround, the warts on the Republican candidate, whoever it is, will very likely seem inconsequential to a disgruntled electorate, just as Obama’s did in 2008 and Bill Clinton’s did in 1992. Of course an economic turnaround could occur. But in that event, I expect Mr. Generic to fall behind Obama, and Republicans to stop wishing they could nominate him.

Ideology will matter to voters more than warts. Still, we have learned that a nominee whose ideology is not fully “generic” in relation to his Party can defeat an incumbent president. Ronald Reagan did it in 1980 and Obama in 2008. I’m not aware of any evidence that a more generic candidate would have won either election more soundly, and I doubt that one would have.

As for next year, it strikes me as unlikely that the vestiges of Romney’s moderation, including even Romneycare, would hurt him in a race with Obama. A somewhat moderate persona might help him with independents, and conservatives will be too intent on defeating Obama to quibble. It’s too early to tell about Perry, but if he’s something like a generic Texas governor, then he’s probably not very far from sufficiently generic Republican status when it comes to ideology.

Of the frontrunners, only Bachmann seems likely to fall short of my operational definition of a “generic Republican.” This probably explains the desire for Perry’s entry on the part of so many Republicans who are to the right of Romney.

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