Perry’s Path to Victory

A long-time reader writes:

The MSM has been hard at work portraying Rick Perry as a wild man. And the Texas Governor provided an assist with his comment suggesting that Ben Bernanke was “almost treasonous” for adopting quantitative easing policy. But some in the MSM, and a few long-time observers of Texas politics, have suggested that Perry is crazy like a fox. In their view, his “Red Meat” remarks, though potentially risky for purposes of the general election, are well-calculated to make him the favorite of an angry Republican electorate during the primary/caucus season.

But would a steady serving of over-wrought rhetoric really enhance Perry’s chances of securing the Republican nomination? In my view, it probably would not.

I reach this conclusion based on the recent history of Republican nomination battles and on polling of the Republican electorate through 2010. I draw from the analysis presented by Henry Olsen of the American Enterprise Institute in his article “The Unexpected Candidate,” in the Summer 2011 issue of “National Affairs.”

Olsen notes, as Steve Hayward and others have, the longstanding Republican tradition of nominating the “next in line” candidate. Olsen attributes this tradition to the fact that a plurality of Republicans identify themselves as “somewhat conservative,” rather than “very conservative,” and that somewhat conservative Republicans prefer conservative candidates whom they perceive as experienced, mature, and not overly zealous.

According to Olsen, this dynamic tends to play out in two stages. First, the early contests winnow the field down to two main candidates, the establishment favorite and the outsider. Then, the “somewhat conservative” faction propels the establishment candidate to victory.

They may accomplish this in concert with moderates, as occurred with John McCain in 2008 and Bob Dole in 1996. Or they may accomplish it in concert with “very conservatives,” as in 2000 when George W. Bush bested John McCain. There might not even be much to choose from ideologically among the last two candidates standing, as in 1988 with George H. W. Bush and Dole. The constant is that the somewhat conservatives support the candidate who seems safest: the better-known quantity with the superior demeanor who, though likely to adhere to conservative principles, can be expected to do so prudently.

There may be reason to doubt that this pattern will hold in 2012, given what we witnessed in 2010. But Olsen’s analysis of polling data from 2010 convinces him that “somewhat conservatives” still represent a plurality of the Republican Party and that, combined with moderates, are still likely to control the outcome of a two-way race. According to Olsen, even in October 2010, at the height of Tea Party fervor, polling showed that the somewhat conservatives outnumbered the very conservatives by 36 to 34 percent.

This analysis doesn’t necessarily dictate that Perry tone down his rhetoric. Even under Olsen’s assumptions, Perry must be among the two “finalists” if he is to win the nomination. And this likely requires him to outdistance Michele Bachmann. To do so, he must compete effectively for the votes of very conservative Republicans. A toned-down image may not be the best way to accomplish this. Ask Tim Pawlenty.

Moreover, Perry must deal with the reality that Bachmann is the favorite to win the opening contest in Iowa, while Romney is a good bet to win Round Two in New Hampshire. Thus, Perry may have to win in South Carolina to preserve his shot at becoming a finalist. Because South Carolina is among our most conservative states, it is understandable if Perry is inclined to continue serving his Red Meat unadulterated.

But there’s another way of looking at it. Consider this truism: either Michele Bachmann has staying power in the race or she doesn’t. If she doesn’t, then Perry need not preoccupy himself with beating her out for a spot in the finals.

If Bachmann does have staying power, as I believe she does, then Perry probably cannot win the nomination without making major inroads with the “somewhat conservatives.” That’s because, if Olsen is right, there just aren’t enough “very conservatives” to sustain the Governor in a scenario where he must share that vote with Bachmann.

In either scenario, Perry needs to do well among somewhat conservatives. And he should be able to. The somewhat conservative ideology is not static. This year’s cohort very likely is more conservative than those of past presidential cycles. And even if it is not, this much is true – in 2011-12 somewhat conservatives oppose Obamacare. That, of course, crates a huge opening against Mitt Romney.

Moreover, Perry has more experience in high office than Romney does, and can plausibly claim greater success as a governor. The experience card, so important to somewhat conservatives, tends to favor Perry.

Indeed, If Olsen and his 2010 polling data are right, Perry clearly has a decent shot at winning the somewhat conservatives. He entered the race even or ahead of Romney in some polls. This could not have happened if Perry’s support was largely confined to voters in the very conservative group who prefer him to Bachmann.

To convert his early poll success into the nomination, Perry needs to remain popular among both the somewhat conservatives and the very conservatives. In this political environment, that task should not be daunting for him. The formula is this – take solidly conservative positions, attack Romneycare non-stop, tout the “Texas miracle,” and do all of this while maintaining a friendly, non-threatening demeanor. No more talk of the almost treasonous, for example.

If Perry can’t pull this off, Republicans will be better served in November 2012 by a different candidate.

I would add that no Southern politician should hint at the possibility of secession. Not even to denounce it; not even in jest.

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