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GOP's 2012 Dilemma

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Mar 18, 2011

Do Republicans want to nominate a populist who embodies their values or a manager who solves our problems? According to the National Journal's Ron Brownstein, the Republican presidential field is divided by this distinction. The eventual nominee must bridge these two camps to have a chance of winning in 2012.

When comparing the two groups, there is little difference on policy. Both are conservative. The major difference is style and who they represent.

Brownstein argues that Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee represent the populists. Their appeal is less their agenda and more their identity. Both Palin and Huckabee rail against the establishment and stress their values and identity with the common person. Not surprisingly, their support largely comes from working class whites who oppose the financial excesses of Wall Street and government, are very patriotic and are the foot soldiers of the culture wars. These are the Reagan Democrats who have been moving away from Democrats since the 1960s.

According to Brownstein, Mitt Romney and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniel represent the managers. The managers' appeal is their resume and agenda rather than their identity. The managers work within the establishment to solve problems, reassure independents with their competence and calm demeanors and focus more on bread-and-butter issues than cultural issues. In short, they reflect college-educated Republicans who are more socially moderate, skeptical but not hostile toward government and focused on solving problems.

Looking toward 2012, the populists have the energy but no candidate. Palin is too unpopular to win. Huckabee shows no desire to run. Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachman has limited appeal, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum cannot raise the money to be competitive. Moreover, a populist nominee would have difficulties raising money and appealing to independents, almost guaranteeing Obama's reelection.

The manager standard bearer is Romney, but the populists distrust him because he has flip-flopped on social issues and his Massachusetts health care plan resembles Obama's. Daniels is leery of running and his call for a "truce" on social issues is fiercely opposed by populists. The manager will have the money and establishment support and will appeal to independents but may leave the populists skeptical.

That leaves those straddling the divide. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich is too undisciplined and has too much personal baggage to win. Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour's recent comments glossing over the plight of blacks in Mississippi in the 1960s are damaging and evoke unpleasant stereotypes.

That leaves former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. Pawlenty has a working class background, is evangelical and managed Minnesota well during his two terms. Pawlenty's strategy is to be everyone's second choice, and he hopes that when the bigger names falter, the party can rally around him. The question is whether he can last long enough to be the default choice.

Regardless, the divide is real and explains the lack of excitement about the current candidates. Any future Republican president will have to manage the divide without splitting the party and alienating middle America. As George W. Bush showed, that is no easy task.

This article originally appeared in the March 18 edition of The Jackson Sun