Why Rick Perry is the likely GOP nominee

…with a major caveat, of course. But first, a disclaimer and a sideshow. The disclaimer is that I am currently not supporting Perry or any of the other candidates. Perhaps I am overly cynical, but I have not been excited about a presidential candidate since Reagan — and that was as likely the result of youthful exuberance as it was Reagan’s merits. The sideshow:

After Monday’s debate in Florida, most people expected Rick Perry’s rapid rise to the top of the polls for Republican presidential candidates to slow or halt, having taken a beating over the Gardasil mandate and immigration. His attack on Social Security was supposed to scare off seniors. However, as RealClearPolitics reported last night, a new poll by Insider Advantage shows Perry grabbing a nine-point lead in the Sunshine State in a survey taken the next day…

The effect of debates — and any debate in particular — is greatly exaggerated. Monday’s debate was seen by fewer people than watched Monday Night Football, The Closer, Rizzoli & Isles, Pawn Stars, American Pickers or WWE Entertainment (The NBC/Politico debate had higher ratings, barely edging out an episode of Storage Wars). That’s why Allahpundit was smart to view the current Rick Perry-Mitt Romney slugfest from the outset as more of a metaphor for the “electability vs. principle” conundrum, which will play out over the entire course of the campaign. But even that narrative frame may overstate the campaign dynamic.

You do not have to be a political scientist to observe that presidential nominees tend to have a particular profile. Both the Dems and the GOP tend to nominate governors or, as a fallback, senators. The last major party candidates nominated while they were in the House or just after they had left the House were James A. Garfield (R) in 1880, William Jennings Bryan (D) in 1896, and Horace Greeley (WhigLiberal Republican) in 1872 (Garfield, the only one of the three to win, had also been elected Senator). It is not difficult to reason why this is the case. A governorship, like the presidency, is an executive position. A governor compiles a record on a host of issues, including those with national implications. A senator, like a House member, may only compile a voting record. However, a senator, like a governor, necessarily has demonstrated statewide appeal, whereas a House member’s appeal to a Congressional district may or may not translate to a wider audience. Governors and senators have experience running larger campaigns. And so on.

Then there are region and ideology. Both factors affect both major parties, but as Jay Cost observed back in May, before Perry entered the race:

To understand Romney’s dilemma fully, we have to go back deep into the history of the Republican Party, to the historical split between the Northeastern, moderate wing and the Midwestern, conservative base. This cleavage dominated the first 25 years of party politics after World War II. It predates the emergence of the South as a major player in the party, and it was also a time when Western Republicans tended to be more progressive, as opposed to today when they are usually (but not always) more conservative.


In the last 40 years, conservative dominance has been the way of the world in Republican presidential politics. The party has nominated some relatively moderate candidates, like Nixon, George Bush, and Bob Dole, but it was only after they had convinced enough Republican voters that they were sufficiently conservative.

In other words, a candidate aligned with the Northeastern, moderate wing of the party has not won a nomination since 1960, and there is no reason to expect that to change, barring some kind of once-in-a-century realignment of the two political parties. Northeastern Republicans are now junior partners in the party coalition. They cannot deliver their own states anymore, as the Democrats dominate them all except New Hampshire and Pennsylvania; meanwhile, conservatives in the Midwest, South, and West can deliver their states, and so they now basically run the show.

Which brings us to Mitt Romney, whose basic political problem is that he comes from the Northeastern wing of the party…

Indeed, within a week, Jay was expanding on this theme:

[A]s the last century has come and gone, we’ve seen a geographical revolution in the Republican party. The booming postwar economy sent voters South and West, and eventually transformed all of the Sunbelt states into either swing states or safely Republican enclaves (with California having now swung back to the Democrats).

Unsurprisingly, the shift in regional strength over the years has had an effect on whom the party nominates…

As Jay noted, since 1960, the GOP nominee has been from the Sunbelt with two exceptions — unelected incumbent Pres. Ford, and Sen. Bob Dole. (One could make similar points about the Democrats and the Northeast/upper Midwest.)

Regionalism and ideology are major influences for a fairly obvious reason — political parties tend to nominate people for president who are broadly representative of the party’s base. Partisans often talk a good game about electability, but do not necessarily act that way. Republicans told CNN that Perry is the candidate with the best chance to beat Pres. Obama — and while I can make that argument, I could also argue that Romney is currently the more electable of the two; current head-to-head polls have Romney stronger, although both are closing in on Obama. Conversely, I could note the Dems’ proclivity to nominate elitists from Massachusetts; their electoral success has come with non-Northeasterners, although this is quite arguably due to the economic cycles at issue.

In sum, when measured by resume, regionalism and ideology, Rick Perry would seem to be the candidate most acceptable to the GOP primary electorate. The major caveat, as has been the case throughout this cycle, is a possible late entry by fmr. Gov. Sarah Palin (though that possibility dwindles by the day). Her weakness among Republicans would not make her a lock for the nomination, but she would be a factor and could split the conservative opposition to Romney. However, as the campaign stands today, regardless of the momentary odds at Intrade narrowly favoring Romney, the most likely GOP nominee is the Governor of Texas.