If we go with conventional wisdom, the more moderate a GOP presidential candidate is, the better placed they are for the general election. But if one looks at prior electoral history that logic does not hold up. Consider that in 1976 most considered Gerald Ford the better candidate than Reagan. Ford won the primary but lost the general election. Then in 1980 when H.W. Bush ran against Reagan, once again Reagan was considered the lesser of the two in winning the general election. Reagan went on to win landslides in 1980 and 1984 (49 states). Move to 2000, and McCain was considered the best GOP nominee for the general election. Well, GW won the primary and than two general elections. When McCain was finally nominated in 2008 he lost and lost badly.
The conventional wisdom can thus be said to be wrong. There are many examples of conservative GOP presidential candidates winning and winning big to say moderate Republicans are better general election candidates. This applies to 2012. Until the entrance of Texas Governor Rick Perry into the GOP race the smart money was on former MA Governor Mitt Romney, a moderate, winning the GOP nod. Matched up against weak conservative opposition (no offense to other candidates supporters) such as Ron Paul and Michelle Bachmann Romney, for all intents and purposes owned the field.
Perry shares many of the strengths of former conservative candidates. Like both Reagan and Bush he is a governor, has been involved in politics for years and shown strong electoral likeability. Reagan won both his terms as Governor in CA with big margins, ditto for Bush in Texas and Perry has won three consecutive elections in Texas. Perry, like Reagan and Bush, also brings a certain charisma to the race that is hard to quantify but easy to see. On the campaign trail he is easygoing, laid back, and tells the crowd what they want to hear in a folksy way. Bush had this same appeal, but Perry takes it to another level with his rural background. Finally, Perry, Reagan and Bush all shared the ability to hide their faults behind successes. For Bush, Reagan, and Perry that fault is their wishy-washy stance on immigration. By being able to turn voters to the better parts of their records they hid their faults successfully.
So it can be said that a strong conservative candidate is what is key for a conservative Republican to win the White House. A strong executive record, electoral examples of strength, charisma, and an ability to turn voters from their faults are what made Bush and Reagan, and perhaps Perry so strong. This should deeply worry the WH. For the last year the WH has been digging and digging on Romney, safe in the belief he would be the GOP nominee. Now, a new candidate with a strong record and an appeal to the grassroots only Sarah Palin could match is looking like the nominee.
Most of the media now agrees Perry is the best primary candidate for the GOP but they have not quite caught onto the fact Perry is just as good, if not a better general election candidate than Romney. They are still caught in the old mindset of moderate vs. conservative in the GOP primary means “Moderate is better general election candidate.” Sad but true. As my above examples illustrate this could not be further from the truth. Something tells me the White House is also not buying that spin either.
It is noticeable how silent the White House has been on the GOP race in the last few weeks. The week Rick Perry entered the race the White House and even the president took digs at him. But as he has caught fire in the primary, the economy continues to struggle, and his jobs record in Texas becomes known, the WH has become silent. It is not hard to figure out why. Perry is an extremely strong general election candidate. Like Bush and Reagan before him he brings a number of unique attributes to the race the White House has to fear.
Perry certainly has his weaknesses. The two books Perry has written, On my Honor and Fed Up! definitely were not written with a presidential run in mind. In them Perry calls Social Security a “Ponzi Scheme” and warns the federal government against overreach in colorful language. But this is nothing new. Reagan and Bush had their faults. Reagan once called Medicare, “A road down to socialism” and GW Bush famously had a DUI on his record at one time. In terms of having weaknesses these are were far from debilitating.
What is debilitating is being in the White House for three years promising an economic recovery, seeing trillions spent for no result, and having the left and right angry at your proposals. Case in point would be the two special elections coming up on September 13th. In heavily Democratic NY-9, an upstart GOP challenger is dead even with his Democratic opponent. And in a Republican leaning NV-2 district the Republicans looks to win big. Even some of the president’s party are turning away from him.
In terms of weakness the WH carries far more. As Democratic strategist James Carville once put it, “It’s the economy stupid.” The economy continues to sputter, a second recession might be possible, and the man in the WH is in charge of that economy. Meanwhile, coming over the horizon is a Governor who has added thousands upon thousands of jobs and carries many of the traits that saw former conservative Republicans get elected president. One is wondering when the media will finally notice?
Perry is a more formidable candidate for Obama than most realize. He has his strengths and his weaknesses, but his strengths far outweight his weaknesses. Plus he has the added benefit of running for office in an economic downturn, presenting himself as the next job creating president. Reagan used this advantage to deadly effect against Carter, and once voters saw Reagan was acceptable they flocked to him. If Perry does things right he can do exactly what Reagan did. Win the right, the midde and the election.