Gov. Sarah Palin’s stunning resignation and Sen. John Ensign’s and Gov. Mark Sanford’s admissions of adultery have sparked fevered speculation — much of it premature — about the next presidential race.
After all, one certainty about such contests is their unpredictability. Four years ago, for example, Republicans were riding high, Hillary Clinton was the all-but-certain 2008 Democratic nominee, and Barack Obama was an interesting phenomenon.
The most significant influences on the 2012 race seem likely to be the economy and Obama’s standing. But the shape of the GOP field is only starting to form.
So it’s easier to list factors that govern such races than to draw firm conclusions about the prospects of individual candidates. Here are some questions whose answers will determine how the GOP race unfolds over the next three years:
Where’s your base?
Palin has shown past appeal to the religious conservatives who play a big, but not necessarily dominant, role in the Republican electorate, especially in the first caucus state of Iowa and in the South, where Sanford might have been a contender. In 2008, many backed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, another potential 2012 contender. Outgoing Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty might have appeal in neighboring Iowa and among economic conservatives; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney might target New Hampshire and those same mainstream conservatives. The potential base for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is less obvious.
Can you expand your base?
Huckabee never was able to do so after the 2008 race moved from Iowa to states with broader GOP electorates; Palin could face similar problems. Sometimes, a candidate who loses in Iowa but finishes in the top three can convert that into later success.
Can you raise the $$$?
In recent elections, candidates who raised the most money have won most nominations. Regardless of recent controversies, Palin remains a big draw, but Romney certainly would be well financed if he ran again. Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, a former party national chair, would have access to major fundraisers.
What’s your rationale?
If things go poorly for Obama, a fresh GOP face like a newly elected big-state governor might be able to duplicate Obama’s successful 2008 message of change. Other Republicans might argue that they have the experience Obama lacked, especially a candidate without ties to past GOP failures. Some past big-name candidates have foundered when unable to explain why they were running.
What’s your game plan?
One reason Huckabee failed to match his Iowa success was that he lacked the funds and road map to follow up. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was the classic example of a candidate without a clear game plan, undercutting his candidacy in bypassing the early Iowa and New Hampshire tests. Hillary Clinton underestimated the role of caucus states.
Have you mastered the issues sufficiently to convince voters you can do the job?
A special problem for newcomers to the national scene. Part of Palin’s problem as the GOP’s unexpected vice presidential nominee was her unfamiliarity with national and international issues. If she ran in 2012, she’d have to be ready for the inevitable debates and other joint appearances.
How well do you give and take?
“Politics ain’t beanbag,” said Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley, and that’s especially true at the presidential level. Often, exchanges revolve around the details of issues, underscoring the need to be able to persuade voters that you know enough to do the job.
Do the voters like and respect you?
Some past candidates who looked good on paper never passed the “smell test” with voters. Romney, for example, had a well-organized campaign and plenty of money but seemed to lack voter appeal. Of course, the former businessman might fare better if the issue were Obama’s problem coping with the economy.
Presidential politics is fraught with uncertainties. Candidates rise and fall. And as the events of the past three weeks have shown, it’s hardly possible to forecast the players at this stage, let alone the likely result.
— Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.