Presidential Challengers Usually Seem Flawed

12/01/2010 10:40 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Brendan Nyhan Assistant Professor of Government at Dartmouth College

The Daily Beast's Benjamin Sarlin quotes a series of GOP consultants claiming the party's presidential candidates are "weak":

Call it the resurgent Republicans' Achilles Heel. The GOP may have taken the House, closed in on the Senate, and made dramatic gains at the state level. But the party's 2012 presidential field is weak--and a lot of Republicans know it.

"The Republican field is wide open with no clear frontrunner because they are all, in some respects, flawed," Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist and Daily Beast contributor, said in an email.

"I think to beat Obama we're going to have to have a much better field of candidates than are currently there," Ryan Rhodes, a political consultant and chairman of the Iowa Tea Party Patriots, told The Daily Beast. His counterpart in the early caucus state of Maine didn't sound any more pumped. "The modern parlance of 'meh' pretty much sums up the lineup," Andrew Ian Dodge, coordinator for the state Tea Party Patriots, said.

Jeff Patch, a Republican consultant in Iowa currently based in DC, described the situation as a "magnification of the problems with the field in 2008"--when each of the major candidates, including eventual winner John McCain, were unpopular with large swaths of the GOP base.

While Sarah Palin is objectively weak due to her exceptionally high negatives, the rest of the field is a perfectly normal mix of current and former members of Congress and governors with various strengths and weaknesses. What neither Sarlin nor the consultants he quotes seem to realize is that almost all presidential challengers seem flawed in the early stages. It's the process of winning the party's nomination that gives the candidates stature and unites the party around them.

Consider the example of the 1992 campaign. Even though Bill Clinton would go on unseat George H.W. Bush in the fall campaign, Democrats and the press spent much of 1991 and early 1992 bemoaning the quality of the party's candidates, including Clinton:

Everett Carll Ladd, Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, Christian Science Monitor (1/3/92):

Never in modern United States history has a major political party entered a presidential campaign with as weak a slate of candidates as do the Democrats this year."

Bob Schieffer, CBS Evening News (2/4/92):

John White, the former chairman of the Democratic Party, finally said aloud today what more and more Democrats have been whispering about lately, that while George Bush does look vulnerable, the current crop of Democratic candidates may be too weak to take advantage of it.

Wayne Woodlief, Boston Herald (3/1/92):

Several of the party leaders fretted that the party might nominate a flawed presidential candidate...

"Our only candidate with serious money is Clinton, and he's got the most problems," hounded by the draft issue and unproven adultery allegations, Idaho Democratic national committeeman John Greenfield told Newhouse News Service.

And a Southern Democratic leader, who asked not to be named, said, "I truly think Clinton, clean and whole and running, could give Bush hell - and still might.

"But he's damaged goods. The Republicans will dig into every cesspool in the country to find stuff against him."

Robert S. Boyd (Miami Herald, 4/8/92):

Pity the poor Democrats. Once again, voters have shown a strong distaste for their leading presidential candidate, Bill Clinton.

The Arkansas governor keeps winning primaries over weak opponents, but he is creating a terrible dilemma for his party.

They seem fated to enter the fall campaign with a standard-bearer who lacks the trust and affection of a majority of Democrats, not to mention the independents vital for victory over President Bush in November. But for the moment they have no realistic alternative.

Despite these concerns, the party came together to support its nominee, Clinton's flaws came to seem less relevant, and he ended up performing about as well in the general election as we would have expected given how the economy had performed under Bush (see, e.g., Figure 1 here). We should expect the same process to take place for the GOP's nominee. In the end, whether Republicans take back the White House will depend on whether the economy turns around, not the quality of their candidates (Palin possibly excepted).

Of course, the story will be told differently by the consultants and journalists who promote these narratives. If the economy rebounds and Obama wins, the flaws of the Republican nominee will be blamed for the party's defeat (as George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, and John McCain discovered); if stagnation continues and Obama loses, they will construct elaborate narratives about how Romney/Thune/etc. overcame their flaws to unite the party and lead it to victory.

Update 12/1 5:03 PM: See James Joyner for more.

Update 12/2 1:56 PM: Jonathan Bernstein makes two important related points:

The first is that the quality of the field matters only to each candidate's chances of winning the nomination. Barack Obama will not face the GOP field in 2012; he'll face the nominee. It didn't matter in the fall of 2008 that John Edwards had turned out to be a disaster, and it didn't matter in fall 2000 that Steve Forbes wasn't ready for prime time (let along Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes), just as it didn't matter in 1992 that Paul Tsongas was a lying weasel and the rest of the Democratic field wasn't much better. By fall, the candidates who mattered were Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.

So it does make sense to talk about quality of the field when assessing, say, Rick Perry's chances of winning the nomination; he has a good chance because there's no heavyweight running, and some of the other candidates have serious flaws. But that's a nomination discussion, not a general election discussion.

The second point is that candidate weaknesses in the primary season are not necessarily weaknesses in November, and vice versa. So any pro-choice candidate is incredibly weak in the Republican nomination contest, because pro-life groups will veto such a candidate, even though in the essentially impossible event that such a candidate was nominated, he or she might be strong in November. At a more plausible level, we can talk about Mitt Romney's weaknesses in the caucuses and primaries, such as his less-than-fully-conservative past and the possibility that some Christian conservatives might be reluctant to vote for him on religious grounds. But if he's the nominee, no one concerned about abortion on that side would prefer Obama's fully pro-choice position to Romney's perhaps insincere, perhaps surface-deep pro-life position. And while it's vaguely possible that a handful of voters are so anti-LDS that they would prefer that Obama is reelected, it isn't going to be a large group.