View From Australia: Pawlenty, Perry, Bachmann, and the new GOP field

By Jonathan Bradley

Tim Pawlenty's announcement yesterday that he is dropping out of the race for the Republican presidential nomination is not particularly earth-shaking. Jonathan Bernstein has got it right:

It's wrong to say that he dropped out because of Ames. Instead, it's more the case that Ames went badly for him because everything else was going badly — he reportedly sunk most of his available resources into the Straw Poll, but the truth is he didn't have very many resources remaining. If nevertheless it turned out that his diminished resources could buy Straw Poll success, he'd have something to sell to Republican party actors, but that didn't turn out to be the case.

Pawlenty's third place finish in the Ames Straw Poll just confirmed what we already knew: his candidacy had failed to catch fire, and though he was acceptable to many Republicans, he was exciting too few of them to continue. There has been some talk that Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann, both Minnesotans relying on a good showing in the Iowa caucuses, were in direct competition with one another. I doubt this was ever true; Pawlenty was hoping to be the pick that could unite the base with the party powerful, while Bachmann is running as the base's voice against GOP powerbrokers. As such, Bachmann doesn't specifically benefit from Pawlenty's exit — he had not shown himself to be a threat while he was still in the race — but then again, nor does anyone else.

What does affect Bachmann's campaign is Texas Governor Rick Perry's long-awaited entry into the contest. What Bachmann has going for her is an innate appeal to the religious and economic conservatives that make up the Republican Party's base. What she doesn't have going for her is credibility amongst her party's elite; she is a junior member of the House, with little leadership experience and a track record of saying things that sound absurd to the general electorate. Party insiders who want a candidate who can actually beat Barack Obama in 2012 are looking for anyone but her.

Mitt Romney's goal continues to be the kind of candidate party insiders can get behind on the basis of electability. He's the frontrunner, the next in line, and has gubernatorial experience and a record of economic conservatism. His route to the nomination involves outlasting his competitors. The base may loathe his track record on health care, be suspicious of his flip-flopping on abortion, and fear his Mormon background, but if he's the last man standing, they'll unite around him nonetheless.

Rick Perry makes things much more complicated for Bachmann and a bit more difficult for Romney. Unlike Bachmann, Perry has credibility and experience as a governor, and party insiders can support him. Unlike Romney, the GOP base feels that he is one of their own — and, unlike Bachmann, he hasn't achieved that status by giving nutty interviews to cable networks. I cautioned last week not to assume Perry will be a great campaigner until he actually starts campaigning, and I continue to believe that. He does, however, have a good shot at becoming the unity candidate Tim Pawlenty wanted, but was unable, to be. If he is, Michele Bachmann may well struggle to find continued relevancy.

And Mitt Romney? His mission is the same as ever, though Perry's entrance has made it tougher: Stay alive until the party has no other real choice.

UPDATE: Look to this article from Ed Kilgore for an indication of the threat Perry's entry poses to Bachmann's candidacy:

Finally, even if Bachmann can maintain her lead in Iowa, she has yet to win over conservative elites, even among those whose views are as reliably extreme as her own. Any plausible path to the nomination for Bachmann includes a win in South Carolina, a state whose Republican voters are a lot like those of Iowa, with the exception that the Palmetto State’s Tea Party movement is highly organized and active. But early indications are that Senator Jim DeMint, himself an important national power-broker, has succeeded in convincing most SC pols and donors to “keep their powder dry” in the presidential contest until such time as he has scrutinized the candidates and made his own choice. Bachmann, who visibly annoyed DeMint by initially refusing to take the “cut, cap, and balance” pledge on the debt limit issue (she eventually relented after previously vowing to vote against the CCB legislation on grounds that a repeal of ObamaCare should also be a condition of any debt limit increase), is not off to a great start in the DeMint Primary. It also doesn’t help her with party elites that she’s closely (if somewhat unfairly) associated with Sarah Palin, and thus might be expected to emulate Palin’s pattern of steadily growing disapproval ratings from political independents and more moderate Republicans.

There's a reason Rick Perry kicked off his campaign in South Carolina. Iowa may seem the be all and end all now, but when its caucuses are over, states with quite different political landscapes will start to matter a whole lot more.  

15 August 2011