Thursday, November 11, 2010

Stuffing a sock in the mouth of the moralizers

Perhaps the greatest truism of American politics, at least on a national stage, is that the independent center controls elections. Every time, about 40% of the electorate is going to vote Dem; about 40% is going to vote GOP. The remaining 20% in the middle is going to swing back and forth, deciding who they feel is best equipped to handle the crisis du jour. The center is, generally speaking, fiscally fairly conservative and otherwise possesses a "leave me alone" sort of social libertarianism that is quick to recoil in horror when a candidate starts a moral crusade. Sometimes, the center goes en masse for a particular candidate, e.g. 1984, Reagan over Mondale, creating what we later dub a "landslide." Sometimes they break hard for one candidate, but not quite in one big lump, e.g., Obama over McCain. And sometimes they split down the middle and make things close, e.g. Bush and Kerry in 2000.

But....the parties are often slow to realize this. Or perhaps "tone deaf" is the better word. When primary time comes around in either party, you usually see the candidates running hard to the extremes, throwing as much red meat as possible to the "base" of the party in order to get the nomination, and leaving the eventual nominee looking more like a hardcore lefty or righty and less of a centrist. Which brings us to 2012.

You might think that Barack Obama is in trouble for 2012, based upon the midterm elections, but not so fast. Remember, it's the middle 20% who are going to decide this thing. 80% of the electorate (40 Dem and 40 Repub) already knows what party they are voting for. The key, as always, lies with the middle 20%. That middle 20% makes its decision on a multitude of factors, but it all comes down to personality and trust. Do centrist voters have a problem with many aspects of the Obama presidency? Sure, the midterms just showed that, and many of those problems revolve around spending and fiscal issues. But those problems will evaporate fast if a moralizer like Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee is the 2012 GOP nominee. The only way one of those types could win is if a third-party candidate comes in and skews the results enough that no one gets to 270 electoral votes and the whole mess ends up in the House of Representatives. Put differently, if it's Obama v. Palin (or Huckabee) in a two-way race, President Obama will be a two-termer.

So, who could the GOP turn to, if they were smart and could back off the moralizing and focus on fiscal issues? New Jersey governor Chris Christie's name gets bandied about a lot. He got elected (and has remained popular) with nary a peep about social issues, but he has recently rather definitively ruled himself out of the mix for 2012.  Mitt Romney is more of a centrist than Palin or Huckabee, but he has the reputation of flip-flopping on a lot of issues, and you have to wonder if that wouldn't come back to haunt him in both the primaries and the general election.

That leaves Mitch Daniels, governor of Indiana. Daniels has a strong record of fiscal conservatism, and has already called for a "truce" on social issues. He looks, frankly, electable as all hell. He's funny, bright, blunt and plainspoken about tough choices regarding spending. By the way, this isn't an endorsement, just a discussion of electability. I'm a social libertarian and a fiscal conservative, so Daniels' stance on social issues is not in keeping with my own. I like many things about both the president and Governor Daniels and don't know for whom I would vote if they were running against one another. But here's the catch when it comes to the electability of Mitch Daniels: if he's running, it won't be on a social-issues/morality platform. His focus is purely on fiscal issues. That could have a lot of impact with the independent center -- you know, the ones who control elections.

This post was prompted by another article extolling the electability of Governor Daniels but noting how tough it may be for him to get his party's nomination if social conservatives rule the roost, as they often do, in the nominating process. If those social conservatives in the GOP were thinking tactically about winning an election, instead of figuring out new ways to tell us all what we can and can't do in our personal lives, they might wake up and see that Governor Daniels may be the most electable candidate they could put forth against President Obama. I'm not holding my breath....

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