Another Perspective

The Republicans’ ‘Zebra’ Field

Focus on the GOP's lack of a 2012 presidential frontrunner overlooks the situation's real advantages.

By 5.24.11

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Focus on Republicans' lack of a 2012 presidential frontrunner overlooks the situation's real advantages. Prevailing opinion is that the absence of a frontrunner indicates a weak candidate field, which will prevent Republicans from making November after next the contest of sharp contrasts they could win. 

However, current trends and historical precedent forcefully argue both assumptions may be wrong. Republicans may be about to follow the Democrats' pattern that has worked for their last three successful presidential candidates. 

Even if Osama bin Laden's killing and April's job growth provide boosts, Obama is still only emerging from one of his presidency's lowest points. It is unclear how much, or how lasting, their impacts will be. With an election 18 months away, they need to be lasting. And with his current approval ratings, they also need to be big. Obama continues to hover around a 50% percent approval rating -- often below and often negative. 

The 2010 election results gave similarly serious signs. Obama's base supporters showed an ominous low turnout and Democrats lost Senate and governor races in states Obama needs to win for reelection. 

Strategists will argue things will be different with Obama at the ticket's top. His supporters will return and equally important: his opposition lacks a strong candidate to rally behind. 

While the first assertion's accuracy is unknowable until next November, it's time to seriously reassess the second. 

Most importantly, reelections are almost always about the incumbent. Virtually no one Republicans could nominate will change that fact. 

Second, even Democrats admit the 2012 presidential contest will not repeat 2008's. This one will be tight. Obama is no longer an unknown. He now has a record and its construction has produced today's approval ratings. 

Nor do there appear many things that are likely to dramatically change that record before reelection. A split Congress seriously limits new legislation and the major issues -- economy, unemployment, the federal deficit and debt -- also are unlikely to change significantly. 

For an incumbent with limited opportunity to alter his record, the goal is quickly to define the opponent. However, that is impossible with no leading opponent to attack. This not only protects the field now, it also increases the chance the nominee will be stronger. The herd of Republican candidates does not just obscure its members. It also encourages more to enter. 

Such a wide-open field is atypical for Republican presidential primaries. But Democrats have made prototypical for successfully challenging incumbents.

Republicans have nominated "legacy candidates" for some time -- picks fairly obvious well ahead of their nomination. Nixon in 1960 and 1968, Ford in 1976, Reagan in 1980, Bush I in 1988, Dole in 1996, Bush II in 2000, and McCain in 2008 all fit the description. And all gave Democrats a long time to target them, frequently successfully. 

This election though, Republicans seem to be copying Democrats' incumbent-challenging strategy. 

Democrats' last three presidents -- Carter in 1976, Clinton in 1992, and Obama in 2008 -- emerged either from "weak fields" or were initially seen as "weak candidates." Few expected them to win the nomination, let alone the White House. Yet all did and did so in part because they were largely unknown and undefined -- in clear contrast to the incumbents they beat. 

Obama had these advantages just four years ago. He got them precisely by beating a prohibitive frontrunner for the nomination -- Hillary Clinton -- whose seemingly overwhelming advantages served to clear the field for Obama. 

Obama's experience shows the political potential a relative unknown -- and undefined -- candidate can have against a thoroughly known and defined opponent. He was still able to tap vast campaign resources and into the sizable opposition to the race's unofficial incumbent: Bush. 

Of late, supposedly "weak fields" and even initially "weak" candidates, have frequently produced winners against more known and experienced opponents. This is because America has entered into a period of controversial and confrontational policy demands, which immediately begin weakening the incumbents required to address them. Once nominated, no one remembers the crowd from whence the unknown challenger emerged. He enters a two-person race -- and without the policy baggage. 

Republicans may find they have stepped unknowingly into the Democrats' frequently successful formula. They could nominate a candidate who is largely undefined and facing an incumbent who, to many, is unfavorably so. The ability to tap into that opposition -- as Obama himself did in 2008 -- may actually be enhanced. 

Democrats may find they have stepped into what has historically been the Republicans' problem -- facing a field of "zebras." In a herd, zebras' stripes blend the group together, obscuring the individual and confusing the attacker. In their contest, zebras don't have to kill their predator, just outrun it. So too, in a presidential contest. What is starting off as a contrast of grays, may still be black and white at the end: when it really counts.

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About the Author

J.T. Young served in the Department of Treasury and the Office of Management and Budget from 2001 to 2004 and as a Congressional staff member from 1987 to 2000.