Friday, January 23, 2015

The Invisible Primary & Scott Walker

Every four years the time comes when political scientists around the United States become like little children on Christmas morning anticipating opening their gifts to find out what is inside.  They rush to their offices, fire up their Macs (if they're anything like me), and begin exploring the day's happenings in the political world.  Of particular interest for folks like me this time of year is what we refer to as 'The Invisible Primary.'  The phrase refers to that period of time between the announcement of an intention to seek the presidency and the first votes being cast in the Iowa Caucuses, which typically occur in January of the following year.  Most of this time is spent by potential nominees courting party elites and well-heeled donors in an effort to raise the $50 million or so necessary to be competitive during primary season.

The 2015 invisible primary is well under way following the announcement by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush that he intends to 'explore' a run for the presidency.  Bush's announcement caught some of the potential GOP candidates off guard and potentially provided the governor with a head start over his rivals.  This set off a scramble among other potential candidates to hire talented individuals who could help them raise money and test the waters.  Shortly after Bush jumped into the race Mike Huckabee walked away from a lucrative deal at Fox News to explore a possible candidacy.  Others in the GOP all but certain to run include Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio, and Rick Santorum.  Rumors of another run by Mitt Romney are sort of like the stories regarding the exaggeration of the death of Mark Twain.  It makes for good political fodder but it just makes no sense at all.  His time came and went and the party has moved on.

The challenge for each of the potential candidates is to figure out where their political support is most likely to come from and lock up that support over the next 11 months.  Political Scientist Jason McDaniel does an excellent job laying out the case for one of these candidates, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, in his latest post at Mischiefs of Faction.  McDaniel also created the following Venn Diagram to show the political space occupied by each of the potential candidates for the GOP, which is another way of saying where each is most likely to find the greatest level of support.  If a candidate appears in more than one of the circles, he likely has appeal to two or more factions within the GOP, thus making him more 'viable' to party elites and important donors.  Candidates who appear in only one circle have limited appeal outside their own circle and will likely struggle to win the nomination. This isn't to say they cannot win it, just that it is highly unlikely because such a candidate will have a hard time raising the kind of financial support necessary to make a serious run at the nomination.  In 2012 we saw this happen to candidates such as Herman Cain, Rick Perry, and Tim Pawlenty.  I would go so far as to argue that even Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were not truly viable candidates in 2012, though they got to hang around due to the support each received from a wealthy donor.

Back to Scott Walker.  McDaniel's analysis makes sense on some level since the 2016 race for the GOP nomination seems to lack a clear frontrunner.  Could Walker win the nomination?  If so, he would be the first major party nominee since Harry Truman in 1948 without at least a bachelor's degree.  Even so, some have argued that Walker is well situated since he has won three elections (including the misguided recall attempt) in a state that has reliably supported the Democratic candidate for president since 1988.  Yet, one aspect of Walker's three victories is rarely discussed.  Each of them occurred with a midterm electorate that is typically older, whiter, and more conservative than that seen in a presidential election.  That may suit him fine in seeking the GOP nomination, which will look in many ways a lot like the electorate he faced in Wisconsin.  The biggest challenge for Walker may not be his appeal to the GOP base, rather it will be his lack of name recognition.  If he can overcome that obstacle he has a slight chance of securing the nomination.  He can win Iowa with its historic tendency to back evangelical candidates but New Hampshire and heavily unionized Nevada may pose serious problems.  The good news for Gov. Walker?  If he lasts until the proposed SEC primary in the southern states in early March, he could rack up a lot of delegates in a hurry.

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