Without Palin, It is Romney’s Race to Lose by Lara M. Brown (Villanova University)

On January 12, 2011, former chief executive officer of Godfather’s Pizza Herman Cain became the first Republican to make official his 2012 presidential aspirations and form an exploratory committee. Political analysts instantly reacted with skepticism about his chances. Most pundits thought that––at best––Cain, if he could raise funds, would “add charisma, a compelling story, and some craziness” to the GOP nomination race.[1] Ten months later, Cain’s riding atop the opinion polls, despite a brewing sexual harassment scandal.[2]

Considering that nearly anyone can be president, the question is: why was Cain, a conservative African American from the South who successfully climbed corporate ladders at Coca-Cola, Pillsbury, and Burger King, turned around Godfather’s Pizza, and served as the chairman of the National Restaurant Association, so swiftly dismissed as a serious contender? Were political observers prematurely pessimistic about Cain’s chances?[3]

Not likely. As was noted when he announced, “The last person whose first elected office was the presidency was Dwight Eisenhower, and he had led the war in Europe.”[4]

For although the constitutional requirements to be president are broadly inclusive, the selection method has evolved into an intricate two-step process that is profoundly exclusive.[5] Of the forty-three men who have served as president, the majority were white Protestants who were educated at Ivy League institutions and trained as attorneys, but whose professions were politics, not law. And even though the country’s population has hovered around 300 million for the last two decades, only about a dozen individuals have earnestly vied for the presidency each cycle. Incredibly, this is about double the number of candidates who ran a century ago.

John Aldrich offered a partial answer: “The standard line that anyone can grow up to be president may be true, but it is true only if one grows up to be a major party nominee.”[6] The lesson: parties matter.

Since early in the nation’s history, serious aspirants have understood that they must earn widespread support to overcome the Electoral College’s federal design, which includes temporary electors assembling in each state to cast their ballots.[7] The coordination challenges further multiplied on January 23, 1845, when legislation establishing a national day for selecting electors became law because it meant that a candidate (and his or her supporters) had to be in each state simultaneously. In sum, the rules and procedures governing presidential selection largely preclude an aspirant from winning a majority of the electoral votes without a national political party, and without a significant portion of that party’s enthusiastic assistance. Once parties were indispensable, the only candidates considered worthy of the presidency and deserving of the party’s nomination were partisans. Winning the presidency means first securing a party’s nomination, and as Jockeying for the American Presidency shows, this requires an aspirant to actively and opportunistically engage for years, through a number of election cycles in the business of parties: politics.

Without former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin in the contest, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney––not Herman Cain––is the aspirant most likely of the eight now running to secure the GOP presidential nomination.

Here’s why:

The general political conditions––a Democratic incumbent president with a low approval rating[8], a poorly performing economy[9], historically high levels of dissatisfaction[10], and a general distaste for those in Washington[11] ––provide opportunities for Republican candidates who establish themselves as “outsiders” and appeal to “small government” conservatives, such as those voters aligned with the Tea Party.[12] This is why the polls have shown real estate mogul Donald Trump leading in April, Representative Michele Bachmann leading in August, Governor Rick Perry leading in September, and Herman Cain leading in October. There exists a faction of restless conservatives, looking for an authentic and competent anti-establishment Republican candidate.  In 2004, a group of restless liberals propelled former governor Howard Dean, who claimed to “represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,”[13] to similarly stratospheric heights.[14]

Given some of Gallup’s recent polling, showing that Republican enthusiasm is high and Obama’s support among registered voters is highly polarized, it seems likely that the country is heading towards something of a replay of the 2004 presidential election, which involved a fairly fluid nomination contest for the opposition party, and a competitive, expensive, and mostly negative general election campaign that ended in a close finish and turned on Ohio’s vote.

Surveying the Republican field and recognizing, as my research found, that past presidential campaign experience is an asset for an aspirant, two contenders stand out: Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin. Not surprisingly, Gallup’s polling had placed both Romney and Palin in the “top tier” of candidates since they began measuring in February 2011.[15] With Palin not running, Romney is the only one whose candidacy enjoys this prior experience boost.

Candidates who are governors (or former governors) also possess an advantage over their non-state executive competitors, which partly explains Governor Rick Perry’s “top-tier” status. Former governor Jon Huntsman of Utah should also have a leg up on his competition, but his service as an ambassador in the Obama administration makes his candidacy undesirable to GOP base voters who hold polar opposite views to Obama.

Beyond this, the expectations arising from an aspirant’s prior political experiences suggest that former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania will fare poorly given his relative obscurity (out of office for six years, he has neither campaigned nor held any other office since). Representative Michele Bachmann, though an avid Tea Party identifier with a strong following, is unlikely to go far because the last president elected directly from the House was James Garfield. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, given his checkered political experience and somewhat scandalous personal background (i.e., three marriages, which included two extramarital affairs) is a long shot.[16] Another long shot, Herman Cain’s only prior experience was a losing Senate campaign.

Investigating more systematically, using each aspirant’s calculated level of opportunism score (breadth/depth of political experience, or the number of political positions sought and held/number of years in office), many of these initial impressions about the political experience of these candidates are confirmed. The two candidates with the highest scores are Romney (1.0) and Palin (0.78), while the aspirants with lowest scores are Gingrich (0.20) and Santorum (0.25). Bachmann (0.33) fares better than Gingrich and Santorum, but her level of opportunism does not surpass the historical (1796–2008) mean (0.50). Romney’s score is so high because he has only served four years in political office. Palin, on the other hand, has a high score because, like Obama, she has served in several positions (mayor, appointed member of the state commission on oil and natural gas, and governor) and run for more (lieutenant governor and vice presidential nominee) over a relatively short period of time. Perry has the opposite problem: he stayed too long in each of the offices he held. Hence, largely because of his long service as the Texas governor and agricultural secretary, his score is 0.29––about on par with Bachmann. The other candidate who does well is Huntsman (0.53), but he probably would have done better had he not taken his last position (0.55)––the one that placed him in a Democratic administration. Notably, Herman Cain also has an impressively high score (1.0), but that is owing to his never having held elective office. Presidents in the Modern Party Era (since 1972) have served a mean of about twelve years in political office; most aspirants without any service and only losing campaigns on their resumes (e.g., Ross Perot in 1996 and Ralph Nader in 2004) fare worse than they did during their first campaign.

Before the polls began measuring their standing among GOP voters and based solely on their past political experiences, the credible aspirants were Romney and Palin. Without Palin, it is Romney’s race to lose. And with less than sixty days until the Iowa caucuses, it appears that Romney’s past political experience has begun to make the difference in the nomination contest.[17]


[1] Joshua Green, “Herman Cain, the GOP Wild Card,” Atlantic Monthly, January 15, 2011, available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1969/12/herman-cain-the-gop-wild-card/8367/ (accessed January 15, 2011).  See also Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball’s preliminary ranking of the most talked about possible candidates at: http://www.centerforpolitics.org/crystalball/articles/ljs2011012001/ (accessed January 23, 2011).

[2] Real Clear Politics website “2012 Republican Presidential Nomination” poll average for November 5, 2011, at: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/epolls/2012/president/us/republican_presidential_nomination-1452.html (accessed November 5, 2011). See also Thomas Beaumont, “Accusations Not Yet Costing Cain in Early States, on Real Clear Politics, November 5, 2011, at: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2011/11/05/accusations_not_yet_costing_cain_in_early_states_111966.html (accessed November 5, 2011).

[3] John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010).

[4] National Review Online, “Citizen Cain: A Successful Businessman Talks About His Brand-New Presidential Campaign,” January 14, 2011, at: http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/257179/citizen-cain-interview (accessed January 16, 2011).

[5] For a discussion of the process and the relevant literature see Lara M. Brown, Jockeying for the American Presidency: The Political Opportunism of Aspirants (Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2010), 37-62. See also Richard McCormick, Presidential Game: The Origins of American Presidential Politics (New York: Oxford, 1981).

[6] John H. Aldrich, Before the Convention: Strategies and Choices in Presidential Nomination Campaigns (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 5.

[7] See Lara M. Brown, Jockeying, 37-49; William G. Mayer, “What the Founders Intended: Another Look at the Origins of the American Presidential Selection Process” in William G. Mayer, ed., The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2008 (Lanham, M.D.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2008), 203-234.

[12] As CNN recently noted, the Tea Party movement still has legs, see: http://www.cnn.com/2011/POLITICS/09/11/tea.party.now/index.html?hpt=po_t2 (accessed September 11, 2011).

[13] Howard Dean, “Address to the California Democratic Party Convention,” March 15, 2003, at: http://www.gwu.edu/~action/2004/cdp0303/dean031503spt.html (accessed November 5, 2011).

[14] Keating Holland, “Dean Starts 2004 Leading Dems,” CNN, January 5, 2004, at: http://articles.cnn.com/2004-01-05/politics/elec04.poll.democrats.poll_1_anti-dean-howard-dean-error-margins?_s=PM:ALLPOLITICS (accessed November 6, 2011).

[15] See Gallup at: http://www.gallup.com/poll/election.aspx (accessed September 8, 2011).

[16] For further information on Gingrich’s personal history, see: Jill Lawrence, “Would Women Support Newt Gingrich for President?” Politics Daily, February 13, 2011, at: http://www.politicsdaily.com/2011/02/13/would-women-support-newt-gingrich-for-president/  (accessed February 13, 2011).

[17] See Gallup at: http://www.gallup.com/poll/150554/Obama-Romney-Tied-Nationally-Swing-States.aspx (accessed on November 6, 2011).

About the author:


Lara M. Brown is the author of Jockeying for the American Presidency, which has been hailed as “one of the best books this discipline has contributed to the study of presidential nominations and elections” by noted political scientist John Aldrich.

In addition to being a CHOICE recommendation, it has also earned excellent journal reviews (“Brown’s extensive analysis yields a variety of new and important findings … This volume contains much of value for scholars of the presidency and presidential elections.” – Presidential Studies Quarterly).

Dr. Brown’s book is part of the Politics, Institutions, and Public Policy in America Book Series by Scott Frisch and Sean Kelly.

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