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What Republicans Must Do to Win in 2012!

The new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll on the debt ceiling crisis reinforces points made in the new issue of National  Affairs in two important articles, the first by AEI Vice President Henry Olsen, and the second by Weekly Standard writer Jay Cost. What the poll reveals, as NBC’s Deputy Political Director Mark Murray writes, is that “Strong majorities of Democrats and independents prefer that Democratic congressional leaders make compromises in this budget debate, while almost 70 percent of independents want Republican leaders to do the same.”

For me the key phrase in Murray’s comment refers to the desire of independents. These are the very people that Republicans need to win in 2012 in order to defeat Barack Obama. The group includes the very important bloc of swing and working-class voters in states like Ohio that supported Hillary Clinton over Obama in 2008, and that have moved since then to vote for and support Republican candidates.

The poll also reveals, Murray writes, “Fifty-five percent of all respondents — including 63 percent of Democrats, 59 percent of independents and 47 percent of Republicans — believe that not raising the ceiling would be problematic. That's compared with just 18 percent who say it wouldn't be a real and serious problem."

But “even among Tea Party supporters,” the Wall Street Journal notes, “a 47% plurality said failing to raise the debt ceiling would be a serious issue. That number mirrors the percentage of all Republicans, who worry about the consequences of doing nothing. And those people who feel their economic situation has gotten worse over the past 12 months are among the most worried, with 60% of them saying failure to lift the ceiling would have real and serious consequences.” The current poll is a major change from a poll taken one month ago, which revealed that “39% said the debt limit shouldn't be raised, while 28% said it should.”

Now let me turn to some of the questions raised first by Henry Olsen. First, Olsen makes the point that there are two different kind of self-proclaimed conservatives. “Very conservative” Republicans who favor “rhetorically aggressive champions of conservative ideology,” and “somewhat conservative Republicans” who prefer “people who, while generally in agreement with ideological conservatives on their positions on the issues, are not as strident when it comes to ideology, rhetoric, or temperament.”

What is key is that in all but four Southern states, the “somewhat” conservative far outnumber those who are very conservative, and make up 35% of the electorate. They outnumber very conservative Republicans in both Florida and Michigan by a 3-2 margin, and 2-1 in New Hampshire. Even in South Carolina, he points out, they tie with the very-conservatives with 34% of the GOP electorate, while moderates and liberals are 32%. This means, Olsen writes, that the moderate-centrist bloc “have enormous influence over what kind of presidential candidate the Republican Party tends to nominate.”

What this suggests is that if Republicans want to defeat  Obama in 2012, they need to nominate a candidate -- perhaps someone yet not in the running -- who can appeal to the somewhat conservative as well as to swing voters and white working-class voters who might otherwise vote Democratic. Olsen calls this potential candidate the “GOP dark horse.” He points out that in all previous recent GOP presidential primaries, the preferences of the very conservative voters “do not dictate the nominee,” and the force that does do this is “the somewhat-conservative bloc.” They were the ones who “provided solid margins to the more established, cautious candidate,” and as the primary victory of George W. Bush showed, the somewhat conservative voters flocked to “safe, solid candidates.”

In the current race, Olsen, who does not name names of actual candidates now in the field, writes that there is a great opportunity for “a relative newcomer who, without having established himself as the heir apparent within the Republican Party, could still convincingly pass himself off to somewhat-conservative voters as the measured establishment figure they seek.” Keeping this in mind, it is apparent why major Republican donors met with Chris Christie this week in an effort to urge him to get into the race.

For such a dark horse to emerge, Olsen argues that he or she must stand out from the pack, appeal to a large constituency, and court the moderate wing of voters as well as the ideologically oriented conservatives. And they must as well stand off against challenges from those further to their right, as Bush did against Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee. If such a candidate gets the nomination, he must then appeal to and gain the support in the presidential race of the different and conflicting Republican constituencies, not just a core constituency.

What will surprise a lot of readers is Olsen’s judgement that this candidate has to go beyond the Tea Party base, since, as he writes, “the breadth of Tea Party support among Republicans is smaller than commonly believed.” An April NBC/WSJ poll, he notes, showed that even Tea Partiers described themselves as Republicans first, and only 30% of the Republican electorate identified themselves first as Tea Partiers. Should a candidate cater only to the Tea Party, Olsen writes, they risk “alienating the 2012 GOP contest’s truly underserved constituency: Republican moderates.”

His point is that these moderates are not only a key part of a potential Republican victory, they “may be especially crucial in 2012,” since they comprise between 30% and 35% of the expected Republican electorate. For a Republican candidate to beat Obama, he or she must reflect and encompass the desires of social conservatives, but have enough of an appeal to win the votes of those moderates -- Republican and independents -- who are not social conservatives. He has to be “sufficiently conservative on social issues,” but “not defined by those issues.” Again, Chris Christie obviously played that role among New Jersey voters in the gubernatorial race.

As Olsen phrases it, the candidate must “combine conservative positions on key issues with a  problem-solving approach that is principled but not ideological, and to display a calm, confident manner.” And that means a candidate who “does not preclude the possibility of reaching agreement with Democrats.” (my emphasis)

I will leave my readers to go to Olsen’s article and consider his fascinating discussion of what might happen to our current contenders, and how and why he thinks current “establishment” candidates might bow out of the race, leaving a newcomer facing a Tea Party favorite.