Charming but unelectable: The GOP presidential field takes an odd shape

It’s rare that a presidential aspirant opts out of a run if he truly believes he can win. But the hesitance on the part of some dynamic GOP presidential prospects seems to reflect the fact that most Republicans think President Obama is unbeatable.

But that leaves the GOP in a pickle: In complaining that Republicans have no one to beat Obama, the party establishment worsens its fortunes by scaring away candidates who can actually beat the president.

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Some of the candidates in the GOP primary field have the charisma factor — that magical quality that inspires followers — but the problem lies in how that magnetism is apportioned. 

The field breaks down along fairly strict lines — the charismatic candidates don’t have much of a shot of winning the nomination, while the non-charismatic ones are the favorites. 

This inversion of the political rules might have a few origins, but the most surprising is the fact that the party’s woes are largely self-inflicted, and a result of the party buying the narrative from a source it so often distrusts — the media. 

After Obama’s party went down for historic losses in the November 2010 elections, there was excited presidential buzz around a bevy of candidates. Suddenly, the president’s electoral halo was gone, and he looked as vulnerable then as in those harrowing days of the 2008 primary, when his pastor Jeremiah Wright’s sermons threatened his candidacy.

With Obama looking as beatable as the party he headed, the GOP saw an uptick in the number of charismatic candidates who started poking about and seriously considering a bid. 

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) was one such promising candidate. Last December, both his interest and the conservative movement’s hopes to draft him into the race reached a peak. Conservative opinion leader Erick Erickson of RedState.com publicly backed him. Tea Party leader Dick Armey launched a Draft Pence effort that included the voices of key conservatives like Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center.

And a group called the America’s President Committee — coordinated by a former Reagan administration official and powerful Washington Republicans — launched its own Draft Pence movement, claiming that the 2012 presidential race was ripe for the picking, if Republicans picked the right candidate. Pence, the group claimed, could “unite the newly energized and engaged citizenry.”

Pence himself stoked the flames when he said he was thinking seriously about a bid and started visiting key primary states. Then something happened. Obama’s approval rating jumped, and by the end of January, Pence had voluntarily taken himself out of the running.

The demise of his potential candidacy was one repeated over and over throughout this spring.

Republican figures who have that star quality — such as Pence, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) — all decided to pass on bids, and other electrifying, credible Republican politicians, like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, repeatedly resisted calls to enter the race.

The vicious cycle has left the field with its increasingly odd shape, and the charismatic candidates remaining might as well be heading the Nothing to Lose party.

Herman Cain, the former CEO of a pizza chain, is certainly electrifying, but has no political experience and little shot at winning the nomination. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) might ignite listeners, but is viewed as unelectable, thanks to her discipline problems. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is the most charming of the potential candidates, with the ability to draw thousands with the hopes of just catching a glimpse of her. But she failed to even serve out an entire gubernatorial term and has spent the last few years filming reality shows and turning her brand into a celebrity.

In short, the charisma factor has drifted to the bottom — with each of those candidates unlikely to win. Charisma has also failed to find the candidates with impressive public and private records.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty have both faced significant questions about their ability to fire up voters. 

Pawlenty’s responded by claiming that voters don’t want to elect Lady Gaga, and that his conservative record will draw a swell of supporters. But he remains mired in both national and state polling. 

Romney, meanwhile, faces the fact that all the money and organization in the world can’t buy interpersonal skills, and his failure to translate those strengths into a large lead reflects his lack of magnetism. 

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is also treated as a top-tier candidate, thanks to his long political record, but the Ivy League son of a billionaire doesn’t strike many as any more dynamic and relatable than Romney. 

That leaves an uncomfortable reality: Candidates with electable records seem to be missing electable charisma, while those without electable records seem to have all the charisma. 

Heinze, the founder of GOP12.com, is a member of staff at The Hill.