Door is open for insurgent candidates

In past election cycles, I have often been asked to poll for party caucuses to identify ideal or model profiles for successful legislative candidacies. Are voters looking for an earnest young family man, or someone working his way up from a school board? I recall one cycle in a Midwestern state wherein the perfect profile was that of a retired coach with grandchildren. In 2012, I think we can strike that off the list, especially in Pennsylvania. But you can be sure that Americans everywhere most always have some very definite ideas about the kinds of men or women they would prefer to see leading us.

So now we pause to ask, what sorts of leaders are Americans looking for? My stock response is that voters are nearly always seeking the opposite of what has most recently failed them. Today, most of all, I think voters wish for strength and an apolitical background. Obama and politicians in general have not demonstrated muscle in rallying us against economic calamity and government debt. We want George Patton, or Dick Butkus, or Geronimo, or Rosa Parks, and we have instead been given men and women of neverending political careers who have soft hands and weak spines, who love to talk and gesture, but who never take risks on our behalf that might muss their hair or sink their poll numbers.

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I have tried to decide whether there is a single label, such as “populist,” that describes the current and collective yearning of our hearts. Populist is not the right moniker for now. It implies a kind of ordinariness and small-timeness that doesn’t really capture the essence of our desires. A reason that new leaders have not risen from the ranks of the Tea Party is that they are too populist, too grassroots and too similar to us to be leaders of us. It has not always been this way, that we reject the little guy. I recall snickering once in the ’80s when an up-and-coming congressional candidate from the Upper Midwest earnestly confided to me that he wanted to run on a platform of “strong leadership” and assured me that he’d win without saying much more. It seemed absurd at the time — there was so much more to say about issues and such — but I am finally warming to the concept as we lurch toward 2012.

Interestingly, I don’t think smart is what we want, either. I know that Rick Snyder was successful in the Michigan gubernatorial race last year with the “one tough nerd” pitch. I suspect that “tough” was more persuasive than “nerd.” Some people say that this cycle would have been the perfect interlude for a Ross Perot, with his poster-board charts and “looking under the hood of the car” rhetoric, but I just don’t think this is the time for ethereal populism. We’re looking for warriors, not thinkers. There is a reason that Donald Trump had a run-up in the early primary polls. He has that crazy guerrilla-soldier mentality that a lot of voters want and seldom see on the menu of our politics.

The word I have been toying with, in trying to define the ideal candidate for 2012, is “insurgent.” I think a candidate has to be coming from outside the normal political process and order, and he or she has got to be frighteningly menacing to the established order, as Geronimo in the Southwest or Rosa Parks on a Montgomery bus. Most importantly, insurgents take risks that others fear taking. That’s the right stuff for now. It’s a formula that Arnold Schwarzenegger employed to win with his 2003 “Governator” insurgency. And Mitt Romney might benefit from showing a little of his Bain Capital bad-boy side as he promises a national turnaround.

David Hill is a pollster who has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.