Republican Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty announced today that he would not seek a third term. Current speculation is that this decision was done with an eye on 2012, allowing Pawlenty to campaign for President full-time after serving two full-time terms as Governor.
If Pawlenty did run, he would immediately become one of the two or three most formidable Republican opponents for President Obama in 2012. Consider this table of net favorable ratings for Republicans that have been discussed or polled as potential 2012 candidates:
Republican Favorable Ratings
>* = Post-2008 election
** = Polling from January-February 2008
*** = Polling from early 2007
Not only is Pawlenty at the top of this table (and Rice is highly, highly unlikely to run), but most of the other Republicans listed here are true pretenders:
With those four out of the way, the picture clears up pretty quickly. Only Pawlenty, Palin and Huckabee remain, along with the possibility of a candidate who is currently relatively unknown.
- Newt Gingrich: People just don't like Gingrich. Never really have. No one this disliked will ever become President. You can't start your term with a 30% approval rating.
- Rudy Giuliani: As the 2008 campaign made clear, Giuliani isn't a hard enough campaigner, and doesn't mesh well enough with the Republican base, to ever win the nomination. Given what will likely be an even more hard right-wing Republican voting electorate in 2012, and that he would start the election with a much, much lower favorable rating than he did in the 2008 campaign, there is no path to the nomination for Giuliani. At all.
- Bobby Jindal. Jindal is not going to be a factor in 2012. Not only has he already declared that he isn't running, the peculiar timing of the Louisiana governor's campaign makes it virtually impossible for him to both run for re-election and to also run for President. A potential run-off for the 2011 Governor's campaign would take place on November 19th, only about six or seven weeks before the 2012 Iowa caucuses. Duel campaigning would put him in a nearly impossible position, as neither electorate would be happy with a candidate who is splitting time. His 2012 opponents won't give him a break just because he needs to run for re-election as Governor, either.
- Mitt Romney: While not as bad as Gingrich, his favorable rating is, and has long been, simply too low to ever be considered a serious threat to become President. Perhaps he is too obviously an opportunistic wanker, or perhaps it is his hair. Whatever it is, the country doesn't like Mittens all that much, and he will not become President.
Looking at only Pawlenty, Palin and Huckabee, it is not clear who would have the inside edge. Here are some factors to consider:
Unless someone like Tom Ridge runs, or a relative unknown emerges (which rarely, if ever, happens in Republican nomination campaigns), Huckabee, Palin and Pawlenty strike me as a difficult to separate top three at this point. They are also the only Republican candidates who, as of now, appear to have any chance of defeating President Obama in 2012. All of their chances will depend just as much on the success of the Democratic trifecta in turning around the economy, as it will the performance and effectiveness of their own campaigns.
- Bailout: Republicans have adopted harsh anti-government rhetoric in the past few months, making support for bailouts difficult to justify to the base. In this regard, both Pawlenty and Palin (through McCain) are tainted by their support for the 2008 Wall Street bailout. Huckabee will have the advantage of clear, early opposition.
- Money: Palin should have no problem racking in huge amounts of small donor dollars. Pawlenty might quickly become the favorite candidate for Wall Street money, given both the praise he has received from such quarters for his term as Governor and once Romney's lack of viability becomes increasingly clear. Huckabee, by contrast, will once again probably struggle to raise money, perhaps even more than in 2008, due to his anti-Wall Street rhetoric.
- Evangelicals: As the Republican Party becomes more and more white evangelical, these voters will become more important in the nomination process. Huckabee was unable to break out of his evangelical base of support in 2008, but their increasing influence in the party could benefit. However, the presence of both Palin and Pawlenty in the field might cause him problems within that base, given that both are evangelicals themselves.
- Electability: Contrary to popular belief, perceived ability to perform well in the general election does make a difference to Republican voters. The nomination of John McCain is exhibit A in this regard. Come 2012, Pawlenty will probably take the early lead in perceived electability, given that he is the only top-teir candidate with the clear potential to flip a blue state (Minnesota), and that both Palin and Huckabee are famously gaffe-prone. Combined with his adoring admirers on Wall Street, something the other two candidates lack, this could quickly make Pawlenty the favorite of the Republican establishment. That would make up for his comparatively lower name ID.
See also: 2012 swing states and 2012 polling.