Is Giuliani the Republican Peyton Manning?

I’ve never been much of a gambler, but my friends are another story altogether. If a sportsbook offers a line on the Unicycle Hockey World Championship (yes, it exists), they will spend hours searching for information on whether to take Australia over Canada. And if there is one mantra they have been insistent on until this year, it has been this: Always Bet Against Peyton Manning in the Playoffs.

Sure, the Colts’ quarterback has a fine football pedigree, a high football IQ, and all those records. But up to this years’ playoffs, he had a mediocre 6-6 record. In the end, my friends have said, he will choke in the big game. And they have been right in the past.

In a similar vein, political horse race analysts routinely discount Rudy Giuliani’s chances of securing the Republican presidential nomination, notwithstanding his considerable strengths. National Journal currently ranks him third among Republican contenders. Veteran analyst Stu Rothenberg goes further, opining that to say a pro-choice, pro-civil union, pro-gun control Republican like Rudy has a chance of winning requires one to “suspend all . . . analytical faculties.”

Allow me to suspend my analytical faculties, then. A liberal on key social issues may not have been able to win in previous years. But this may just be the right year for such a candidate to win, provided that candidate has sufficiently strong conservative credentials in other critical areas.

First, the role of Republican primary voters who vote primarily on social issues is somewhat overstated. Remember, the only serious social moderate to run since 1980 — Steve Forbes (1996 ed.) — won two primaries, and did so with a fraction of Giuliani’s name recognition, charisma, or experience. That is one more than Gary Bauer, Pat Buchanan, and Pat Robertson won combined. According to a 2006 Pew poll, white evangelicals make up about a third of the overall Republican electorate. In 2000 they only made up 20% of the vote in the critical New Hampshire primary, where a majority of voters thought abortion should be legal (although Independents can vote in this primary). In fact, an exit poll question from Pew in 2004 revealed that only 3% of voters named abortion as their top voting issue, 2% named religiosity, and 2% named gay marriage. Nine percent cited the more amorphous “moral values.” In the same poll, 27% cited Iraq, 14% cited the economy, 9% cited terrorism, and 5% cited honesty/integrity. While the “values-first” voters are likely disproportionately represented in the Republican party, they likely are not a majority of the party. Moreover, many pro-life/pro-traditional marriage voters are more traditionalist than evangelical; these voters will find some solace in Giuliani’s successful campaigns against smut peddlers and prostitution, as well as his record of decreasing actual abortions in Gotham.

Now, there may well be a number of voters who place gun rights or abortion as their second or third most important issues. Inasmuch as these voters place the War on Islamofascism or economic issues first, these are voters with whom Giuliani has a chance. Continued assurances that he will appoint “strict constructionist” judges, and that he does not favor federal solutions to those problems, will further assuage doubts with some of these voters.

Second, “strategic voting” and “electability” may play a larger role in Republican voting than in previous years, due to the Democrats’ accelerated schedule. By the time Republicans meet in New Hampshire, Democrats will have met in Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire. By the time Republicans have their first big round of primaries on February 5, Democrats may well have selected a candidate after holding elections in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Faced with an oncoming Hillary Express, will social conservatives really pull the lever for a long-shot like Sam Brownback or Mike Huckabee?

Finally, just as Peyton Manning’s chances of winning the big game this year could not be analyzed completely through his 2000-2006 performances, neither can Giuliani’s chances be viewed through a pre-9/11 prism. 9/11 changed everything, including the Republican party. In the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq War, Republicans have come to define themselves as much by their hawkish foreign policy outlook as by their views on social or economic issues, and many evangelicals even view the war through a religious prism. The first post-9/11 open Republican primary will be revealing as to how much foreign policy issues and leadership ability have displaced certain social issues in importance to the Republican electorate. I am betting the change is not insignificant and that it helps Giuliani.

I can say that I would not have considered voting for Giuliani pre-9/11 for many reasons. But today I am at least favorably inclined. Perhaps I am just projecting, but I think many conservatives and right-libertarians agree. While it is easy to dismiss early polling showing Giuliani consistently in the lead for the Republican nomination, these poll respondents who are currently making it through a “likely voter” screen are also the type of political junkies who would know that Giuliani is pro-gay-rights and had a messy personal life. Indeed, in one recent poll, majorities of Republicans who were informed of Giuliani’s views on social issues said that they were either minor issues or no issues at all; only 16% said that they wouldn’t vote for him after being informed of these views. In the online GOP Bloggers poll, Giuliani is consistently one of the few candidates to end up with a net positive acceptability rating. These internet denizens are well-informed, and overwhelmingly self-describe as conservative (78% self-describe as 7 or higher on a 10-scale of conservatism). If these people can support Rudy, anyone can.

This year, my friends had a sense that Manning’s team was different. They didn’t get behind Manning, but they shied away from these games altogether, including the Superbowl. In other words, my friends recognized that there is a fine line between learning from history and living history. They adapted to changing circumstances and inputs — wisely it turns out. Similarly, while I am not going to predict a Giuliani victory, given the changing face of our politics, I would think long and hard before betting against him this year.