Herman Cain‘s win in the “Presidency 5” straw poll in Florida on Saturday has reset much of the narrative concerning the 2012 Republican presidential contest. Here are some questions being asked. First, was Cain’s victory a reflection of the general dissatisfaction Republicans feel toward purported front-runners Mitt Romney and Rick Perry? Second, could another candidate enter the presidential contest? Third, will the Republican primary contest be a battle between the William F. Buckley rule versus the Rush Limbaugh rule?
If Republicans are indeed not enthused about Messrs. Perry and Romney, one candidate could be primed to enter the race who can square the Buckley rule of electing the most electable conservative with the Limbaugh rule of electing the most conservative person in the field.
That candidate is former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Buckley said that Republicans should elect the most electable conservative in the field. Often, Republicans act as if Buckley said Republicans should elect the most electable “Republican” in the field and conflate “conservative” with “Republican.” When that happens, Republicans nominate candidates such as George H.W. Bush in 1992, Bob Dole in 1996, and John McCain in 2008 who go on to lose in the general election. On the other hand, when Republicans just nominate the most conservative person in the race as they did with Christine O’Donnell in the Delaware Senatorial primary in 2010, they sometimes make it harder for the party to win.
One recent national poll, though, suggests Palin could be a candidate who can fit the Limbaugh rule and the Buckley rule and not render those two rules to be mutually exclusive.
In a reputable and unbiased McClatchy/Marist poll released last week, Palin trailed President Obama by just five percent, 49% to 44%. These numbers are most striking when just last month, Obama led Palin, 56% to 35%. Palin made up the difference and surged because she has won over independent voters and now leads Obama among those crucial swing voters.
In August, Obama led among independent voters over Palin, 48% to 42%. Now, Palin leads Obama, 47% to 43%. Further, within her own party, Palin has strengthened her support among Tea Party voters, getting the support of 87% of those who support the Tea Part as opposed to just 70% in August.
One reason Palin may have won over independent voters in the past month is that she brought up the issue of crony capitalism in multiple speeches and television appearances before Obama was hit with a bevy of crony capitalism scandals ranging from Solyndra to LightSquared. Further, Palin has also reached out to union workers and disaffected Democrats in Facebook notes and speeches with her free market populism that pits her against big government and crony capitalism. This is the strategy Reagan used to build his enduring coalition, which Palin seems to be trying to cobble back together for the 21st century, uniting blue collar voters — white and minority — who identify with Main Street over Wall Street and Washington, D.C.
In the same poll, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney did better than Palin against Obama in a hypothetical general election match-up, keeping in mind that neither the Republican primary nor the general election is decided by a national popular vote.
Giuliani led Obama, 49% to 42%. Among independents, Giuliani led, 51% to 37%.
Romney was second best, trailing Obama, 46% to 44%. Among independents, Romney led Obama, 44% to 40%.
Perry, on the other hand, trailed Obama, 50% to 41%. Among independent voters, Perry and Obama were tied at 43% apiece.
According to the same Marist poll, if Giuliani and Palin were to announce their candidacies, Perry would still garner the most support in a national sample of Republicans with 20%, followed by Giuliani with 14%, Palin and Romney with 13% apiece, with another 14% of the sample being undecided.
Because Palin now beats Obama among swing voters and is almost within the margin of error against Obama (and is the only candidate who is surging against Obama), though, she has to be considered electable as well.
And while Giuliani and Romney do slightly better against Obama than Palin, both Giuliani and Romney are associated with the liberal, northeastern, Rockefeller wing of the Republican party and cannot claim to be more conservative than Palin. The only candidate among the top four who can claim to be more conservative than Giuliani or Romney would be Texas Gov. Rick Perry, but Palin does better against Perry not only against Obama but among crucial independent voters.
Further, if “conservative” means “Tea Party” for this cycle, no candidate has embraced the principles associated with the Tea Party movement for the past two years than Palin and no candidate has fiercely attacked Obama’s policies even when it was not popular to do so than Palin, so she would fit the Limbaugh rule as well.
So if the hypothetical GOP field came down to Giuliani, Romney, Palin, and Perry, one can make the plausible argument that Palin is not only the most conservative candidate in the field but also the conservative candidate who has the best shot of defeating President Obama and winning over independents, rendering moot a potential battle between the Buckley and Limbaugh rules.
Palin has said in the past that she would likely decide on a presidential run by the end of September, but most likely has until the end of October to do so. During the first week of October, she is schedule to speak at a rally in Missouri, at Liberty University, and in South Korea.
All eyes again will be on Palin.
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