Political primaries tend to emphasize differences between candidates who, often, are not very different. Professional politicians are smart enough to let bygones be bygones so they can work together once the nominating process has run its course.
This is how George H.W. Bush came to serve two terms as Ronald Reagan’s vice president after Reagan won the GOP nomination in 1980. It led Hillary Clinton to her current position as President Obama’s secretary of state after he won the Democratic primary marathon in 2008.
This principle is worth remembering as the Republican presidential focus continues to narrow to Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Right now they are rivals, taking every opportunity to snipe at one another. But I would not be surprised if they ended up running together on a Romney-Perry ticket.
This would be a very good outcome for the Republicans’ prospects next year. The key to making it happen is Perry’s track record of changing direction and reinventing himself when necessary.
Perry is a professional politician, and he is good at it, having never lost an election. His adaptability is the secret to his success. He started in politics as a Democrat in the Texas Legislature, supported Al Gore for president in 1988, switched to the Republican camp in 1989 to run for Agriculture Commissioner the next year, and nevertheless supported the health care overhaul proposed by President Bill Clinton in 1994. Perry became lieutenant governor under George W. Bush and moved up to the governorship in 2001 when Bush went to the White House.
And here we are, a decade later, with Perry running as the darling of the social and fiscal Republican right wing, accusing Romney of “sounding like a Democrat.” Takes one to know one, I guess.
Perry is widely perceived to have the lead in the nomination race right now. A recent USA TODAY/Gallup Poll put Perry as the favorite, with the support of 31 percent of respondents. Romney came in a not-so-distant second with 24 percent. Ron Paul, with 13 percent, was the only other candidate to make it into the double digits.
Either Romney or Perry could defeat Obama in November 2012, but both have a better chance if they are on the ticket together. Despite Perry’s current frontrunner status, I think a joint ticket is more likely to happen, and more likely to win, if Romney winds up with the nomination.
Romney has run for president more or less continuously for the past five years. He is a much better candidate now than he was in 2008, but he still has not figured out how to motivate the GOP base. In the poll, just under half of Romney’s supporters said they were more excited about voting this year than usual. Republicans have also not forgotten Romney’s support as governor for the Massachusetts health care reforms, even though they seem oblivious to Perry’s record on the Clinton proposal. Some might forgive Romney, but they won’t do it enthusiastically.
To get Republican voters to the polls in November, Romney would have to rely primarily on anti-Obama fervor. With the president’s disapproval rating up to 50 percent overall, and vastly higher among Republicans and independents, that could still be enough to give him the victory in the general election – if he makes it past the primaries.
Perry, on the other hand, has little trouble exciting Republican voters, especially those in the conservative wing of the party, who are most skeptical of Romney. Seven in 10 of his supporters are more excited about voting than usual this year. His Lone Star attitude draws lots of applause from right-of-center crowds and has earned him a reputation as a charismatic figure. But when it comes to facing less ideologically homogeneous audiences, Perry is still behind. Only 45 percent of voters say they would support Perry over Obama if the election were held today; 50 percent would vote to keep the sitting president.
Perry has time to improve his standing with independents and moderates, but I have some doubts about his ability to do so. His campaign got off to a late start, and he still doesn’t have much structure in place to get his message to people outside his core audience. He also still suffers from an unfortunate tendency to misjudge how certain comments will come off outside his home state, leading to a string of gaffes. As he has energized his base, he has driven away other, more moderate would-be supporters. In the USA TODAY/Gallup poll, 44 percent of voters said they would definitely not vote for Perry; only 35 percent said the same of Romney.
A Romney-Perry ticket would create a palatable Republican option for independent voters, while still giving the more gung-ho branch of the Republican Party something to be excited about.
A Perry-Romney ticket would, in my view, be far less promising. Adding Perry to a Romney-headed ticket would probably be enough to prompt Republican voters who might otherwise stay home to get to the polls. It could also neutralize the threat of an independent candidate drawing the extreme conservative vote away. Listing Romney’s name after Perry’s, however, would not convince moderate voters to line up behind a man they see as too far from center. Before he is ready to headline a ticket in a general election, Perry needs some time to temper his positions and rhetoric. Four or eight years inside the Beltway could do that for him.
I also doubt that Romney would agree to take second billing. While Perry could progress from a regional to a national figure during a term or two as vice president, Romney would merely get older.
Political marriages of convenience can work, but they are still more the exception than the rule. Too often, vigorous primary fights end up damaging both candidates (look at Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy in 1980), or poisoning a relationship so thoroughly that cooperation becomes impossible. Republicans can hope that both Perry and Romney are too professional to let things get that personal, even though the two have shown little inclination to play nice thus far.
Still, our compressed and front-loaded primary schedule allows relatively little time for intra-party fighting. Six or seven months from now we will see whether my hypothetical Romney-Perry ticket is able to become a reality. If it does, remember that you read it here first.