Southern Republican Leadership Conference Straw Poll, 2006

In American politics, one of the most significant indicators of a political party's future relates to mid-term Congressional elections. The term of which these elections are in the middle, of course, is the President's. This helps to gauge a party's chances for the next presidential election, so it is therefore also around this time that serious campaigning for a party's presidential nomination begins. Because the current president, Republican George W. Bush, is ineligible to run in 2008, it is hardly a decided matter as to who will be the Republican nominee for that election. Since the opposition party (the Democrats in this case) are currently out of power in the House, the Senate, and in the executive branch (and arguably the Supreme Court of the United States), there is an ostensibly open field for candidates there as well. One of the most popular ways of beginning the election cycle (albeit in an unofficial manner) is the straw poll - a simple vote that only serves to determine where a group stands on an issue. The issue before the Southern Republican Leadership Conference on March 11, 2006, was simple: who should be the Republican nominee for the 2008 Presidential election? Below I'll discuss some of the candidates and the significance (if any) of their results.

Results

#1 (37%): Sen. Bill Frist (Tennessee): In a result that should surprise absolutely nobody, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist overwhelmingly won the straw poll. Why is this unsurprising? Well, the poll was conducted in Tennessee, his home state, and most of the roughly 1400 voters are his direct constituency. Frist has made no secret of his ambitions to run for President and surely he sees this result as a tremendous sign of hope. Frist first came to national prominence after he stabbed Trent Lott in the back in 2002 and took his job as Senate Majority Leader. Frist is shrewd and calculating, but sometimes bets on the wrong horse: he made a spectacle of himself during the Terri Schiavo fiasco in which he very publicly refused to even consider that there was even the most remote possibility that the brain-damaged woman was in a persistent vegetative state (this is significant because Frist used his credentials as a medical doctor in an attempt to add credence to his claims). Although he later made a muted acknowledgement of his error after her autopsy revealed as much, it hardly reversed the damage. Senator Frist has good conservative credentials, but supports large foreign aid to Africa as well as stem cell research that is anathema to the general Republican party-line.

The thing is, Bill Frist is a viper. He is manipulative, vindictive, and opportunistic. In other words, he's the perfect politician. Frist also does not cut a particularly impressive figure; generally speaking, he doesn't (for better or for worse) have the same fiery attitude that his predecessor Trent Lott had, and thus remains on the backburner of the American political landscape. This is a somewhat pragmatic choice; as a political milquetoast, he strives to be generally inoffensive unless votes among his constituency are at stake. This is good for getting reelected in your home state, but not for (probably) going up against Hillary Clinton in a national contest. Bill Frist is clever, but unlikely to be the Republican nominee because of his lack of name-recognition and appeal to the American body-politic and also because he lacks the strengths of some of his other competitors. I'm an unattached conservative, but on principle, I would prefer to vote for the dead inanimate corpse of Sergei Rachmaninoff over Bill Frist.

#2 (15%): Gov. Mitt Romney (Massachusetts): The real news of the straw poll was Mitt Romney's relatively strong showing on Bill Frist's turf. At the moment, Romney doesn't have a whole lot of standing on the national stage (less than Bill Frist, certainly) but he's been gaining traction since 2004. A lot of press attention centers around the fact that Romney is a Mormon, which I guess is pretty interesting, but largely irrelevant. Another big talking point is the fact that he has said that he will not run for reelection as Governor of Massachusetts later this year but said that he won't decide about 2008 until 2007. Romney is a fairly proactive initiator of legislation in his state. The most prominent of Romney's initiatives include what he calls the "gold standard" of death penalty requirements (primarily that it can only be applied if the prosecution has definitive DNA evidence against the suspect) as well as his universal health insurance bill (that he purports can be done without raising taxes). Romney also has moderate credentials in the arenas of gay marriage (like President Bush, he supports civil unions) and he is reliably conservative on gun control, some economic issues, and illegal immigration.

Of course, Romney faces staunch opposition from the legislature in his own state and his party has actually lost seats in the Massachusetts State Senate since his election in 2002. In fact, many of his proposals go nowhere simply because the legislature detests him: he could therefore be said to be somewhat ineffective in that regard. He might also be jumping the gun somewhat in his presidential ambitions; after all, he had never held elected office before 2002 and his stated intention not to run again in 2006 gives him only four years of practical experience in government. Still, he is on good terms with the President and is widely viewed as a moderate outsider unconcerned with or untainted by the ratrace that is Washington, DC. If he can increase his presence on the national stage over the course of the next two years, I would consider Romney a very strong contender for either spot on the 2008 Republican ticket.

#3 (10%, tied): Sen. George Allen (Virginia): I'll admit it: I know next to nothing about this guy. I haven't seen him get much exposure outside of ultra-conservative circles until relatively recently, so that might not be good for his future prospects. But what do I know? He's (un)remarkably conservative. Pro-life, anti-gun control, pro-business, anti-affirmative action, pro-Israel, etc. Essentially, Allen tries to cast himself as Reagan Lite, which I guess is effective among his core constituency and reasonably effective in Tennessee as well. In one poll last year and one earlier this year, he was considered a frontrunner. However, in other similar polls, he has fared poorly, garnering as low as only 2% of votes when compared to possible other contenders like Rudolph Giuliani and Condoleezza Rice. I've never heard him speak, so I have no clue as to whether or not he's a captivating orator. I guess only time will tell with Allen, but his prospects for the presidency will only improve if he promotes himself more successfully on a national scale over the next two years.

#3 (10%, tied): Pres. George W. Bush: You're probably thinking to yourself "well, gee, he can't run again, can he?" And you'd be thinking correctly. The only reason George W. Bush's name appeared on this list was because of a plea by Senator John McCain (also a candidate in this poll) to "support the president." It's a bit pointless to go over Bush's prospects and policies, really, so I'll talk more about his inclusion below.

#5 (5%): Sen. John McCain (Arizona): Perhaps the other big surprise of the evening was John McCain's comparatively poor showing. Then again, it was partially of his own doing, so maybe that's not entirely surprising. Since the rather "heated" 2000 Republican presidential primary, McCain has been seen as something of an outsider, and his public friendship with 2004 Democratic Presidential candidate Senator John Kerry (that resulted in several rumors that had the latter asking the former to be his running mate) only served to put him squarely in the "No" column for many Republican voters. In fact, the most common appellation given to John McCain is that of "maverick Senator," which is a little misleading since he is really rather conservative on the "important" party issues. His far less common but more public disagreements with the leadership (and notably with Bush) are the reason he receives this tag. In the eyes of many moderate and some liberal voters, this is a good thing. In the eyes of many conservative voters, this is a bad thing. This partially explains why his showing was not so wonderful with the staunchly pro-Bush/Frist Tennessee Republican voting bloc (although voters from other states did participate). However, since Bush's victory in the 2004 election, McCain has tried to reinsinuate himself with the White House to get the real conservative credibility he thinks he needs for a 2008 run. Much was made of a recent personal telephone call that McCain placed to Bush to let him know that he was standing by him in his current period of troubles. This was certainly a welcome respite for Bush (who has yet to make any public comments on the call) who has faced several minor revolts from Congressional Republicans since the Harriet Miers SCOTUS debacle that eventually resulted in Samuel Alito's nomination and approval. Subsequent questions about the war in Iraq, the NSA wire-tapping scandal, Bush's proposed de facto amnesty (couched in the supposedly less offensive term "guest worker status") for illegal aliens from Mexico, and especially the hated Dubai World Ports deal have created a minor insurgency against Bush in this midterm election year where the theme among Congressional Republicans seems to be "every man for himself" in the quest not to lose control of either House to the Democrats.

In the run-up to this straw poll, McCain implored his potential supporters to cast a vote of confidence for Bush (to avoid any pretense of factionalism), which resulted in a third-place finish for the ineligible president. This strategy had two purposes: first, and more obviously, it makes McCain seem like he's really serious about supporting Bush in this "difficult time;" second, and somewhat less obviously, it's a helpful cover for the fact that McCain would not have won this poll anyway. The explicit rationale for his low ranking is the fact that he told his supporters to vote for Bush instead, which most of them presumably did. However, even if we grant that every single person who happened to cast a vote for Bush would have otherwise chosen McCain (which is surely not the case), it still only ties him with Mitt Romney. McCain has a lot going for him, though: he's a consensus-builder with a conservative voting record and a moderate public image. For the Republicans to win in 2008, the candidate is going to have to be someone who the public perceives as being removed from the tempestuousness and inefficacy of the current administration. Despite his recent good-will gestures toward Bush, McCain has that image. While this plays well with the general public (McCain is sometimes called "the most popular politician in America," which might be a stretch) it isn't a big selling point in the Republican Party...for now. If the Republicans do poorly in the Congressional elections, you'll see more defections away from the Bush camp and no matter what he actually says or does, I'm convinced that McCain will be seen as one of the leaders of this rebellion. I can potentially see McCain getting the 2008 nomination in that case, but it might not exactly spell success for the actual election, particularly if popular disdain for the Republican Party reaches the point I mentioned earlier. Still, McCain currently seems to be the best bet the Republicans have for capturing the hearts and minds of the general voting public. I wouldn't be at all surprised (or disappointed, I confess) to see a McCain/Romney ticket.

#6 (4%): Gov. Mike Huckabee (Arkansas): From the state of Clinton comes his successor Mike Huckabee. Huckabee had the distinction of being named one of America's best governors by Time Magazine and is also the head of the National Governors Association (a position formerly held by the likes Howard Dean, John Ashcroft, the aforementioned Bill Clinton, and Tommy Thompson, all of whom went onto various higher offices). He gained praise for his his warm reception of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina but became the subject of national derision when he temporarily lived in a trailer home while the Governor's Mansion was undergoing some repairs. Huckabee has also come under some criticism in Arkansas for the fact that he is constantly out of state on fact-finding missions that seem directly related to his quest for the presidency as well as his evangelism (although I guess the latter hasn't really hurt Bush any more than it has helped him). Huckabee is one to watch since he is prohibited from running again for the governorship and thus will have some time to kill on national affairs. Even so, that 4% number has to come up before something happens for him.

Prospects

Although there's a lot that can happen in the next two years, I can say with a large degree of certainty that I am confident that Bill Frist will not ultimately receive the Republican Presidential nomination for 2008. The reason for this is that if he were to receive the nomination, it would be almost meaningless, since he would never win the actual election. I think the Democratic ticket will probably consist of Hillary Clinton and former Virginia governor Mark Warner, although Al Gore is getting some mentions lately. The only pairing in the above list that I believe could beat a Clinton/Warner ticket would be McCain/Romney, mainly because of the more moderate, outsider public perceptions surrounding those two. Of course, I've been wrong before (I was sure Howard Dean would win the Democratic nomination for 2004 right up until John Kerry's victory) so maybe this will be giant egg on my face in 2 years. Only one way to find out, I guess.

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