Image: Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney
AP and Getty Images file
Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney. File photos.
updated 8/19/2011 10:51:55 AM ET 2011-08-19T14:51:55

It’s now three on a match atop the 2012 Republican presidential race, an inherently unstable dynamic that could singe each of the party’s leading contenders.

After a rapid-fire sequence of events, the race’s geometry has snapped into place, leaving a top tier of three major contenders: Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the somewhat flickering front-runner. As long as that three-way alignment holds, it probably benefits Romney. But if it shifts —most likely by Perry eclipsing Bachmann —Romney’s path quickly could become more treacherous.

Tea party Perry vs. establishment Perry

The GOP race has been clarified by a succession of closely bunched developments last weekend: Bachmann’s victory in the Iowa straw poll, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s subsequent decision to quit the race, and Perry’s entry from a position firmly on stage right. Taken together, these developments present the three main candidates with a new calculus of risks and opportunities.

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For Romney, the new alignment offers one clear advantage: the possibility that the voters least likely to support him will be splintered between two opponents rather than consolidating behind one. Both in his 2008 bid, and in early 2012 polling, Romney has run best with voters holding at least a four-year college degree and those who do not identify as evangelical Christians —what might be called the party’s managerial wing. Romney has always struggled with the party’s populist wing, composed mostly of evangelical Christians and Republicans without a college degree.

The Republican coalition now divides virtually evenly between the economically-focused managers and the culturally-conservative, viscerally anti-Washington populists.  In 2008, according to an ABC news cumulative analysis of exit polls, the GOP primary electorate split almost exactly in half between voters with and without a four-year college degree; likewise just under half of Republican voters (44 percent) identified as evangelical Christians.

Bachmann's campaign style questionable

Bachmann is an ideal opponent for Romney because she electrifies the populist voters most resistant to him, but remains a hard sell for most managers. Perry is a vastly bigger threat to Romney because Texas’ strong job-creation numbers gives him a much better chance than Bachmann of bridging the party’s two camps by attracting managerial Republicans. Yet Perry’s hard-right rhetoric and record (especially on social issues) makes it likely that he will still draw most of his support from the populist wing.

Story: Bachmann not even in the race

That dynamic creates the possibility that the populist voters most resistant to Romney will divide between Perry and Bachmann rather than uniting behind either. In theory, Romney could face a similar splintering of the managerial class if moderate former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman develops into a serious competitor. But Huntsman fizzled at the Iowa debate and hasn’t yet proven he will be a major factor.

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If the current dynamics hold, the number of populist votes Perry loses to Bachmann will vastly exceed the number of managerial votes Romney loses to Huntsman. That could allow Romney to squeeze past his rivals with plurality victories not only in states like Florida and Georgia closely divided between the two camps, but even in contests such as South Carolina or Iowa that tilt toward the party’s populist side.

Romney doesn't want to talk about Perry

That threat creates two instant imperatives for Perry. One is to maximize his reach into the managerial class. The other is to minimize Bachmann’s populist support. The two goals are somewhat inimical. The former requires Perry to reassure; the latter to rage. Of the two, probably the higher priority for Perry is preempting Bachmann. If she solidifies her credibility by winning Iowa, she will likely siphon away a substantial number of populist votes from Perry almost everywhere else. That could derail the Texas governor, which means he has more at stake in beating Bachmann in Iowa than conventional wisdom now assumes.

The best news for Bachmann this week is that Pawlenty’s departure removes the candidate most committed to a traditional strategy of winning Iowa through dogged grassroots organizing. But Perry’s entrance risks defining her ever more firmly as only an identity candidate, like Jesse Jackson or Mike Huckabee, mostly dependent on voters who feel a personal cultural connection to her. Those candidates can linger and sting —but they don’t win.

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Story: Perry's vulnerabilities with the right

At last week’s debate, Bachmann attacked Pawlenty’s record and then Romney’s health-care plan in language that showed she’s comfortable functioning as an ideological enforcer for the overlapping tea party and evangelical vanguard. Perry seems equally determined to channel the unfiltered conservative id on issues from climate change to the Federal Reserve Board. That double-barreled attack from the right could help Romney position himself as a moderate, benefiting him against President Obama if he wins the nomination. But Romney has already signaled that he will respond at least partly by moving right himself, as he did in the Iowa debate, by declaring that he would reject tax increases matched even 10-1 with spending cuts.

The GOP race’s emerging three-way dynamic virtually assures that the party’s nominee in 2012 will run on an agenda to the right of any nominee since (at least) Ronald Reagan in 1980 —a prospect that may excite conservatives, and hearten nervous Democrats, in equal measure.

The article, "Romney's Advantage: Will Perry, Bachmann Divide the Voters Most Resistant to Him," first appeared in the National Journal.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

Video: A lot can change in a week

  1. Closed captioning of: A lot can change in a week

    >>> difference a week makes, this time last friday, the gop field consisted of mitt romney and a crew of republicans fighting for second billing. then michele bachmann grabbed a big win in ames, and tim pawlenty dropped off. all of that happened in just the last seven days. to where will we stand in the next seven days. with me now, nbc political reporter h -- it feels like he's always been with us. if he entered like a ball of fire, and then there were some things he had to say that got the establishment a little worried.

    >> the president said i needed to watch what i say, mr. president, actions speak louder than words.

    >> i don't know what you all would do to them in iowa, but we would treat them pretty ugly down in texas .

    >> it's a theory that is out there, it's got some gaps in it, but texas would teach both creationism and --

    >> a lot of people in texas know rick perry but a lot of people outside of texas don't necessarily know who he is. rick perry has got essentially two paths to the nomination, he could play in two brackets, he could play in this tea party brackets where he goes against michele bachmann , either way , he's trying to be the anti-romney. he's got to ally some of the fears of the establishment. you see karl rove and all these other people come out against that kind of a comment. he's got to try to straddle the line, you saw him have a little bit more muted tone in new hampshire, he gave a pretty business friendly speech to a business friendly audience.

    >> part of his appeal in a way is the kind of straight talker, no apologies, i call them how i see it.

    >> let's talk about that. it seems like every day this week, it was paul ryan , maybe, then it was chris christie , was he conducts focus groups , turns out he wasn't conducting focus groups for 2012 . what does that tell us about what the republican --

    >> mitt romney has been running since 2008 , he's been running since 2006 for the presidency. they still haven't come around for him. he still has an issue to win over that establishment, why? because of health care . we saw a little bit of that with his harping on people on his ethnic name backgrounds. they're still not pleased with him. they're still waiting for this white flight , but within a month, there's white night , they're probably going to have to choose between perry and rom any. .

    >> in 2008 , fred thompson , the former senator, he was going to ride to the rescue, in 2004 , remember wes clark? the white nigknights are not always what they are cracked up to be. but michele bachmann has kind of disappeared. she's trying to get herself back into the conversation.

    >>> now she's coming back.

    >> that's the point, who would have thought we would have ever said michele bachmann 's having a hard time getting attention. but let's think about this for a second. she had dialled down her rhetoric, she had propelled to the top in iowa, she was able to kind of coast there. she peaked in ames, and she really was able to do what she could there. but the fact of the matter remains, now are we going to start to see her go back to some of that far flung rhetoric.

    >> it is dangerous if she does, because then she looks like she's not electable. and that's the whole reason why she's dialled it back. and you know it wasn't just the irs, yesterday she mentioned enron and how likening the federal government to enron. that's going to play well with the base, it's going to fire up a lot of folks, but when you look at the literal compare son of that, it's not a lil' trat comparison, she said the sheriff's going to come knock and your door, the sheriff isn't going to come knock on your door. but the fact is, people are upset with the fed, they're upset with the government, upset with washington but that kind of rhetoric maybe goes too far and makes her look unelectable.

    >> i will be reading as soon as i get off the air, first reads, everyone else should be reading it. you've got a preview.


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