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Why Rick Perry Would Be a Formidable Candidate (or Not)

Why Rick Perry Would Be a Formidable Candidate (or Not)

By Sean Trende - June 24, 2011


At some point in the next few weeks, Texas Gov. Rick Perry may announce whether he will seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. These are my three basic thoughts on a Perry candidacy:

1. He will be a very formidable candidate for the GOP nomination. Earlier this year, Weekly Standard columnist Jay Cost created a typology that broke down the GOP's previous presidential nominees into four categories, based upon previous elective experience: "Former runners-up," "Dominant figures," "Incumbent presidents" and "Other" (this category might also be called "Barry Goldwater"). Obviously, Perry doesn't fit into any of the three major categories. So using this typology, we might dismiss his odds of being the nominee, and instead gravitate toward Romney, the former runner-up.

But we can also sort the GOP nominees a different way. Consider the following chart:

I've eliminated the incumbent presidents altogether, since they are always re-nominated. When the GOP has had a credible constitutional officeholder running, that candidate typically wins the nomination (I count Bob Dole as a constitutional officeholder since "Senate majority leader" has grown into the role envisioned for vice president and president pro tempore). This makes sense, as these candidates typically have national networks of activists and fundraisers upon which to draw, which gives them advantages over candidates whose electoral experience is tied to a particular state. Twelve years ago, Newt Gingrich might have filled this vacuum, but I think he's too far removed from office -- and his tenure in office was too troubled -- to lay claim to this mantle today.

In the absence of a constitutional officeholder, the GOP has gravitated toward governors of the largest states: Thomas Dewey was governor of New York (then the most-populous state); Reagan was a former governor of California (the most populous), and George W. Bush was governor of Texas (in 2000, the third-largest in electoral votes and second-largest in population).

On three occasions, the GOP has opted for someone in the "other" category. But it has only done so when there hasn't been a constitutional officeholder running, or when the big-state governors have either not mounted serious bids or have self-immolated (as Nelson Rockefeller did in 1963, when he divorced his wife -- the mother of his four children -- and married a divorcee nearly 20 years his junior, who later gave birth to a child shortly before the decisive California primary).

In other words, Perry fits the profile for the type of candidate that typically wins the GOP nomination when a constitutional officeholder isn't in the running, and is the only one who fits it right now. He also happens to have some appeal to social, fiscal and foreign policy conservatives, and while he certainly has his weaknesses (more on that in a moment), he brings plenty of strengths to the table. He'll be plugged into the Houston/Dallas GOP money markets, which virtually guarantees that he'll be able to run a credible campaign. Finally, he has a pretty plain path to the nomination: Win, place or show in Iowa, pass on New Hampshire, win South Carolina, then sweep the border/Southern-heavy primaries on Super Tuesday.

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Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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