The first GOP presidential primary won’t take place for more than two years, but—this suddenly struck me--there’s already an unambiguous frontrunner: Rick Perry. I reason as follows:
Item: Money. The Governor of Texas has already proven himself a master fundraiser. It’s true that Chris Christie would have access to big money in New York while Jeb Bush would be able to tap into the network that his father and brother established. But nobody will be able to outraise Rick Perry, who will have all the money he needs and then some to fight the primary campaign.
Item: Texas. Perry will start with the support of the biggest red state in the country, a very large political fact. Chris Christie? It’s not at all clear that in a general election he could carry his home state of New Jersey. Jeb? He’s been a former governor for a good long time now. Could he carry Florida? Who knows? Could Scott Walker carry the purple state of Wisconsin? Could Bobby Jindal carry Louisiana, where his approval ratings have fallen lately?
Item: The early primaries. The Republican National Committee may adjust the schedule—it already seems certain to reduce the number of televised debates—but, for the present, it appears that the earliest primaries will take place in 2016 in the same states in which they took place the last time around.
Iowa? Evangelicals and cultural conservatives dominate the primary process—so much so that Mike Huckabee defeated the much, much better funded Mitt Romney in 2008 and -- although an accurate vote wasn’t announced until several weeks after the primary took place -- Rick Santorum defeated Romney all over again in 2012. Perry will command evangelical support. In New Hampshire, I suppose I’d make Chris Christie the favorite.
New Hampshire primary voters tend to like wise-guy mavericks, and the same kinds of people who enabled John McCain to defeat George W. Bush in 2000 may well support Christie in 2016. But Christie will find himself dividing the libertarian vote with Rand Paul, while Perry will once again command the support of evangelicals. His opposition to gun control will also give him a portion of the libertarian vote. It's perfectly plausible to suppose that Perry would finish in a strong second place.
South Carolina? Perry’s a fellow southerner, a fellow true believing conservative, a fellow evangelical, and a former military man--never forget that Perry served almost five years in the U.S. Air Force. Perry's support in South Carolina will prove so solid that other candidates might as well just give the state a miss.
Going into Florida, then, Perry will have won two of the first three primaries and will have plenty of money to spend in the state’s big and expensive media markets. If he wins in Florida, which he could very well do—here he’ll want to focus on the Texas record of economic growth, a record neither New Jersey, Wisconsin, nor any other state could match—then the primary process could be all but over. Yes, I’m leaving out Marco Rubio. But with his support for comprehensive immigration reform having done massive damage to his standing among conservatives—see, for example, “Marco Rubio’s Iowa Slide” by NRO’s Robert Costa—I’m starting to doubt that Rubio will even run, preferring instead to bide his time, waiting for 2020 or 2024. (Or for the vice presidential nomination. We could do worse than Perry-Rubio.)
Item: Yes, it’s true. Perry’s performance during the last primary season proved bad. Really, really bad. But I’ve interviewed Perry several times since, and each time he proved relaxed, humorous, on top of the issues, and wonderfully articulate. (Listen to Gov. Perry on a Ricochet podcast or watch him on Uncommon Knowledge.) When Perry explains that his problem last time was a lack of preparation and a bad back—he’d had serious surgery just before he began campaigning—I'm inclined to believe him. The real Rick Perry, I'm persuaded, isn’t the candidate we saw stumble and haplessly grope for words during the Republican debates last year. It’s the man who, for more than a dozen years now, has dominated the politics of the second-most populous state in the nation.
Lots can happen between now and the primaries—lots. Heck, Perry probably won't even declare his candidacy for months. And I don't mean to suggest that other likely candidates would prove at all deficient. Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, and, should he choose to run, Marco Rubio--each is remarkably articulate and accomplished. But winning the GOP nomination will require raising a bucket of money, capturing the support of the base as it already exists (and not as Rand Paul might hope to remake it in coming years, by adding libertarian-leaning Independents or Democrats), and building momentum in the earliest primaries.
The press may howl with derision--Rick Perry is at least as much of a Texan's Texan as George W. Bush. But the Governor of the Lone Star State already looks a lot like the man to beat.