Iowa Straw Poll: Republican Field Faces Tough Test in Rust Belt

The Republicans’ biggest problem heading into 2012? Their candidates will tank in the Rust Belt, where the election will be decided.

From left: David Peterson, CBS News / AP Photos; Evan Vucci / AP Photos; Jim Cole / AP Photos

The GOP wags who watched the fisticuffs in the Iowa straw poll with an eye on the Electoral College in the November 2012 election can do the math, following the swoon of Tim Pawlenty and the surge of Michele Bachmann. And they don’t like what they see.

The goal is not to be the man or woman who charms the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary electorate next year. The goal is to defeat the potent, lavishly financed incumbent, Barack Obama.

The strongest Republican Electoral College path to victory is to attract the hefty young Catholic male vote in the Rust Belt—Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota (home to both Pawlenty and Bachmann). The winning candidate will also have to hold on to enough of the young female Catholic vote in the Rust Belt, as well as in North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, to help keep the default Democratic lead among female voters below 14 percent.

The Republicans’ best hope, on paper, then, would be to choose a young, Catholic candidate out of the Rust Belt, and that describes Rick Santorum, 53, of Pennsylvania or Thaddeus McCotter, 45, of Michigan. Yet neither of them is anywhere close to the top tier of the field.

In truth, the results of the Ames Straw Poll are decidedly unpromising for the Rust Belt on Election Day, a mere 15 months away.

Mitt Romney, 64, is a much older plutocrat from no particular place other than luxury—Massachusetts? New Hampshire? Michigan? Nevada? California?—with a fortune of at least $250 million and a long record of hedging policy issues that are fundamental to the GOP in the 21st century, such as taxes, health care, and manufacturing growth. The best indication of Romney’s troubles so far is the joke going around that the reason he speculated so early on a running mate like Chris Christie of New Jersey or Marco Rubio of Florida is that he's sensitive to the need for a Republican on his ticket.

Rick Perry, 61, of Texas is also older; he is also a fervent evangelical Christian with little sense of proportion about his associations. Just prior to announcing his candidacy in South Carolina on Saturday, Perry joined with the American Family Association (AFA) in a tent revival so large it was called “Prayerapalooza” and required Houston’s Reliant Stadium. What surprises here is that Perry knows full well that the AFA is called a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its bizarre intolerance toward homosexuals and other minorities. In his rise to the governorship, Perry also did not repudiate the praise of extremely separatist groups such as the League of the South and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Can a man who uses cheap talk about secessionism do well campaigning up North, in places like Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Detroit?

Bachmann, 55, enjoyed success in Ames largely on the basis of the fact that she is a native of Waterloo, Iowa. Left unanswered for another day is the peculiar fact that she worshiped at an evangelical Lutheran church in Minnesota that boasts of its anti-Catholic prejudices. Bachmann has many strengths as a colorful campaigner, but little of her rhetoric so far will give her an advantage in the cautious parishes of the Rust Belt.

The remainder of the Republican field does little to help the GOP’s Electoral College calculus against the president.

Newt Gingrich, 68, called “Fat Elvis” by House members, is older and not much interested in more than performing a toneless soliloquy about himself. Ron Paul, 72, is much older, and not much engaged in more than libertarian fustiness; he also seems to pale beside his vivacious son, Sen. Rand Paul. Herman Cain, 66, is at best a dabbler in GOP policy, a talk-show provocateur in his element with a hot mike before a righteous crowd. Gary Johnson, 58, former governor of New Mexico, is another quiet libertarian who offers little to ponder and prefers extreme sports to campaigning. Finally, Jon Huntsman Jr., 51, when he isn’t being a cipher, is mostly a mini-me of Romney, with the distinction that Huntsman’s father is a stealthy plutocrat who seems to act through his son like a puppeteer.

So far, the GOP is not constructing a candidate who can prosper in the states in which the 2012 election will turn. And the two major candidates, Romney and Perry, fail to deliver outside their own narrow, predictable records. Romney’s governorship in deeply blue Massachusetts is a waste and provides no momentum in the heartland, especially given his role in leveraged buyouts that helped transfer America’s manufacturing jobs to Asia. Perry’s governorship in red Texas is equally a waste, as the GOP hardly needs a hog-calling country parson lite from West Texas to carry the Old South. How does Perry go North with the shopworn baggage of Johnny Reb superiority and an unapologetic evangelical paternalism? There are other, more difficult roads to the 270 electoral votes needed for victory, and the party could still find its way there. But for the moment, with only five months until the first January sounding, the GOP is feeling an undeserved cockiness, and the Obama reelection campaign is showing an unwarranted nervousness.