Revising my earlier remarks on Sanford’s chances in a future presidential primary contest, I think that Ross is onto something when he imagines the possibility of a 2012 Sanford-Huntsman competition as a fruitful clash of rival visions. The 2008 primary race was not all that interesting as a contest of alternative conservative views, but what was interesting about it was that the cardboard-cutout, politically correct candidate in Romney won fewer votes than either of the two leading candidates most actively opposed and hated by conservative activists. Indeed, if you put together the votes won by McCain, Huckabee and Paul, who drew from all across the GOP and independent spectrum, they would constitute around 70% of all Republican primary votes, which means that the vast majority of participants in primary voting selected candidates known to be unacceptable to mainstream activists.
Romney with his three-legged stool won approximately 22%, which might have been higher had he not dropped out so early, but then had he won more support he would not have needed to drop out. This candidate who could tell activists what they wanted to hear had remarkably poor showings with state electorates. The results of the 2008 primaries suggest that candidates that do not meet an artificial movement standard of “purity,” however labored and phony that “purity” was in Romney’s case, are not necessarily unsuccessful with actual voters. It seems that it is the most conventional sort of conservative candidate with all of the built-in advantages who may have the greatest difficulty winning primaries rather than caucuses, which in turn suggests a weakness of such candidates with broader electorates.
Ideally, this would mean that candidates with heterodox or unconventional views on any number of policies will have more room to maneuver in the next election. Unfortunately, in practice GOP primary debates seem to be exercises in futile box-checking as the main rivals do their best to suppress everything about themselves that is remotely interesing, leaving it to the protest and marginal candidates to make all of the noteworthy statements. For the most part, Huckabee’s candidacy took off thanks to the freedom that his relative obscurity and marginal status at the beginning provided and his natural ability in the debates. It remains to be seen whether Huckabee can retain the same appeal should he run again with an eye to satisfying activists and donors.