Extremism and the General Election

At the moment, many liberals are looking at the abysmal economy and saying to themselves, "It'll be OK. Rick Perry is an extremist nut, and once people learn that, he'll never win a majority." He'll be the next Barry Goldwater or George McGovern, nominees just too far out of the mainstream for the American electorate to stomach. Jonathan Bernstein says don't be so sure:

First, the general record on these things is that perceived ideological extremism hurts in presidential elections — but only by a few percentage points. If we're really in for a true double-dip recession, Barack Obama isn't likely to be saved by such things, and if the economy winds up hitting the upside of economists projections, he won't need to be saved by them.

What's more, there is still plenty of time for Perry to blunt charges of extremism by modifying his positions and, especially, emphasis. Yes, the Obama campaign has the debate footage saved and ready to deploy. And yes, it will make no sense at all when Perry says (if he wins the nomination) that despite still believing what he's said in the past, he remains committed to delivering every dollar of Social Security benefits to absolutely everyone who has ever paid into the system. It won't make sense — but if the economy is awful and Obama is at 35% approval, it won't matter because no one will be listening to the president any more.

The interesting question here is what happens if the economy is improving -- not great yet, but not in a double-dip recession. Could Perry successfully make that move to the center?

Pretty much every presidential race features the partisans of at least one candidate trying to convince voters that their opponent is much more radical than he appears. But for that case to be compelling, you need a couple of things. First, you need the raw material out of which you can construct the picture. Nothing beats the candidate's own words, so they can be quoted, replayed, and revisited over and over. Second, you need backup from the campaign itself. A good presidential campaign chooses one primary message about their opponent, and repeats it thousands of times. This message inevitably becomes one of the dominant themes of campaign coverage.

So if we're wondering whether Americans will consider Perry too much of an extremist to elect, the most important question is whether that does indeed become the Obama campaign's primary line of attack on him. And it seems like the most obvious choice for them to make. And yes, it will be a pretty harsh campaign. Not necessarily unfair or inaccurate, but arguing that Rick Perry is someone Americans should be very afraid of. It's not going to be a particularly hard case to make.

There are other factors working against Perry, including the fact that he is, on the surface anyway, so reminiscent of George W. Bush. As Rolling Stone pointed out, last night Perry "more than occasionally sounded like a bad George W. Bush flashback, as when he summed up his plan for the the budget: 'cappin' it, cuttin' it, and gettin' a balanced budget amendment.' (Former Bush speechwriter David Frum tweeted that "Perry is like Will Ferrell doing Bush, but on half speed.')" I'm just waiting for Jon Stewart to break out the "Heheheh."

That may sound like partisanship talking, but the fact is that Bush's approval ratings were abysmal by the time he left office. By the end of 8 years, Americans had just had it with the guy. The resemblances between him and Perry in manner, voice, and appearance may not be substantive, but they can add up to a gut feeling (speaking of Bush) that there's just something about Perry that makes you uneasy.

If we're in another recession, none of this will matter. But consider that Americans know almost nothing yet about Rick Perry (or Mitt Romney, for that matter). The Obama campaign is going to have ample opportunity to teach them.