Governor Sarah Palin's shock resignation last week prompted yet another round of colorful punditry on the woeful state of the Republican Party. If Palin does seek the GOP nomination in 2012, not only will she have an exceedingly short political resume, but she won't have a public office from which it launch her campaign. Interestingly, she's not alone. Two other candidates high on most politics watchers' lists - Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney - won't be in elected office either. (Pawlenty recently announced that he would not seek a third term as Minnesota Governor in 2010.) Here at the Gaggle we started wondering: Does it really matter if a candidate doesn't hold public office when he or she takes a stab at the presidency?
Veteran GOP consultant Charlie Black doesn't think incumbency is a decisive factor in determining the success of Presidential candidates. There are examples to illustrate either side of the argument. Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton all held office when they were elected, but Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter each won after they'd finished stints in their respective State Houses. Black says there are some advantages to being a free agent, namely that a candidate can concentrate fully on the campaign without having to worry about their day job. Having to perform official duties is a bigger concern for Governor than for Senators. Governors come under more pressure to attend to matters in their states. Black recalls that one-time Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis kept working as Massachusetts Governor several days a week through most of the campaign, which hindered his ability to make news or visit key states. Senators, on the other hand, have much more freedom to skip votes and committee hearings while they campaign. Senators can sometimes use their national platform to weigh in on critical debates in an election. But that can cut both ways: McCain's response to the economic meltdown in the closing stages of last year's election appeared erratic and ill-conceived next to Obama's cautious steps. The Arizona Senator paid a hefty price for it.
In the 2008 cycle, GOP operative Mike DuHaime worked for both Rudy Guiliani, who was not in office, and incumbent John McCain. "Incumbents are usually more successful in raising money," DuHaime says, and Charlie Black agrees. "Governors all seem to have an active fundraising organization in place. Particularly if you are the Governor of a big state, like George W. Bush was, it's a big advantage," Black said. But DuHaime thinks the advantages of incumbency pretty much end there. "Voters look at the resume as a whole," he says. If that's true, supporters of Governor Mitt Romney should be feeling pretty chuffed right now. Romney's impressive private-sector record of turning companies around has the potential to pay dividends if grim economic times continue. Alex Gage was Romney's pollster during his 2008 bid for the GOP nod. He says that Romney's time as Massachusetts Governor "never really came up" in their internal polls. Rather, voters responded to Romney's managerial experience as a whole. "He had a deeper resume," Gage says. "Serving as governor was one data point in his wealth of management experience." Gage also thinks that of the possible 2012 contenders, Romney has another ace up his sleeve: He's been there before. Gage says it's hard for candidates who haven't run before to truly appreciate what it takes.
Still, for all the hypothesizing about the importance of holding office, there will be only one incumbent that matters in 2012: Barack Obama. "It is almost always true that when an incumbent president runs for re-election, the election is about them and their record. It's usually a sort of referendum on the first term of the President," says Black. Obama is widely popular, but it's still early days for his Presidency. The jury is out on the success of his stimulus package and financial reforms, and the big fights over health care and energy are yet to come. Obama need only look at his predecessor to realize that sometimes the presidency is shaped almost entirely by unexpected events -- like terrorist attacks and hurricanes. Perhaps that's why GOP message guru Mark McKinnon remains bullish on his party's prospects. "If you hold office right now, it's all bad news." McKinnon wrote in an email to your Gaggler. "Programs are being cut and taxes are being raised. The only thing people who hold office now can successfully run for in 2012 is the border."