Yesterday Politico's Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin penned a piece on the growing divide between the Inside-the-Beltway Republicans and all the other Main Street Republicans out there. I don't want to read too much into that. After all, there was a similar divide in the Democratic Party in terms of a winning position on the Iraq War after losing the 2004 presidential election.* And 2008 isn't yet a distant memory. Though the divide wasn't necessarily issue-based, the intra-party division over the question of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton was very real. My point here is that these apparent divisions can quickly take a backseat to the greater goal of winning elections. A schism in 2009 isn't the same as a divided Republican base in 2012.
But this isn't really about a divided base. This is about party elites versus its rank and file membership. Again, electoral goals can make strange bedfellows, but they can also get all or most of a party on the same page with a startling quickness. I'm not, then, as concerned with the notion of an irreconcilable division within the Republican Party in the context of the 2012 presidential nomination race so much as I'm enthralled as a political scientist who studies these nominations by the rarity the political occurrence. There has not been this kind of battle for the party since the Ford-Reagan nomination race in 1976.
That race, though, occurred while the post-reform nomination process was solidifying; it wasn't forty years after the fact as will be the case in 2012. And that's largely why I shot down the idea of a "Sarah Palin against the party" run to the GOP nomination. Reagan didn't succeed in 1976 and no Republican nominee has risen to the nomination in any way other than going through the elite level of the party first in the time since. But...
As I've said, and as Nate Silver said just yesterday, Palin possesses the type of grassroots-level enthusiasm to make it interesting in the same way that Reagan did. And that just isn't something we get to witness all that often within the Republican Party: an elite versus rank and file battle.
Will that happen? I don't know, but it will be fun to see whether it materializes. We don't often get the chance.
*Of course the difference between what is happening with the GOP right now and what happened with the Democrats during the earlier part of this decade is that the war issue kept moving closer and closer to the anti-war protesters position. For the GOP, the immigration issue is a bit more muddled: respondents would rather the level of immigration stay where it is or drop, but generally like the idea of immigration. The situation is similar for taxes. On gay marriage, though, things are moving away from the (at least vocal rank and file) members of the party.
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