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UVA political scientist analyzes 2012 election, looks toward 2016 GOP nominee

Political scientist James Ceaser at the 2014 Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville
Political scientist James Ceaser at the 2014 Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville
(c) Rick Sincere 2014. All rights reserved.

James Ceaser teaches politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and is co-author (with Andrew Busch and John J. Pitney, Jr.) of the recent book, After Hope and Change: The 2012 Elections and American Politics.

Ceaser spoke about After Hope and Change at the 2014 Virginia Festival of the Book on March 19, participating in a panel discussion on “The United States in the World” with political scientist Stephen Farnsworth, historian Robert Rakove, and former ambassador Francis Rooney. The panel was moderated by Bob Gibson, a former political reporter with The Daily Progress.

After the panel, Professor Ceaser answered questions from the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner about lessons learned in the 2012 presidential campaign, the outlook for factional divisions in the Republican Party, and who the GOP presidential nominee might be in 2016.

'A different era'

In summing up his book, he explained that “After Hope and Change makes a comparison between the 2008 election, where 'hope and change' was the theme, where enthusiasm and uplift accompanied Obama's election, and 2012, which was kind of a letdown, [with] no inspiring theme [and] little enthusiasm.”

Those differences, he said, were recognized “by the Obama people themselves. They were contentious to win but” they knew that the electorate "had moved into a different era.”

The defining figure “was no longer the Obama of 2008,” Ceaser explained. “It was Obama elected in 2012 as a politician, not a cultural or moral leader of the whole world.”

One of the lessons learned from the 2012 election is that “the Democratic Party, as a base, has a slight advantage over the Republican Party,” he said. “I think that was confirmed. The Republicans went in thinking this was an election they could and should win, and they lost it.”

Swingers

Ceaser cautioned, however, that there is “still enough of a swing group in the American population that any election can swing to either party, given how people process the events under which they live. We may be seeing in 2014 a swing back to the Republicans. Who knows what will happen in 2016?”

What 2012 teaches us, he noted, is that the Democratic base has a slight advantage over the GOP but “enough people who still swing to make every election a struggle, the outcome of which is unknown.”

Divided Republicans

Factional differences between libertarians and social conservatives have been “part of the Republican Party for a long time,” Ceaser pointed out. “It all goes under the label of conservative, but you pick up the hood and you see that conservatism means different things to different people – hence conflict.”

This has historically “been the way things are,” he said, “but basically the Republicans have been able to come together sufficiently because of their opposition to the Democratic project to hang together, more or less.”

He warned, however, that people should not “expect the Republican party to be holding hands as various pieces are opposed on many issues.”

He pointed out that “perhaps the greatest division within the Republican party has been on foreign affairs,” and that it is significant that “the libertarian position [is] closer to a sort of softer isolationism than the rest of the party.”

GOP's 2016 nominee

Within this context, Ceaser has some general predictions about what to expect during the 2016 GOP presidential nomination contest.

“The libertarian candidate will do well, that is, maybe even have a plurality over a spread field but in the end will not have enough support to achieve the nomination, he said.

Ceaser said the 2016 candidate will not be someone who “will be very surprising,” but rather will be someone like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, or Florida Senator Marco Rubio.

The nominee, he predicted, will be “someone who has some elements of respect for libertarians but is not himself libertarian.”

What about Rand Paul?

If Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is a candidate, he added, “he'll do quite well.”

Expressing some admiration for Paul's political skills, Ceaser offered that “it's one of the more amazing stories of American politics: This young senator from Kentucky, whose father was regarded in many ways as an extremist, [yet] Rand Paul has been able to take this movement and make it into something a lot larger in a very short period of time and acquire status as a significant player in the Republican party.”

Rand Paul, he concluded, is a “potential very strong candidate, even though I don't think he'll be over the top in 2016.”

The complete audio version of this interview will soon be available as a podcast on Bearing Drift radio, “The Score.”