Over at Greg’s place yesterday, I speculated that there’s a good chance that old-fashioned gay-bashing could be on its way to the GOP presidential nomination contest. Nomination races feature candidates who have very similar issue profiles and are otherwise difficult to choose between, which means that candidates have a strong incentive to differentiate themselves from the field by exaggerating small differences. I argued that issues surrounding sexual orientation would work well for one or more candidate: there’s still strong support for Christian conservative positions on the issue within the GOP primary electorate, but it might be hard for frontrunners to match rhetoric (and, perhaps, policy positions) out of fear of a general election population that doesn’t share those positions.

My question for today is: what else is a logical issue for GOP candidates to use to differentiate themselves?

I don’t think foreign policy is especially promising…it’s risky (because events could undermine a heterodox stance), and more basically it’s not all that likely that Republican voters really care about it. The exception, perhaps, is that someone could try to break out on (support of) torture. It’s not as good as sexual orientation; I doubt that there’s as much of a large conservative vote that cares a lot about it, while at the same time I’m not sure that frontrunners couldn’t just go along, since I’m not sure that the November electorate would mind a pro-torture position.

What else? Taxes is always promising; that’s what Pawlenty is trying, and of course Romney is going to match him. Is there room left for a Bachmann or a Santorum to carve out something different? I’m not sure. It would be interesting to see someone campaign explicitly against deficit mania (that is, saying that budget balancers are endangering tax cuts)…it would be interesting to see how wedded conservative voters are to balanced budget empty rhetoric along with deficit increasing policy choices. Newt has been running against the Fed recently; if he drops out relatively soon, will someone else (other than Ron Paul) make a play there?

I’m not sure what alternatives are available on the social issues side that fit the profile.

Any suggestions? I’d like to think that we should be able to predict this stuff.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

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Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.