I hate trying to predict presidential elections. The elections aren’t until November, and the reality of electoral politics is that any number of surprising things can happen between now and then. Most victories and defeats in electoral politics appear inevitable in hindsight, especially when certain clusters of predictions are eventually proved correct. And finally, when you factor in the incentive that the media has for overblowing conflict, you’re left with a gluttonous landscape that can ensnare you and from which it is hard to step back. So in lieu of a prediction, here is what you need to know to be up to speed with the Republican primaries.
If we consider the field of candidates from before the primaries began until now, the overarching narrative that emerges is a fight for attention between the moderate and fringe voices in the Republican Party, and by extension, a question of what it means to be an American conservative. The Tea Party movement became a major force in American right wing politics when it helped regain the majority for the Republicans in the House of Representatives in the 2010 congressional elections. They’ve now kind of fizzled out, but their legacy is the confused anger – occasionally rage – at government coming out of Republicans.
The question of the past several months, then, seems to be whether the momentum of this anger from the right can carry over in the Republican primaries and through to the general election at a national level. The short answer seems to be no, but: while certain candidates who can be said to represent the legacy of that movement are gaining national attention in these primaries, they have yet to prove themselves capable of attracting national votes. The long answer is a bit more complicated.
The current frontrunner, former Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, seems to owe his popularity to being appealing to the broadest cross-section of the Party’s most active supporters. That’s in spite of his occasional tone-deafness when it comes to his wealth. For example, when asked recently whether he was a fan of NASCAR, he said that while he doesn’t follow NASCAR “as closely as some of the most ardent fans,” he has “some friends who are NASCAR team owners”. Mistakes like these have haunted his campaign and made it easier for more conviction-filled, angrier candidates like archconservative Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, to gain traction and make victory for Romney that much less certain.
Santorum’s conviction is his most saleable quality as a candidate precisely because it’s a quality that appears absent (or perhaps nascent) in Romney. If Romney had this quality, I’d say this primary would’ve been decided weeks ago. Santorum is able to get away with saying some pretty abhorrent things largely because he says them with such conviction. On Obama’s views on abortion, Santorum had this to say: “I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say, ‘no, we [the federal government] are going to decide who are people and who are not people,’” indirectly referring to the superseded three-fifths clause of the US Constitution that said slaves were three-fifths of a person. Romney might be tone-deaf and that might be precisely why he loses if he goes up against Barack Obama, but statements like that make it impossible for Santorum to be a viable national candidate.
The other two candidates nipping at Romney’s heels are Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Representative from Texas Ron Paul. Despite the damage they were doing to Mitt Romney’s campaign (especially in January), like Santorum, neither of these two have the same national appeal as Romney. As much as Gingrich presents himself as a reformed Catholic (he converted in 2009) and expresses weak remorse over his past adulterous behaviour, he will only have marginally increased support from women. That being said, I suspect he’s locked down the pro-moon base vote. Ron Paul’s desire to reduce the power of the Executive branch to the lowest it’s been in over 150 years is probably not going to win him any support from either party. It’s especially bizarre how Ron Paul has managed to gain the support of liberals who are willing to compromise on everything else if it means an isolated foreign policy and an end to the war on drugs.
So, I hope that was marginally useful. Even though we’re down to four candidates, the field is still eccentric and the Republican Party still can’t shake off the appearance of being dysfunctional – but this is hardly new. Romney is leading, having marginally edged out a win against Santorum in Michigan (Romney’s home state) and thoroughly defeated him in Arizona. At the time of writing, Super Tuesday is coming up and while I don’t think we’ll see any surprises there, I also don’t want people to think I’m making predictions.