Seeing as no-one really seems to know what is happening in the US Republican nomination race, I thought I'd chip in my $5 million Super PAC worth of thoughts.

So a couple of weeks ago I was pontificating away on National Radio's "On the Radar" slot about this, that and the other thing. In the course of my extended monologue, I told the world how excited I was about the (then) upcoming South Carolina Republican primary, as Mitt Romney's likely win there would virtually guarantee him the party's nomination and a match-up with President Obama in November.

Except having proclaimed my status as a political junky and an afficianado of US presidential matters, I forgot Mitt Romney's name. And then this happened.

So, following Newt Gingrich's win in South Carolina, I started fantasizing about a world in which the Republican Party is insane enough to make him their candidate for President of the United States. Newt, whose baggage has baggage? Could it be possible, I wondered, for a sitting President to win more than 90% of the popular vote? 

And then the Florida Primary happened.

Back on track, then. While Mitt may be the equivalent of Hi Bran breakfast cereal for many Republican voters - in that they only are swallowing him because they are told he will be good for them despite the lack of flavour and the distinctly unpleasant texture - he's got the money, the organisation and the opinion makers' backing. Those things tend to pay off in the long run, and Republican primary voters aren't stupid. Disproportionately fixated on issues like abortion, illegal immigration, and the creeping socialist takeover of private enterprise, yes. But stupid, no.

So Nevada rolled by, which always was Mitt's territory. But his win there started to lead to stories like this. And so on into Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota. 

Now, these always were trickier territories for Mitt. Minnesota and Colorado's contests were caucuses, for one thing. That requires motivated supporters prepared to give up a few hours for their man. And as I said before, for all his campaign's organisation and cash, Mitt isn't a candidate that inspires that kind of love in anyone beyond his immediate family. Missouri's primary also was a non-binding "beauty contest", so again you need to care a bit more than average to bother taking part in a vote with no binding force.

Furthermore, Minnesota and Missouri have large rural areas where Mitt's come-lately conversion from moderate Taxachussetts liberal to the true path of conservative righteousness doesn't play well. In fact, like they say in those parts, you can put antlers on a pig but it still won't quack like a duck. Or something.

All of which means Mitt probably expected to lose one, maybe even two, of these contests to one of his more conservative rivals. But still, I don't think anyone - much less Mitt himself - could have expected this result. Rick Santorum, the apparent flash-in-the-pan winner of the first caucus contest in Iowa, cleaning up all three states.

Who, you may well ask? Well, I'll wait while you google his name - Santorum. Now you're properly informed, can we start to imagine a world where this man challenges to be the next President of the USA?

No. We can't. For one thing, Santorum won not because lots and lots of Republicans like him, but rather because those Republicans who couldn't really get excited by Mitt decided not to take part. The Republican turnout in Colorado was about half that of Democrats, who caucused the same night to nominate Barak Obama as their candidate come November.

Of course, that fact is itself a real problem for Republicans. Remember that theirs is meant to be the party that is energised and motivated to take back the White House this year. And Colorado is going to be a crucial state in that battle - so if the Republican base there can't be bothered to even chose a candidate whilst Democrats turn out in twice the numbers to support their guy, then that augers poorly for their chances.

For another thing, a number of news stories happened to come together to generate a perfect storm of conservative christian angst. The 9th circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court case that had struck down a voter-initiated ban on gay marriage in California. An executive at a foundation that combats breast cancer resigned over her part in a decision (since rescinded) to stop giving money to fund breast cancer screening to Planned Parenthood (which also provides abortion services). The Obama administration sought to impose a rule that would require all health insurance plans to provide contraception as a part of their coverage.

Santorum is the poster-boy candidate for people who think such things really, really, really matter. And there are enough of them in the Republican Party, especially in places like those holding caucuses this week, to swing the decision towards him. But such issues won't continue to dominate the campaign. And beyond being the most christian and socially conservative candidate on offer, Santorum is still just the guy who lost his Senate seat in the crucial swing state of Virginia [ed: make that Pennsylvania] by some 18 percent -  the largest margin of defeat for an incumbent senator since 1980 and the largest losing margin for an incumbent Republican senator ever. Oh - and his name isn't even on the ballot for the Virginia primary, because he failed to get enough support to qualify.

So, we're back to the fact that Mitt has more money, better organisation and the opinion makers' backing. While the race may not always go to the swift, or the battle to the strong, you'd be a mug to bet against it. Yet the fact that every time he seems to be pulling away as the prohibitive frontrunner, something occurs to drag him back down, just goes to show how distinctly unimpressed large numbers of Republicans are with the prospect of him as their next President.

Combining this tepid-at-best support for Romney offsetting many Republican's near-visceral dislike of Obama's presidency with a slowly improving economic climate and the winding down of the US's recent military adventures, you start to think that the odds are beginning to look pretty good that Obama will see a second term in office. Hell, he even seems to have Clint Eastwood coming out to root for him. And anyone want to mess with that guy, even if he's about a million years old?

But hey - what would I know? I can't even remember the Republican frontrunner guy's name ... .

(One last thing - I mentioned in passing the recent appeals court decision striking down a ban on gay marriage in California. You'll probably read a bit about this in our media in the next couple of days. But it isn't as big a deal as will likely be made out. The court's ruling was on a pretty narrow basis ... not that there is a general right to gay marriage in the USA, but rather that because gay marriage had been legal in California (due to an earlier court judgment on the issue) it is unconstitutional to then take that right away from just gay people. Point being, it isn't a ruling that can help (say) a gay couple in Arkansas or Missouri get hitched ... and because it has minimal relevance outside of the California context, the Supreme Court may decide to leave it untouched. 

That said - hooray!!!!!)

Comments (11)

by Ben Curran on February 09, 2012
Ben Curran

It would be nice, just once I think, to have an American presidential election that didn't look like a train wreck.

by Toby on February 09, 2012
Toby

Andrew,

One minor point - Rick Santorum is from Pennsylvania, not Virginia, but yes both are going to be important swing states. Otherwise I think you've summed it up pretty well.

I think its telling that a number of plausible republican nominees (such as Mitch Daniels, Indiana's governor) have stayed out of the race, mainly I think because they understand that they are unlikely to be able to really connect with the degree of anger and the anti-establishment feeling that exists in the republican base right now. The result is that Romney, as the most plausible candidate, continues to be challeged by a series of flawed candidates who the conservative base hopes will turn out to be some kind of demi-Reagan, before realising that its not going to happen.

I think that Romney will be the nominee, and that eventually a lot of Republicans will settle for him, albeit reluctantly. I recall Bill Clinton once saying that Democrats want to fall in love, while Republicans just want to fall in line. You could see this happening in 2008 with a lot of Republicans pundits who had originally expressed grave fears for the soul of the republican party with John McCain as their nominee.

One guy who I think will be kicking himself is Tim Pawlenty, who pulled out early on after the Iowa straw poll, which was won by Michelle Bachmann. That seems a long time ago now.

by Andrew Geddis on February 10, 2012
Andrew Geddis

Toby,

Yes, well ... like I said, what would I know? Amendment made.

It is pretty hard to see how anyone but Romney could take this ... but it will be fought all the way to the end. And it isn't the same sort of contested primary as Obama went through with Hilary Clinton, which ultimately strengthened his candidacy (as it would have hers, had she won the nomination). This is the political equivalent of a racehorse trying to win the derby whilst junk yard dogs are trying to hamstring it.

As for Bachmann winning the Iowa straw poll way back in ancient history, I did get it right when I said "I'm pretty certain the world is not yet so insane that she could ever be nominated as the Republican Party's choice for President."

by John Stroup on February 10, 2012
John Stroup

The 9th circuit has seen fit to overturn what even the granola state had seen as a too liberal policy. Judicial activism has pushed for what the people had seen as extreme, a case of California exercising reason, over ruled by the court. No wonder Newt has called for this court to be held accountable.

The run off for the Republican candidate is a search.

Not just for someone who can defeat Obama, but the candidate that most represents American ideology and aspirations, as Obama has proved to be lacking. They are mulling, contemplating, and deliberating on who can deliver.

The problems that the US faces [and by proxy, us all] are considerable. The care and thought that is going into the selection process is reflective of the significance of this election. I am not alone in believing that this may be the last chance to get it right, as another Obama term would be devastating. So, I’m not in agreement with you as the process being chaotic and helter-skelter.

The greens, with their “above the law social responsibility to set the record straight” created more chaos in the last NZ election, and they only had a few short weeks. Just imagine what they’d get up to if they had more time.

With the importance of this election, the US voters want to get it right.

by Andrew Geddis on February 12, 2012
Andrew Geddis

"The greens, with their “above the law social responsibility to set the record straight” created more chaos in the last NZ election, and they only had a few short weeks."

I'm afraid I don't understand what this means. Can you expand?

"With the importance of this election, the US voters want to get it right."

Except, of course, we're not dealing with "the US voters". We're dealing with voters in the Republican primaries/caucuses. And, while turnout in South Carolina was higher than 2008, the numbers participating in the contest since then (Florida, Utah, Colorado, Minnessota) have been markedly down. Which makes me wonder that while many do think Obama has not been a good president, they also think the alternatives on offer are not particularly appealing. Hence the jumping from one candidate to the other, in the hope they might just turn out the be "the one" ... only to find they ain't.

by John Stroup on February 12, 2012
John Stroup

"The greens, with their “above the law social responsibility to set the record straight” created more chaos in the last NZ election, and they only had a few short weeks."

This is reference to the shenanigans of stickers on placards. Although there was no “direct” link to greens, a quick connection of the dots pretty well completes the picture. The rationale behind this was that they were “setting the record straight”, “correcting the record” or some other justification for unlawful activity.

Republican voters are US voters, are they not? Although they do not represent the whole US voter demographic, they do represent a US demographic.

 

by John Stroup on February 12, 2012
John Stroup

Perhaps some explanation: the primary process differs in the selection of the “opposition” leader [although they are not called that]. In the US, the primaries and caucuses are a general election that elects delegates that elects the nominee. The delegates are not “bound” to vote for a candidate by the general election results, but they follow the results of the election. Some state primaries are “open” where any one that wants to have a say in the process can. Some state primaries are "closed", where only voters affiliated with the Republican Party or declared Independents, [neither Republican nor Democrat] are allowed to vote. So, even though the delegates are the ones to actually elect the candidate, the people elect the delegates that elect the candidate. Sounds complicated, but there is direct connection from the will of the electorate through to the candidate. This system was devised to accommodate associated logistical difficulties of a large country [physical size, mostly, and population size]. The candidate running for president against a seated or incumbent is not "promoted" by the party, he's elected.

I’m not sure how the “opposition” leader is selected here, recently, when Labor selected their leader, it was done via a caucus [party MPs] that had no connection to the electorate except that they were elected [excluding "list" MPs, which I'd like to do]. Do I have that right? So, if someone was popular with members of government [MPs] but unpopular with the electorate, they could still be selected?

by Andrew Geddis on February 13, 2012
Andrew Geddis

John,

I'm not entirely in agreement that a one-off attempted sabotage by a bunch of Green Party supporters really compares to the swings and roundabouts of the current primary process. But happy to agree to disagree.

With regards that primary process, I'm not disputing that the choosing of delegates does not bestow a mantle of democratic legitimacy on the nominee. (It's one of the reasons why the idea that, if there is no clear winner come Convention time, an outsider who did not contest any of the primary/caucuses could sweep in get nominated is a fantasy ... the idea of a major US Party nominating a person its members hadn't voted for is virtually unthinkable.) All I was pointing out is that the process this time around is not enthusing the voters (specifically, the Republican voters) as much as in 2008. And given that the Republicans need to turn their voters out in November to oust Obama, that is a problem.

(For those who are interested, the Washington Post has an interesting survey of the Republican primary race here.)

In New Zealand, individual parties decide how to elect their leaders through their own party rules. Labour/National do so on the basis of what their MPs want (i.e. caucus chooses ... even if the wider party membership would have chosen different). The Greens allow the general membership to choose the leaders via a delegate system. The ACT Party once had a general vote amongst the party membership, but then reverted to allowing the Party Board to choose.

by John Stroup on February 13, 2012
John Stroup

I do believe that the gravity of this election has not escaped the US electorate. I would say that the numbers turning out reflect the reflective nature of the electorate [not all running to a cliff, but deliberating].

The media is quick to point out that the selection of a "Repubilican" candidate is "chaotic, back and forth, destructive, etc." but I'd point out the 2008 Democratic race [Obama v Clinton] and how "at each others' throats" that race was, and utimately, gave us Obama [for better or worse].

The US system is different and understanding the differances is important.

So, yes, the leaders of parties are picked by themselves [ie MPs], so it is a rather insestuous [

  • designating or characterized by a relationship of exceptional closeness or interrelation, often one regarded as unproductive, unseemly, etc.: an incestuous community of expatriates] relationship.
by Andrew Geddis on February 13, 2012
Andrew Geddis

"The media is quick to point out that the selection of a "Repubilican" candidate is "chaotic, back and forth, destructive, etc." but I'd point out the 2008 Democratic race [Obama v Clinton] and how "at each others' throats" that race was, and utimately, gave us Obama [for better or worse]."

True ... but my take on the difference between 2008 and 2012 is that the Democrats had two candidates on offer they were pretty happy with, but weren't sure which was the better of the two. The differences between Romney/Santorum/Gingrich (not to mention Paul, who continues to get a not-risible level of support) are such that ping-ponging back-and-forth between them indicates a basic disatisfaction with the wares on offer. 

But, as I say, that's just my take. But you can laugh at me come November 7 (or 8 our time) as it's conclusively revealed I don't know what I'm talking about!

by John Stroup on February 13, 2012
John Stroup

I wouldn't go as far as saying "don't know",  many are scratching their heads on this one. And I won't laugh, much.

The Democrats had two candidates that weren't very different. If you read Claire's bit on "spectrum" of positions, you'd appreciate why the Republicans are are "looking" for the right choice.

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