With the GOP debate season winding down and primary season revving up, the GOP candidates are falling into roles that will likely decide their success in winning the Republican Party nomination.
Throughout this past summer, the GOP debates have consistently brought us wildly entertaining television. The race for the Republican Party presidential nomination started out a little bit like this, but as the economy failed to improve and populist movements gained momentum, spectators started taking the candidates more seriously. Now, with a few significant primaries out of the way, Republican voters are left with four candidates all asserting that they can do a better job than President Obama. I sat down with Jack Pitney, Professor of Government at CMC, to determine exactly where each of these candidates stand. His assessment was a little gloomy.
Mitt Romney has played the role of the stable candidate since the beginning of the race. We all assumed that he had his sea legs, partly because of the amount of time he’s spent at yacht clubs. Throughout the debates, Romney has given a solid performance and has offset the hype tactics used by his fellow candidates with a calm, collected and reliable-looking demeanor.
As Professor Pitney said, “He doesn’t make Republican pulses race, but he can speak coherently without making too many mistakes and there’s something to be said for that.”
Mitt Romney’s widely acknowledged advantage is that, compared to his colleagues, he is moderate in every sense of the word. Professor Pitney pointed out that Santorum and Gingrich will likely continue to highlight Romney’s center leanings by criticizing his past with public health care, and that this small but catching point may continue drawing complaints that Romney is not “right” enough. His challenge in upcoming debates and along the campaign trail will be to “convince people that he’s going to be a conservative president,” according to Pitney.
Romney’s consistent performances and low number of “Oops” moments makes him the easiest candidate for the average Republican voter to support. His disadvantages, however, stem from his highbrow image, his arguably “detached” point of view, and his inability to rile up a crowd. While his fellow candidates use catchphrases and hot topics to gain applause, Romney receives some crowd support, but is never the star of the show. Though it doesn’t seem that there is much standing between him and the general election, Romney will have to fight to stay in the spotlight and remind voters of the importance of being predictable and, frankly, a little plain.
Ah, Newt. He has the name of an amphibian, the stature of the Pillsbury Dough Boy, and the image of… well, an unpopular politician. Though people were in disbelief when Newt Gingrich announced his candidacy, his campaign has seen some bursts of popularity. At the end of January, Gingrich was tied with Romney in the Gallup national polls, but again his volatile popularity bottomed out and his approval rating now sits two points above underdog Ron Paul’s, and understandably so.
Gingrich’s time in politics (and as a husband) does not reflect well on him, especially now that he is trying to present himself as the next President of the United States. But, regardless of the ties between the right wing and religion, it’s not Gingrich’s moral character that alienates most Republican voters – though it certainly makes liberals grimace. It’s his history of inflammatory remarks and bipolar political strategy. In the words of Professor Pitney, “Gingrich is destroyed.”
Though he portrays himself as being a poster boy for academics of the right wing, Professor Pitney says that Gingrich’s past contradicts both his academic capability and his supposedly super-conservative ideology. Gingrich’s contribution to the squabbling going on between Republican Party candidates has led people like ABC News consultant, Matthew Dowd, to admit that, “[Obama] is also benefiting from the fact that the Republican nomination process looks like a circus right now and he gets a benefit from, ‘Is that who we are going to have to pick from?’”
Even though this presumably leads voters to settle for consistent Mitt Romney, Gingrich would theoretically have to prove his consistency and stability in order to even be viewed on the same plane as Romney. In reality, however, this change is nearly impossible this far along in the race and in the politician’s career. As Professor Pitney said, “Gingrich has been unpopular since the mid-1990’s and that’s not about to change – he’s said a number of things that people are not willing to forgive.”
Gingrich’s strong supporter base and his pull with minorities via lenient illegal immigration policies could potentially give him that final push for the nomination. But although the religious right may capture a portion of the Hispanic voting bloc, Gingrich is not likely to garner support based on that one connection.
Santorum started out debate season lost among the mish-mash that was Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, but the incoming “culture warrior” slowly gained an aggressive following that makes up a sizable part of the Republican Party. The former senator won four of the eight primaries that started in early January. Three of those primaries were in the early days of February, and his national poll rating has improved greatly with his recent success. Now, Santorum is tied with Romney and is seriously being considered for the GOP nomination.
Santorum has very successfully captivated a number of Republican voters with his adherence to conservative values, both economic and social. His weakness lies in some past provocative statements, particularly toward homosexuals, which by this time have earned their own Wikipedia page.
Professor Pitney says that there are two parts to Rick Santorum: the part that alienates people with offensive remarks and the part that has done legitimate policy work and stands a chance to be a good leader. Santorum’s work on the Combating Autism Act won him favor within the Autism community and legitimized his work as a politician. The religious ranger of the right wing also sponsored the Workplace Religious Freedom Act with Senator John Kerry, which featured input from Hillel and the Anti-Defamation League on combating Anti-Semitism in American colleges. The amount of support he’s recently gathered from the right combined with his potential ability to perform puts him in a position perhaps ahead of Mitt Romney in the final few debates. Santorum has the ability to create hype, which Romney decidedly lacks. Santorum’s challenge will be focusing on his background in successful legislation and taking focus away from his penchant for upsetting people.
I know. Ron Paul is not really in the running for the Republican Party nomination. As Professor Pitney put it, “His campaign is usually more of a cause than a path to the White House.” When the 76-year-old representative from Texas decided to run for president again, spectators could predict that his level of support would hit a glass ceiling. His ideas are too outlandish and he consistently takes the term “free market” too literally, causing even the sitting-on-my-front-porch-with-a-shotgun portion of the Republican Party to treat him like a lunatic. But Paul has maintained a passionate core of supporters that consists of a large number of either very old or very young people (who knew he was going for the young crowd with ads like this).
A number of Paul’s ideas can be rejected based purely on plausibility. The hope that the United States government will revert to the gold standard is nothing but a pipe dream. Thus, the portrayal of his campaign as a “cause” to raise awareness rather than a plan to actually implement drastic changes is understandable. Professor Pitney says, “What may actually come out of Ron Paul’s campaign is some effort to appease his supporters.” When the two presidential candidates are fighting over the Independent vote in the general election, they’ll be faced with dissatisfied Democrats, “undecideds”, and a passionate group of Ron Paul supporters who may not be as convinced as the rest of the right wing to “just vote Republican.” If candidates have to adjust their campaigns to include winning over undecided libertarians, Ron Paul’s cause would have met a satisfactory end.
The Final Tally
When it comes to the general election, it should be widely accepted that registered Republicans will likely vote red no matter what. Those equally far to the left will most likely look at the Republican candidate field, recoil, and vote for Obama. Those in the middle are faced with a difficult choice in November.
According to Professor Pitney, the deciding issue in the general election will not be character, demeanor, or even policy. Although the election process began with talk of remembering American values and returning to morality by encouraging kids to pray in school, banning abortion and forbidding gay marriage, it will boil down to the most widely felt issue in the country: the economy. Simply put, if the economy is good, undecided voters will vote for Obama, and if it is bad, they will look for a change in whoever the Republican candidate happens to be. Regardless of the disheartening idea that moral character is not in fact a deciding factor in choosing the leader of a country, the economy has enough weight in all of our lives to consume a majority of our political thought. With the social and economic turmoil bubbling up in the country, this is no doubt the most important election of our lifetimes.