Published on January 23rd, 2012 | by Daulton Dickey2
After South Carolina, the GOP Deck is Reshuffled
The race to nominate the GOP presidential candidate is getting interesting. Days before the South Carolina primary, Mitt Romney appeared on the brink of sealing an easy victory. With Iowa and New Hampshire under his belt, he edged closer to the nomination—and to racking up achievements few non-incumbent candidates can claim. Then Iowa slammed Romney’s brakes by declaring Santorum the winner, stripping Romney of his undefeated title and launching the nomination into the air again.
A week before South Carolina, Romney seemed the safe bet for many voters. With two victories in the cycle, and coffers overflowing with money, the former governor of Massachusetts was poised to take the nomination. Then Iowa happened, and a day before the South Carolina primaries, the 2-0 victor became a 1-1 uncertainty.
Under increased scrutiny in the gap between New Hampshire and Iowa, Romney’s past, finances, and temperament added additional speed bumps to the road. The media and his opponents scrutinized his tenure at Bain Capital; he admitted to paying a tax rate of 15%; investigations revealed he has millions of dollars invested off-shore; he’s criticized proponents of the 99% percent; and he’s defended his status as an elite member of society by dismissing criticism as “the politics of envy.”
Romney’s shortcomings and questionable finances might not have been liabilities in any other election cycle, but in the age of the Occupy Movement, in which the taxonomy of society into distinct classes—the 99% and the 1%—have permeated the social, cultural, and political Zeitgeists, Romney finds himself in an interesting position: to appeal to fiscally conservative Republicans. To appeal to the faction of the GOP that believes in the virtues of success, Romney alienates middle and low-income voters—many of whom he’ll have to appeal to if he manages to secure the nomination.
The victor of South Carolina’s primary, Newt Gingrich, will now feel scrutiny more intense than he’s felt in the past month. With Romney’s victory no longer a certainty, politicians, the public, and the media will begin to vet Gingrich: if he manages to win the nomination, does he have the chops to be President of the United States?
If Gingrich walks away with another victory or two, the notion of President Gingrich will become a possibility. But how will he fare in general elections against President Obama?
Gingrich has two major flaws, one of which will hurt him with Republican voters in the run up to the nomination: social conservatives are loath to address his multiple marriages and past infidelities. To a part of the people obsessed with the so-called ‘sanctity of marriage,’ Gingrich will have to somehow prove or to show that he’s changed. So far, he’s signed fidelity pledges, but to many this may not be enough. After all, a marriage certificate is a legally binding fidelity pledge, and he’s violated two of them.
Ethics violations, for which he left public office in disgrace while still Speaker of the House, will not play well to many undecideds who demand transparency in government—and who criticize politicians for being “politicians.” So far, the former Speaker’s ethics-violating past hasn’t transformed into a lightning rod, but if he finds himself in a general election forced to appeal to moderate conservatives and independent voters, his past will play a larger, if not the dominant, role.
Rick Santorum, who came in third in Saturday’s primary with 17% of the vote, shouldn’t be discounted—but his chances for victory
seem weaker now than it did two weeks ago. Although he’s the possible victor in the Iowa caucus, Santorum has distinguished himself as a candidate appealing to social conservatives and evangelical voters. With his adherence to the laws of God, Santorum has and will seem a safe vote for the type of Republican terrified by abortion rights, gay marriage, and evolution in the classroom. But with the economy topping the list of concerns for voters, and with voters expressing wariness of establishment candidates, Santorum’s pro-Christian, probable-dominionist credentials don’t reflect the top concerns of the base to which he must appeal. And his past expressions for love of earmarks can and will hurt him in reaching out beyond the party’s evangelical wing.
While finishing stronger in this election cycle than he has in the past, Internet favorite Ron Paul is still a long shot. Although his views and anti-government stances have garnered legitimacy they lacked four or eight years ago, his appeal is still limited to libertarians and anti-government activists. His party and the media have largely ignored him, relegating him to a question-mark on the face of the party. He’s interesting, the general opinion seems to be, and he expresses thought-provoking or engaging—or even outlandish—opinions, but he’s still too strange and foreign, his ideas too alien and radical for modern conservative voters to rally around.
In the end, we seem to be in the midst of a split between what we can broadly call the party—the establishment, the voters, the special interests and super PACS. From Michelle Bachmann to Herman Cain to Rick Perry, the party has eliminated the fringe candidates, narrowing the list to stronger politicians with viable track records and, most importantly, who can appeal to voters both inside and outside of the base. When the primary season ends, when the votes are tallied, the candidate who shows he possesses the latter qualification will secure nomination.
Citizens will ultimately pick the candidate, but party narratives will influence and motivate their decisions. Currently, no single candidate seems to have won the favor of the plurality of party forces. Like the showdown between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton in the last election cycle, the GOP race appears hamstrung by a split party.
Without the Occupy Movement and its deeply ingrained buzz words and catch-phrases, Romney may have secured the nomination—going 3-0 as it appeared he would a couple weeks ago. But now the 3-0 titan has become a 1-2 concern who’s still in it for the long haul.
Although his position is weaker now than it was a week ago, Mitt Romney isn’t down for the count just yet. In an election cycle in which the establishment candidate stands on a weak platform, Romney’s establishment credentials may be his greatest weakness.
Despite your opinion of the Occupy Movement, you must concede its influence on shaping discourse. While this discourse, as adapted by politicians and the elite, is becoming an exercise in demagoguery, the conversation has been altered. And, disagree or not, the narratives coalescing around the GOP primaries center on Occupy talking points: Romney is the 1%. Romney is the establishment.
Bizarrely, the forces generating and authoring the narratives are casting Newt Gingrich as the anti-1%, anti-establishment politician. This may help him in the long run—as long as he can keep “Bad Newt” at bay.
If the results in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina say anything about the current cycle, it’s this: buckle your seat belts, ladies and germs, we’re in for one crazy ride.