US Republican Presidential Primaries: the elephants in the room

General Overview

The American Republican Party is worried. The process of choosing the perfect adversary to Obama for the presidential elections in November 2012 seems to have gone astray. Initially, it was supposed to be a quick and straightforward matter: bad economic performances meant Obama was vulnerable, and the entire Republican Party establishment had quickly decided to support Mitt Romney, meaning that other primary candidates had little chance of beating him. Both of these assumptions are no longer valid, as the US economy seems to have entered a slow but steady recovery and the GOP primary campaign is not likely to end anytime soon. Many candidates have come and gone, rising to fame and disappearing into oblivion in the space of just a few weeks. The one constant factor has been the relative strength of Romney compared to the others, which however has not been sufficient to deliver decisive knockout blow. The party is now locked in a struggle between the republican establishment in Washington, D.C. and the conservative base of the party, which despises Romney but which has not managed to credibly coalesce around a common candidate. Even though there are many candidates and factions, there are really only two players in this game: Mitt Romney, which represents the party elites, and “the others”, which are backed by a galaxy of groups (such as the Tea Party and the Christian right) that share the common goal of making sure Mitt Romney is not selected as the adversary of Obama.

Mitt Romney…

As mentioned previously, Mitt Romney initially appeared to be the clear frontrunner. As a former CEO and Governor of Massachusetts, he combines executive and private-sector experience – both of which look very good on a presidential candidate résumé. He also has in his favor the support of most (if not all) Republican Party elites and is sponsored by many wealthy conservatives, whose political donations (made through organizations known as super-PACs, which can spend unlimited amounts of unregulated money on political campaigns) ensure that his campaign is always overflowing with cash. The main reason behind all of this support is, quite simply, that Romney appears to be the most reasonable and electable within the Republican primary field. It is assumed that his centrist policies will resonate with the independent and moderate voters that are crucial to win elections in the USA.

This makes it appear likely that a Romney presidency would not diverge much from the policies established by Obama. On matters of foreign policy in particular, leaving aside the electoral rhetoric, there is quite a bit of overlap between the positions of the two men. For instance, Romney would continue the current policy of scaling down the US presence in Afghanistan, and, for all of his tough talk on Iran, he has not spelled out a clear agenda for a radical policy shift on the matter.

All of these factors combined led many to believe that Romney would quickly liquidate all possible competitors in the race to the nomination, also due to the fact that the remaining Republican candidates, representing the conservative wing of the party, undercut each other instead of focusing on Romney. Initial victories seemed to confirm this line of reasoning. Furthermore, when specific rivals seemed to be doing well compared to the others, Romney could always shoot them back down by buying enormous quantities of negative advertisements (that is, ads which highlight the weaknesses of the other candidates) on TV, as he did to Newt Gingrich in Florida.

However, his campaign has not managed to resonate with the electorate, and most of his victories have been associated with a low voter turnout.  His gaffes and poor debate performances have also not helped his bid. Furthermore, his Mormon faith is unsettling to the largely evangelical conservative base of the party. His private sector experience, which has helped him emerge as the frontrunner, also partially backfired on him as people looked more closely at his work as the CEO of Bain Capital, an asset management firm which is associated with the firing of many American workers. These inherent weaknesses have allowed the remaining field of candidates to close in on Romney and even overtake him in some polls. To this day, Romney remains the most likely person to obtain the nomination. However, if he were to lose in the crucial Michigan primary of February 28, it is possible that the Republican establishment might turn his back on him to find a more energizing and inspirational candidate.

…Vs. “The Others”

Many candidates have taken up the “anyone by Romney” banner, rising to the top of the polls and back down again with amazing speed. These include Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Gingrich and most recently Santorum. Out of all of these aspiring candidates, only Gingrich and Santorum are currently still pursuing the nomination. This ‘support rollercoaster’ is due to the fact that the Republican base is much less organized and more volatile compared to the core of the party, and the high initial enthusiasm for the candidate du jour rapidly recedes after a just few weeks. It seems however that the base is quickly running out of options, and will have to settle for one of the two remaining candidates if it wants to stop Romney from getting the nomination.

Until recently, Newt Gingrich appeared to be the best bet at defeating the establishment candidate. A former speaker of the House of Representatives and architect of the 1994 “Republican Revolution”, which enabled Republicans to recapture Congress after more than 40 years, he is considered by many as the most intellectually savvy player within the primary contest. He is a great debater and had the luck of experiencing a surge in the polls close to primary election dates, giving further relevancy to his candidacy. His campaign however is far from perfect. To his detriment in particular are the many years of experience as a DC ‘insider’, which make him untrustworthy in the minds of many who fear he may be just another establishment candidate. Furthermore, his personal life is not exactly the ideal one for a presidential candidate vying for the conservative vote, as has been married three times. He is also seen as hot-tempered and prone to make bombastic announcements. For example, during a debate he said that by the end of his second term, Americans would have established a base on the moon.

All these imperfections have led many voters to shift once again their support, this time in favor of Rick Santorum, a Catholic former governor of Pennsylvania. He is particularly well-liked  by the Christian right wing for his positions on moral issues, such as abortion. Boosted by good performance in primaries in the West, he appears to be ahead of Romney according to recent polling data. However, he too has undeniable weaknesses. In particular, the very positions that endear him to social conservatives put him on the margins of American society as a whole. For instance, during an interview in 2006 he went as far as saying that the use of birth control pills is bad both for women and society, and more recently he has declared that he would not oppose attempts by states to ban its use.  For this reason Santorum represents a serious threat to establishment republicans, which fear he might lose badly against Obama because of his extreme stances on social issues.

One final candidate that does not fit well in the “base vs. establishment” model is Ron Paul, a libertarian who advocates a minimal state. Many of his small government positions are liked by conservatives, but he has failed to garner widespread support outside of his electoral niche. The main problem Republicans have with him are his foreign policy positions, which include the scaling back the US presence in the Middle East, reducing aid to Israel, and generally the avoidance of most foreign policy commitments.


One player that has hardly been mentioned in this article and which however stands out very prominently in the reasoning of the Republican strategists is Barack Obama. He represents the man to beat, and the electability of the candidates is based on how well they perform in polls with respect to him. He is also seen as the main ideological rival of the party, so much so that all candidates take turns in disparaging his policies (whatever they may be) and attempt to prove themselves as ‘anti-Obama’ as possible in the hope of gaining the support of the right wing of the party. However, republican elites worry that the ongoing fratricidal war within the party will end strengthening the current president, as candidates currently are busy trying to win primaries instead of devising strategies to defeat him in the general election, giving Obama time to raise money and prepare his re-election campaign. He is the only real winner of the current Republican primary process. For now at least, all he has to do is sit back and watch the Republican candidates go at each other’s throat, knowing that whoever emerges from the primary battle will be weakened, wearied and easy to attack.

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