The GOP is hurting and it’s their own fault


Normally, the primary season is a time to debate ideas, strengthen candidates, and look for opportunities to improve the party’s chances. In 2008, the Obama-Clinton race did just that for the Democrats. This year, though, the Republican race is doing the opposite. While there is time for improvement, Republicans have so far lost the momentum of 2010. The race has become focused on culture war issues, with which the best candidate, Mitt Romney, has struggled.

After the GOP’s Congressional sweep in 2010, the possibility of a one-term presidency gained some traction. The economy was growing slowly and some of Obama’s signature policy items, like healthcare and financial reform, were polarizing to say the least. Even after Obama rebounded somewhat with the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, he came out of the debt ceiling debate bloodied and weakened. Mitt Romney, the unloved Republican frontrunner, was ahead in the polls. Even a ‘generic’ Republican opponent was ahead of Obama, illustrating the degree to which the president was vulnerable. By the end of 2011, Republicans had every reason to believe they could win in November.

But Obama now has a six point point lead over Romney and the other candidates are not faring any better. The Republican field, already weak, is down to four—Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney. While the economy was their primary focus in 2011, contraception has somehow emerged as a key issue for the leading candidate not named Mitt (Rick Santorum). Romney should have been building momentum by now; instead, he is struggling in his native Michigan against the social conservative Santorum. Unlike an earlier anti-Mitt insurgent, Newt Gingrich, Santorum is actually likeable. And Romney has shownan inability to deal with adversity when he is thrown off script. He is cementing his most important weakness—a lack of authenticity.

With the next crucial round of primaries on deck, Santorum can expect more scrutiny. Should he win the nomination, it will be a blow to the GOP’s support among women. Santorum has expressed views on women and gay rights that clearly set him out of mainstream. Granted, he appears more authentic and principled than Romney; but is he more electable against Obama?

Romney is hammering at Santorum with attack ads, and lots of them. This strategy, which succeeded in bringing down Newt, may succeed again, but at what cost? It seems Romney’s negatives are rising after each primary, win or lose. This is not good news should the Republican nomination race be prolonged. Worse still, it could lead to to a brokered convention.

The GOP’s wounds are mostly self-inflicted. Congressional Republicans, catering to the Tea Party faction and obsessed with beating Obama, have constantly overreached. In the debt ceiling debate of last summer, Obama appeared to lose the public’s favour, but the Republicans did not gain any in the process. They appeared intransigeant and willing to risk America’s credit rating to score a political point. The approval ratings for Congress under Speaker Boehner have actually decreased since November of 2011. Meanwhile, the economic outlook has been steadily improving, and the Republican candidates are turning to cultural issues.

Even Traditionally Republican issues like national security no longer seem to favour the GOP, at least not this year. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost them some credibility, Obama’s focus on al-Qaeda, his approach to Libya, and his overall preference for diplomacy seem to be more in tune with the voters. For the GOP, this is not a reassuring picture and goes a long way in explaining why the party is hurting at such a crucial time.


The GOP is hurting and it’s their own fault

  1. Yup, party with the baggers and you get a clown car of candidates…plus a second term for Obama.

  2. Normally, the primary season is a time to debate ideas, strengthen candidates, and look for opportunities to improve the party’s chances. In 2008, the Obama-Clinton race did just that for the Democrats. ”

    1. What differences in ideas were there between Clinton and Obama? The only major policy difference was about whether health reform should involve a mandate (Clinton was pro, Obama anti). The other difference was a retrospective one involving the war in Iraq, though both were critical of Bush.

    In contrast, there were/are real policy differences among the GOP contenders. On taxes, Romney favours a middle class tax cut (plus corporate cut), Gingrich a flat tax, and Santorum a tax holiday for manufacturing. Huntsman represented a pro-trade approach to China, while Romney favours a potentially protectionist course. Some favoured retrenching American forces abroad (Paul, Huntsman) while others are more stridently interventionist. 

    2. There is also some real selective memory if you think the competing ads and message of either camp in 2008 strengthened the other candidates. Remember the “red phone in the White House ad” the Clinton campaign ran – it was so good, McCain copied it. Remember the reverend Wright fiasco? Indeed, the tendency of many on the right to view Obama as “foreign” started with Clinton strategist, Mark Penn. 

    By some of the later races, large numbers of Clinton supporters claimed they would be dissatisfied if Obama won, with many intimating they might vote for McCain. The reality? Almost none of them did. Obama won 83% of Clinton Democrats and 89% of Democrats overall. 

    Coalescing after primary season has been the historical norm. And considering the vitriol the GOP base has for Obama, it isn’t hard to see them doing the same in 2012, even if Romney is the nominee. Moderates can do just fine at getting the base out  – after barely beating Reagan in the primary, Ford still won 89% of the GOP vote in 1976. Kerry (who was perceived as being more liberal than Dean) saw a 16% increase in Democratic party votes, and won 89% of Dem votes. They both lost, but not because they saw defection from their party’s base. 

    To find an instance where a divisions had consequences in the general, you have to go back to the Dixiecrats in the 60’s. It is possible that without Wallace running as an independent in 1968, the deep South would have stuck to the Dems – though the GOP had clearly made inroads there. For an unambiguous case of divisions altering the general election you have to go all the way back to 1912, when the Taft-Roosevelt split sundered Republican chances. 

    The lack of historical perspective among the commentariat, and its failure to grasp the lessons of past primaries – whether recent or not – is pretty staggering. Romney may lose 2012 election, but with Obama’s approval among Republicans at historic lows (if you compare him to past Democratic presidents, or to Democratic approval of Republican presidents) is sure as heck won’t be the result of abandonment by the base. For that to happen you’d need a third party. 

    • Um, I think what he meant was that the vigorous campaign between Obama and Clinton made both of Obama and Clinton better candidates.  Romney is wilting more and more, and he’s up against a series of people that implode from putting their foot in their mouths.  Rather than learning and becoming stronger, better at debates and that sort of thing, Romney is seemingly becoming weaker, with no idea how to improve his performance.  To correct the things he’s doing wrong.

      That is no way to win the independent’s vote, which I guess you need to do in the USA.

      • My other comment shows that net approval of Obama declined throughout the primary process – it hardly made either a more appealing candidate. A solid majority of voters that were unsure of or had never heard of Obama in late 2006 moved into the unfavorable category. 

        Clinton also saw declining favorability: In early 2007 (according to Gallup), Clinton had an favorability rating of 58% (vs. 40% unfavorable). By this time in 2008, that had fallen to even. So she moved from a net favorability of +18 to +0. She only rose later, as Obama turned his attention to the general election, as levels of scrutiny dropped, and as both Obama and McCain talked her up (hoping to win over some of her supporters). If you’re talking about the campaign making them better debaters, speakers, etc. that stuff doesn’t matter very much. Kerry trounced Bush in the debates in 2004, got a temporary boost, and went back to losing. Second, the implosion narrative (ie. Romney isn’t winning, he just isn’t losing) misses the pronounced role of Romney’s successful negative ads, and strategic abstention from the spotlight – not to mention his debate performances (yes, you’re going to have gaffes in 20-odd debates, but there are some very good moments – look at his “innocent” question about 9-9-9 or his excoriation of Gingrich in the last debate). And a negative strategy can work even better in the general because – unlike a multi-candidate primary – voters only have two options. 

  3. I’ll also throw out the point that Obama’s net favorability decreased through the 2008 primaries. 

    According to Gallup (all polls from pollingreport.com) in December 2006, Obama’s favourability rating was:
    Approve: 42%
    Disapprove: 11%
    Unsure/Never heard of: 47%
    Net favorable: +31 (and 79.2% of people that had heard of Obama were favourable).

    Flash forward to May 2008, as the Democratic Primaries were coming to a close.
    Approve: 58%
    Disapprove: 37%
    Unsure/Never heard of: 5%
    Net favorable: +21 (and only 61% of people that had heard of Obama were favourable)

    One other way to think of it is that of the unsure/never heard of voters in 2006, that developed opinions about Obama, a strong majority developed negative opinions. Yet Obama easily united his party, and prevailed in the general election. Primaries are usually a bruising process, but candidates recover quickly (esp. during convention time). 

    • Your numbers prove my point . The GOP has a weak candidate in Romny . Are tthe others electable ? Really ? I am for Jeb but this crowd is growing weaker by the day . And nuttier.

      • How do those numbers prove your point? The historical record is that primaries are tough on candidates, and seem divisive to the party, but they rarely cause lasting damage. Romney is an average candidate, who is performing above average in the primaries (candidates rarely lock it up right away). Moreover, Romney’s biggest presumed negative in the primary – he’s too moderate – is a positive in the general election. 

        But if you’re going for a convention candidate (which won’t happen – eventually unpledged delegates will rally around the frontrunner as they did around Obama, plus Romney will win most of the winner-take-all races), I’m not sure Jeb is the best choice. While a great governor, he will get pegged with all of the Bush baggage. 

        Jeb Bush performs worse than the current GOP candidates in the latest matchup polls against Obama ( http://pollingreport.com/wh12gen.htm ):

        Obama vs…
        Romney: 47-42
        Santorum: 50-38
        Gingrich: 51-38
        Paul: 48-38
        Bush: 50-36

  4. How could these “qualified” candidates have made it so far?  The lowest common denominator and even lower.  My, has the GOP deteriorated.

    • How about we play a game – identify whether the candidates (based on their resume) below were running in the 2008 Democratic primary or the 2012 GOP primary:

      -Long-time congressman and first speaker of the house from his party since the 1950’s. Helped shepherd a balanced budget and considerable prosperity in the 90’s. 
      -A two-term senator, author of welfare reform in the 90’s, and whistleblower in the house banking scandal
      -A <1 term senator whose main distinction was writing his autobiography. Former law professor with essentially no publications, former state legislator with record number of "present" votes, and former lawyer who tried no cases. 
      -CEO of an equity company that helped turn around a number of companies, who also salvaged the Salt Lake City games, and served a term as governor, where he launched an innovative program of health reform. 
      -A 1 term (plus 2 years) senator whose main distinction was who she married 

      • I understand your spin . Obama became a better candidate after Clinton . It is that simple . Dems got more support . Not the case here , Hooter.We can’t beat Obama if ourfield weakens . Reps need a more moderate cons message . Not far out right wing nuts like Santorum who makes Romney look weaker . Where is Romney these days ?

        • How does Santorum make Romney look weaker? Precisely because Santorum is a wingnut, he makes Romney look more moderate (which he is). Once the primary is over, Romney will be able to pivot to the centre for the general election, while the GOP convention gives him cover to do so. 

  5. The strict 2-party model does not accommodate a forced time-out for parties that have lost their way.  And both parties are constantly busy, either fund-raising or campaigning, to have time for necessary soul-searching.  Not that enforced time-out gets you a better party, as we in Canada know with respect to the Conservatives.  I had hopes for the Liberals, but from what I can see so far, they’ve done everything but re-discover what Canadian Liberalism is.

    But that’s beside the point.  Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats will ever get the opportunity to reconnect with republican or democratic philosophy. 

  6. “Santorum has expressed views on women and gay rights that clearly set him out of mainstream.”

    This might be true; it’s hard for me to tell (being one of those psycho religious nutjobs myself).  But which positions exactly?  Opposition to gay marriage?  He shares that one with Obama.  Opposition to abortion?  He shares that one with Romney (I think), and half the electorate, including a majority of women.  Opposition to forcing Catholic institutions to provide contraceptives and abortifacients to their employees?  Again, supported by a majority of the electorate.

    So….which views exactly?

    • It was supposed to be about the economy , stupid ! . I mean Gaunilon .

      • Thankfully, there are still citizens in the US who care more about fundamental rights than they do about the economy.

        That said, the economy is also important and will doubtless be a help to whichever Republican ends up as the nominee, given how poorly the Obama Administration’s own promises have matched what has actually transpired.

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