The GOP goes to pieces

An evangelicals’ darling, a slick ex-governor and a libertarian reveal a split party. Maybe Obama was the real winner

The GOP goes to pieces

Charlie Neibergall/AP

The night before the vote in the Iowa caucuses, Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, stood grinning in disbelief at a Pizza Ranch restaurant in a suburb of Des Moines, surrounded by throngs of supporters who had turned the place into a mob scene where they faced a real risk of getting trampled. Or at least suffering a smack to the head with the butt end of a television camera from a major U.S. network or even one from the U.K. or Japan.

Santorum was suddenly a Republican front-runner, a conservative Catholic surging on the strength of Iowa’s evangelical voters. The next night, as Maclean’s went to press, he was locked in a dead heat with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in the caucuses’ vote, the first vote in the GOP’s nomination process.

For months, Santorum had languished with support in the single digits and only a few questions tossed his way during televised debates. Now, sporting his trademark sweater vest over a button-down shirt, with a boyish face and earnest demeanour, he had the air of a class president about him (if the class president had fathered seven kids ages three to 20 and put on a few pounds).

Much to his surprise as much as anyone’s, his popularity snowballed after a few endorsements from powerful evangelical leaders, who then blanketed Iowa airwaves with ads proclaiming, “He’s one of us.” On the eve of the vote, Santorum was tied for first place and surrounded by voters—many of them evangelical Christians and parents who brought their children to the event. These were the same voters who carried Mike Huckabee to a 10,000 vote victory in Iowa in 2008. “He stands for what we believe. He has the same value system as us,” said Santorum supporter Lynn Lucy, 41, from Des Moines. “We believe in a nation that stands on God and what His Word says.”

Like Huckabee, Santorum’s approach to Iowa was to visit all 99 counties multiple times, leading to jokes that he was campaigning for Iowa governor. This appearance on the eve of the Iowa vote was, he said, his “380th town hall.” Santorum had to use a bullhorn to make himself heard over the crowd in front of the $9.99 all-you-can-eat buffet. “Ten days ago I was at four per cent in the polls,” he grinned.

Santorum’s challenge going forward will be to quickly set up organizations in the next primary states of New Hampshire, which votes on Jan. 10, and where Romney has a commanding lead, and in South Carolina, where Iowa fourth-place finisher Newt Gingrich is expected to make a stand, and then onward. It will be Santorum’s turn to face the intense scrutiny that comes with front-runner status. He will also face hard questions about his electability—having lost his last Senate race by 18 points because he could not carry moderate Republicans.

But with Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry performing dismally, Santorum has overnight become the standard-bearer for the social conservative wing of the party. Perry, the swaggering governor of Texas, was done in by weak debate performances, including one in which he could not recall which federal departments he planned to eliminate, as well as two policies he pursued in Texas: allowing children of illegal immigrants to receive subsidized tuition at state colleges, and requiring young girls to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease. And the Iowa-born Bachmann, who was an early front-runner and devoted considerable effort to campaigning in the state, eventually faded as voters concluded she did not have substance on a range of issues.

Santorum’s appeal to the evangelical right is clear. He is not only against abortion, but against contraception, criticizing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that states could not outlaw contraception because such laws violate a right to privacy. Indeed, he has called birth control “dangerous’ and “not okay,” telling the evangelical blog Caffeinated Thoughts in October, “It’s a licence to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.” Santorum now has the potential to combine support from social conservatives with backing from fiscal conservatives and foreign policy hawks. He has been outspoken in his support for Israel and his opposition to Iran obtaining nuclear weapons.

But the Iowa vote also revealed a deeply split party and underscored that the eventual nominee will have to work hard to unite it. That was evident from the faction that supported Ron Paul, the 76-year-old libertarian congressman from Texas, who finished a close third, showing that his anti-war and pro-civil liberties sentiment is finding a growing audience among young Republicans and independent voters disillusioned with President Barack Obama. Emerging from a caucus in Des Moines where Paul had been victorious, Treye Nekola, a 30-year-old IT worker, said he was a former Obama voter who now supports Paul. “He is the only candidate that offers something truly different on war, defence spending, and what we need to do to get the budget balanced,” Nekola said.

At his campaign appearances, Paul has insisted that America needs to adopt a radically more modest foreign policy—for both moral and financial reasons. “The current foreign policy does not make us safe but makes us more endangered,” he told a campaign event packed with his young followers on the eve of the caucuses. “Fighting undeclared wars has added $4 trillion to the debt.” Paul was once dismissed as a crank, but his strong finish grabbed Republicans’ attention. And his strong showing in Iowa raises the possibility of the libertarian launching an independent third-party run for the presidency, in the mould of past efforts by Ross Perot and Ralph Nader.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney was appealing to an altogether different faction of the party—his rallies were populated by small business owners and well-to-do Republicans concerned about the economy. When Romney, a former business consultant, talks about cutting government programs, it’s not about taking a wrecking ball to the federal government as a matter of principle. He offers a cost benefit analysis: “Is this program so critical that it’s worth borrowing money from China to pay for it?”

“I think he’s got business experience. He’s good with the numbers. He made millions as a private businessman. We need to get the deficit under control,” says Romney supporter Tom Blecker, a 55-year-old producer of music shows in Des Moines. He brushed off accusations that Romney “flip-flopped” on issues. “They’re all flip-floppers,” he says. Nor is he concerned about Romney bringing in health insurance in Massachusetts that critics charge was similar to the so-called “Obamacare.” “It was for the people who didn’t have insurance. He didn’t ram it down the throat of everybody,” says Blecker.

Sandra Morse, a 65-year-old retiree from Waukee, Iowa, called Romney “the only Republican candidate who is electable” and praised his experience as governor and in private business. She declared she could not vote for Paul if he were the nominee. “I would never vote for Ron Paul. I think he’s a loose cannon. He’s doing well, but I can’t understand why.”

Likewise, Paul voter Lou Lippincott, 34, a human resources manager from Iowa City, said he could never vote for Romney. “If it was Romney versus Obama, I would not vote. I cannot support Mitt Romney. I think he would govern similarly to Obama,” he said. Santorum supporter Dave Lyman, meanwhile, a 51-year-old unemployed IT voice technician, supported his candidate because “he’s very conservative and I trust him. His record has been as a conservative.” Lyman insisted that Republican strategists could not force Romney on the party as the nominee. “The Republican core establishment thinks Romney is next in line, but I think you’re seeing resistance to that,” he said.

With such divergent viewpoints, and until a candidate emerges who can bridge those gaps, and ignite some enthusiasm among a wider swathe of Republicans, the winner so far may be Barack Obama.

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The GOP goes to pieces

  1. The big question is whether or not Obama will hold the White House. Otherwise, it looks like the Democrats are in big troubles. The Republicans look like they will win the U.S. Senate. Currently, they hold 47 of 100 seats. However, this year 33 Senate seats are up for election of which only 10 are Republican. The current polling has Republican candidate winning 52 or 53 seats. The U.S. House of Representatives comes down to redistricting. Most analysts(like larry Sabato) say that the current House numbers of 242 Republicans and 193 Democrats should stay more or less the same. The Republicans hold 29 Governorships to 20 Democrat ones(Rhode Island Gov. is an Independent). However in 2012, you will have governor elections in 11 states of which 8 are currently held by Democrats. Republicans are expected to hold their 3 current state and lead in North Carolina, Montana, New Hampshire, and Washington state. Also, West Virginia(currently Dem. governed but very Anti-Obama) is expected to be a real battle. The Republicans have a 62-35 edge in control of state legislative bodies(2 tied). The Democrats might gain there. However, many of these recent gains have occurred in the South where most of the Democrat state parties have become unable to effectively compete.In the South, Republicans now control 23 of 26 legislative bodies and have a good chance of adding the Arkansas Senate and Assembly this year. They also heavily control both houses of the state legislatures in Midwest states like Kansas, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Indiana. So, it looks like the republicans will control most of everything else in the country no matter who wins the presidency. The problem for the Democrats is that every president’s party gets beat up in the midterm elections of a president’s second term. Look at Reagan in 1986, Nixon in 1974, LBJ in 1966, Eisenhower in 1958, FDR in 1938. If Obama wins in 2012, the same thing would probably happen to him. In 2014, four Democrat senate seats will be open in the South and at least 3 will be very vulnerable(Arkansas, Louisiana, and North Carolina). Also, a first term Democrat senator will be up for reelection in a seat that he narrowly won after false corruption allegations were made against the incumbent. Also, in Minnesota, Al Franken will be running for reelection in a seat where there are questions about the legality of his narrow win. This bad scenario opens the possiblity of Obama facing a U.S. Senate of over 60 Republican senators in 2015. This would greatly damage the national viability of the Democrat Party. Strangely enough, Obama’s defeat might actually help the Democrats longterm.

  2. I wish once – just once – a Maclean’s article on American politics would be written with an ounce of historical perspective. Or at least, if you are going to write without any perspective, use empirical data to back up your claims. If you look at the data, Romney should not have much difficulty uniting the GOP. 

    According to CNN’s exit polls, 61% of New Hampshire voters indicated that they would be satisfied if Romney won, while 37% did not (the highest of any candidate). Source: 
    http://www.cnn.com/election/2012/primaries/epolls/nh . This squares reasonably well with national data that says the same thing ( http://www.gallup.com/poll/151961/Majority-Conservatives-Romney-Acceptable.aspx ). 

    In the heat of a primary, people always say “oh I’d never vote for [insert presumptive nominee]”, but they usually come around. The supposed angry Clinton supporters of 2008 were just such an example. They only started asking the “acceptable” question later in the race, but drawing exit polls in electorally important states seemed to suggest at the time that Obama faced a challenge in uniting the party.

    -In Ohio only 66% of Democratic primary voters said they would be satisfied if Obama won ( http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2008/primaries/results/epolls/index.html#OHDEM ). 

    -In Pennsylvania only 64% of Democratic voters said they would be satisfied if Obama won ( http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2008/primaries/results/epolls/index.html#PADEM ). 
    But contrasted against an actual Republican nominee, after the convention, after the inevitable coming together, and after the pain of defeat dissipated, most of these voters came home to Obama on election day – Obama managed to win 83% of the vote among Clinton Democrats, similar to his figure of 89% among all registered Democrats. 

    I’m not saying that fractures have never caused problems for political parties. In the 1960’s, Dixiecrats undermined their own party (Democratic electors in the South didn’t vote for Kennedy, and later George Wallace mounted a third party campaign), though in that case you had a party leadership with positions on Civil Rights that were diametrically opposite of the Dixiecrats. Alternately, the Taft-Roosevelt split doomed the Republicans in 1912 (the 1992 campaign is sometimes pointed to as a similar case, however if you look at exit polls Perot drew equally from conservatives and liberals). However, the reality is that such fractures are rare, and usually require a well-organized, well-financed third party campaign in order to work. 

  3. Dinosaurs.

  4. US politics is as bad as the middle east. Religion trumps all

  5. It really doesn’t matter who will win, it is obvious to me and Im sure anyone else who has observed Geopolitic in the last 20 years that whoever will be elected will continue to pursue the imperialistic U.S. policy, just as they do now by trying to destroy the European Unio, because they are afraid of another world power to challenge their hegemony (next it’ll be China…but that won’t be easy, obviusly). Anyway, it would probably be the best for European and other countries ifRomeny would be elected, since he is obviously on the frefront of this U.S. Imperialistic “guard” (Ron Paul obviously the one who seems not to fit in with their policy). But Romeny, just like Bush, would feed Anti-American sentiments throuhout the World, and this time the backlash would be much heavier than under Bush…but with a President Romeny the U.S. hegemony will fall down upon itself, but Im not making any predictions here, since it is quite likely that Obama will get re-elected.

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