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.