Buenos Aires Herald, January 24, 2012
The unexpectedly weak second place for Mitt Romney in the South Carolina primaries has brought uncertainty back to the Republican presidential nomination race. Though Gingrich succeeded in consolidating as the conservative alternative to moderate Romney, the most important news is that the Republican Party might be still looking for a candidate that pleases the Tea Party vocal base rather than for one who can attract moderate independents in the general election. This suicidal mood has a lot to do with Romney’s inability to convince the Republican base that he can be competitive against Obama. His apparent lack of conviction on key issues has led many conservatives to dislike him more for his character than for his policy positions.
After his close victory in Iowa—which was later reversed in favor of conservative Catholic former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum—and his comfortable win in New Hampshire, Romney looked as the inevitable nominee. After his defeat in South Carolina, he remains as the most likely winner. Yet, it will take him longer to secure the nomination and it will be even more difficult for him to unify the party after he becomes the Republican candidate.
As it has been continuously repeated, Republican primary voters are more conservative than general election voters. Conservatives have outnumbered moderates in every Republican primary so far, including New Hampshire. The almost 600 thousand voters in the South Carolina were to the right of the 1.9 million voters that gave John McCain a 54% majority against Obama in that state in 2008. By the way, Obama did better than the Democratic candidate John Kerry, who got 41% in 2004, with some 600 thousand voters.
The fact that the conservative base mobilized so actively to stop Romney from winning that state underlines the complex challenge that the Republican frontrunner faces in the coming weeks. Though he needs to move to the center to attract moderate voters in order to be competitive in November, he cannot take for granted the conservative vocal Republican base.
Romney’s loss was more important than Gingrich’s victory. The former Speaker of the House was indeed successful in attracting the opposition to Romney to his camp. After Texas Governor Rick Perry dropped out, Gingrich was able to rise above Santorum and Ron Paul as the favorite aspirant for Republicans who do not like Romney. However, the fact that Romney has been unable to secure the nomination is what makes some observers doubt that the former Governor of Massachusetts will be, after all, the nominee.
Heading into the Florida primaries on January 31, Romney is still the candidate to beat. If he continues ahead, he will be the nominee. Thus, his advisors are now split between those who argue in favor of engaging with President Barack Obama on national issues and those who want to first secure the nomination before taking on Obama.
The optimistic Romney advisors argue in favor of swiftly moving to the center even before he secures the nomination. They convincingly argue that for rightwing activists, Romney will still be more attractive than Obama. Thus, Obama should be more preoccupied with attracting moderates, the key electoral constituency in November, than with pandering to the Tea Party. That analysis, while flawless in terms of how rightwing voters see Romney as compared to Obama, ignore the possibility of a third party candidate announcing an independent run for the presidency. The growing Tea Party discontent and disenchantment with the Republican establishment might lead the conservative Christian right wing to support a third party candidate even if that means sending Obama to the White House for a second term. Romney should do everything possible to prevent the rise of a conservative third party candidate.
The less optimistic advisors argue in favor of concentrating on winning over the Republican base before taking on the enormous—but not impossible—task of convincing moderate voters. They want Romney to embrace some issues dear to the Republican hardliners even if that costs Romney some moderate voters. They argue that Romney can always moderate his positions later in the campaign, when the threat of a third party candidate entering the race disappears. Though the reasoning is correct, Romney should not forget that moderates—and not hardliners—will choose the next U.S. president. He needs to attract moderates without alienating conservatives and, in the process, fight the perception that he has no principles and lacks conviction.
The uphill battle for Romney has become harder after South Carolina. However, the fact that President Obama also faces an uphill battle and that Romney remains the Republican favorite should help the Romney campaign team from falling into a desperation mood. The fact that South Carolina voted for Newt Gingrich, a candidate whose weaknesses make him weaker against Obama than Romney, can be interpreted as symptom of a suicidal mood on the part of the South Carolina Republican Party. There is no reason why Romney should also present symptoms of the same syndrome.