The GOP race after Florida

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, January 31, 2012

 

Unless Mitt Romney wins big in the Florida primaries today, the race for the Republican nomination will drag on until March. Since none of the six states that hold primaries in February are sufficiently large to hand Romney a definitive victory, the Republican front-runner will have to wait until Super Tuesday, on March 6th, when 10 states hold primaries, to try to secure the nomination.

 

The inability of Mitt Romney to secure the nomination speaks volumes about the polarized base of the Republican Party. In the three primaries held so far, no candidate has won an absolute majority. Romney got almost 40% of the vote in New Hampshire and Gingrich received slightly over 40% in South Carolina. The night of the Iowa caucus, Romney was declared the winner with less than 25% of the vote (but later Rick Santorum clinched the state with a few more votes). Thus, so far Romney has only won in New Hampshire. A victory in Florida is much needed by the former governor.

 

There seems to be emerging a clear majority among Republican voters against Romney, a former governor who implemented his own version of universal health care in Massachusetts and a devout Mormon. Fortunately for Romney, none of the other three candidates can attract a sufficiently large support base to emerge as a viable alternative. Thus, Romney might end up winning the nomination even as a majority of Republican voters support other candidates.

 

The last polls before the election in Florida showed Romney with a sufficiently comfortable lead to clinch the state. However, it is highly likely that he will not win an absolute majority of votes. Thus, the race will drag on as the other three candidates will continue campaigning hoping that the anti-Romney sentiment prevalent among many Republicans will eventually coalesce around a single alternative candidate. Depending on how well he does in Florida, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, a militant conservative catholic, might be forced to drop out of the race. That would make the contest a two-man race, with former Speaker Newt Gingrich free to attract all the anti-Romney sentiment among Republican voters. Ten days ago, Texas governor Rick Perry dropped out and endorsed Newt Gingrich. The all-against Romney strategy became the prevalent view among many conservatives who distrust the former governor’s centrist policies and doubt his conservative credentials.

 

Pressed to win the nomination, Romney has adopted more conservative positions in the past few months. However, many conservatives have grown distrustful of his character for his seemingly convenient change of heart. Others fear that, if he ends up being the nominee, Romney will go back to his previous moderate and pragmatic positions to attract moderate voters. Republican activists are committed to roll up their sleeves and campaign hard to convince moderate voters to adopt more conservative positions. They do not accept the premise that moderate voters will vote for moderate candidates. They want moderates to become more conservative. Moreover, conservative activists believe that Obama is so weak that any Republican candidate — even a very conservative one—can actually win the White House.

 

The fact that Romney has not been able to secure the nomination underlines his strategy to cast himself as a pragmatist. In the primary campaign, Romney has not lost sight of the upcoming campaign against Obama. He has struggled to combine the conservative rhetoric that he needs to win the Republican nomination with a pragmatic approach that will be needed to be competitive next fall against Obama. However, the fact that so many Republicans oppose Romney more because of his character than his policies should constitute a powerful warning for the Republican front-runner. Though several conservative voters disagree with Romney’s policies (despite his effort to cast them as conservative), the main objection voters have against Romney have to do with his character and his personality. He admittedly has many attributes people want to see in a president, but his personality is not the best for a candidate and a number of his character traits raise concerns among conservative voters.

 

As opposed to primary campaigns where candidates have to adopt extreme positions to appease the party base, general election campaigns offer an opportunity to move to the centre and adopt moderate positions. However, when a leading concern for voters is the character — and not the policy positions — the general campaign will not provide the candidate with an opportunity to correct past mistakes. Instead, it will likely simply reproduce the problems present in the primaries. As Romney prepares for the remaining battles before he can secure the Republican nomination, his main concern should not be to strike the right balance between the need to be conservative now and moderate later. He should focus on addressing the doubts Republican voters have expressed over his character. Even if he fails to win an absolute majority of votes in Florida, Romney should make sure an absolute majority of Republicans and Americans believe that he has the integrity and character to be the next president of the United States.