Republicans for Obama

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, February 14, 2012


Nothing unites Republicans more than their desire to deny Obama a second term. However, the evolution of the Republican presidential primaries is making it increasingly difficult for the still unnamed GOP nominee to be competitive against the incumbent president in November. Republicans are united in opposing Obama, but their deep divisions on so many other relevant issues have strengthened the president’s reelection chances. Since the primary season began with the Iowa caucuses on January 3rd, the incumbent president has found unlikely and unintentional conservative allies.


The George W. Bush presidency still evokes divisive memories in the Republican Party. The legacy of the early compassionate Republican who left office in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the great depression divides the GOP. The fiscal indiscipline that produced the enormous deficit is regarded as one of the worst aspects of the Bush legacy. On the other hand, most Republicans support the tax reduction policies championed by the former President and defend the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The contradiction between favouring additional spending to fund two wars, advocating for tax cuts and criticizing fiscal imbalances might be apparent to many independents, but not to hardcore Republicans who have actively participated in the nine primaries and caucuses held so far, supporting the most conservative positions.


As the race has turned out to be more competitive than initially expected — and as Mitt Romney cannot go from front-runner to becoming the definitive nominee —all remaining candidates have ceded to the temptation of pandering to far-right Republican voters in hope of improving their chances to win the nomination, or at least stay in the race for a few more weeks.


The relatively low turnout in the Republican primaries held so far has made the vocal and organized — but not very large — hardcore Republican base the protagonist. The surprising victory by Rick Santorum last Tuesday in three states — Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado — had much more to do with low turnout than with a measurable increase in support of the former Pennsylvania senator.


Low turnout reflects problems for the entire Republican field. None of the candidates has enough appeal to attract independents or soft core Republican voters. As the front-runner, Romney has the biggest problem. He simply lacks sufficient appeal to get moderates to turn out to support him. As extreme rightwing Republican sympathizers turn out at higher rates, Romney has struggled to the point of unexpectedly losing even the Colorado caucus, where he massively outspent his rivals.


In the short run, low turnout is benefiting Santorum, who has emerged as the favourite alternative to Romney among conservative and religious Republicans. When turnout is low, the disciplined religious vote can get Santorum to win in states where Romney was expected to do well. Because those victories put Santorum on the spotlight, they are worth millions of dollars in national television coverage. Santorum needs all the television coverage he can get to level the playing field with the millions Romney is spending to advance his cause before Republican voters. In the long run, the low turnout will end up being a mirage for Santorum. The former senator is too far to the right to be competitive against Obama. He has only won in primaries with markedly low turnout when moderates have not shown up to vote. Santorum’s momentum will evaporate if turnout increases. If turnout remains low in the upcoming primaries and Santorum comes close to wrestle the nomination away from Romney, the main beneficiary will be Barack Obama, who will easily attract the support of moderate voters and cruise to victory.


In their quest to attract conservative primary voters, Republican candidates have adopted positions that will alienate moderates in the general election. Perhaps unexpectedly, those conservative positions have also discouraged moderate Republicans and independents from turning out in the primaries. As a result, Republican presidential hopefuls have adopted even more conservative positions in search of ever more radical Republican primaries likely voters.


It is inevitable that candidates become more partisan and polarized during the primary season. However, when turnout in primaries is high, the need to attract moderate voters prevents an excessive polarization and makes it easier for the winner to move back to the centre swiftly after securing the nomination. The low turnout in the 2012 Republican primaries fostered a vicious circle of increased polarization that will only benefit President Obama in the general election.


Unfortunately for Republicans, there is little their presidential hopefuls can do in the upcoming weeks to avoid moving further away from moderate voters. Low turnout gives more weight to the conservative vote in the upcoming Republican primaries. To secure the nomination, hopefuls need to win delegates in primaries. To win delegates, they adopt more conservative views. In adopting conservative views, they minimize their chances against Obama. Thus, the Republican primary has intentionally created an unwilling Republicans for Obama movement. The further they move to the left, the easier they make it for President Obama to win re-election.