FLORIDA, May 30, 2012 — In what is one of modern history’s most toxic election cycles for moderate Republicans, Mitt Romney has finally managed to clinch the GOP presidential nomination.
How, exactly, did this happen?
The answer is easy: Rick Santorum.
Following the Iowa caucuses, Santorum emerged as 2012’s Mike Huckabee, albeit with a far more radical spin on social issues. Using his fundamentalist interpretations of Roman Catholicism as a calling card to that special subset of voters whose politics are all but completely informed by theological concerns, Santorum managed to overtake Newt Gingrich as the standard bearer of fire-breathing, flat-earth-style conservatism.
After he was knocked down several pegs in his supposed home territory of the South, Gingrich had little chance to climb back up the partisan ladder. Because his distinct strain of rightism was rooted in principally secular populism, more than a few fundies were left decidedly unfulfilled.
Fortunately for them, Santorum’s campaign was able to harness the angry tone marketed by Gingrich and temper this with sprinklings of the familiar comforts usually found in a religious mass movement. Of course, the media wasted no time in pointing out Santorum’s theoconservative views, and he subsequently lost any chance of mainstream acceptance.
By then, however, Gingrich had been throughly savaged by both the press and the machinations of the Romney campaign. He was left not only politically but personally unpopular with American voters. Despite trudging along for a few months after his electoral obituary had been written, published, and distributed from sea to shining sea, the former Speaker of the House never regained his status as a viable candidate.
From this point on, Romney experienced relatively smooth sailing. His key opposition came not from either of his two notable contenders, but pundits and President Obama. When Santorum and Gingrich each dropped out of the primaries during April, their announcements were covered almost as footnotes in the emerging general election.
With all of the above being noted, this year’s primary season stands as evidence to three important facts:
First, center-right Republicans, such as Romney, can indeed win seemingly tough races. For a short period, he tried to out-conservative both Santorum and Gingrich. It should be no surprise that this was precisely when the former Massachusetts governor endured his greatest hardships. After he began focusing on issues instead of ideology, though, he regained his lead and never lost it.
Second, many Republicans in more than a handful of states find radical, if not comical, candidates like Santorum and Gingrich seriously appealing. The Party’s right-wing ran from crazy to crazier presidential aspirant throughout the latter half of 2011, so its affinity for unqualified individuals was never a secret. However, the reality that throngs of so-called conservatives fall for such nonsense to begin with should be addressed.
Third, the popularity of Santorum and Gingrich early on yielded strongly negative returns for the primary season as a whole. This can be prevented by adopting a calendar which affords moderate states, such as those in the Northeast, Mid Atlantic, Upper Midwest, Pacific West, and that strange microcosm of the entire East Coast known as Florida, priority election dates. After that, reasonable candidates will gain traction by default.
While Mitt Romney’s win is a remarkable one for the traditionally centrist majority of the Republican Party, understanding how and why it occurred is of far greater importance than gloating in victory over the hardcore righties.
Should the GOP wish to remain viable in the foreseeable future, important lessons must be learned from the immediate past.
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