08 February 2012

Why Beauty Contests Can Matter in the GOP Primary Process

Former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) won three Republican Presidential primary contests yesterday in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado.  These were Santorum’s first victories since his surprising victory in the Iowa Caucuses which kicked off primary season.  But what does it mean?
Ex Sen. Rick Santorum after victories in MO, CO & MN

Critics can claim that yesterday’s GOP contests do not mean anything since there were no delegates at stake and some campaigns might not have pour full resources into the contests. Moreover, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA 6th)  did not even make the Missouri primary ballot. That fact might be construed as not being a true primary fight.

But these beauty contests should not be quickly dismissed as meaningless.  Santorum won decisive victories in the Missouri primary and the Minnesota Caucuses and bested former Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA) in the Colorado Caucuses.  This should give Santorum momentum going into Super Tuesday on March 6th when around 250 of the necessary 1144 delegates necessary for nomination are available.

The Santorum surge, as evidence in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado, threatens a major premise for  Mitt Romney’s 2012 Presidential campaign–namely inevitability.  While there were no delegates on the line in Missouri, losing the Show Me State  primary 55% to 23% is embarrassing and questions Romney’s self assured position of being the eventual nominee.  In Minnesota, Romney placed in third place with 16% behind Representative Ron Paul (R-TX 24th) with 27.2% and the Caucus winner Santorum with 44.8%.  While the third place finish in Minnesota should have been humbling for Romney, what is more concerning is losing Colorado.  Although Santorum only beat Romney by a 40.2%-34.8% margin, Romney had put considerable resources in the Centennial State in anticipation of Colorado being a battleground state in the general election campaign.  Moreover, Romney beat Senator (and eventual GOP nominee) Senator John McCain (R-AZ) by a 60% to 18% margin in 2008.  So pondering psephologists want to know, what happened to Romney’s rocky mountain high in just four years.

Another way that Santorum’s victories in these beauty contests are instructive is seeing how a single conservative candidate fares against the alleged establishment moderate candidate Mitt Romney.  Newt Gingrich was not on the ballot in Missouri which enabled the head to head match-up and Santorum succeeded in coalescing the conservative vote.  Gingrich’s absence from the Show Me State ballot shows his lack of organization having practical effects.  But Newt was a candidate in the  Minnesota and Colorado caucuses yet he was a non-factor.  Again this could show the Gingrich campaign’s lack of organization, which is key in succeeding in caucuses.  But it might also reflect an abandonment of conservatives considering Newt as the non-Romney.  But the Gingrich press conference on Saturday after the Nevada caucuses might have stuck in Republican activists minds.  Newt was petulant, negative and obsessed about Mitt Romney.  This was not the campaign reboot which put Newt’s best foot forward.

Events also seem to have favored Santorum’s surge.  The HHS contraception mandate has boiled over among Catholics and Americans who value their First Amendment free exercise of religion rights.  There are sizeable Catholic populations in both Minnesota (28%) and Missouri (20%) so casting a one issue vote for a beauty contest is a natural way to send a message and vote with their hearts.

Santorum seems to have succeeded by being strategic by not competing in the expensive Florida primary or the Nevada Caucuses to score three big victories on one night.  Aside from the Maine Caucus on February 11th, there will be nearly three week hiatus until February 28th, when there is the Michigan and Arizona primaries.  At this time, it  is thought that Romney is positioned to do well in those primaries. Surprisingly, there is only one debate scheduled during this period, which does not help Gingrich stealing the spotlight with earned media.  Super Tuesday is spread out throughout the country, which will take some financial resources.  It will be fascinating to see if conservatives dub Santorum as the conservative choice and open their wallets to his campaign.

These Presidential primary beauty contests have been telling because they have focused melodramatic spotlights on their candidate. Santorum comes back from the dead (again) and surges into the top tier of candidates. It will be interesting if Santorum can stand up to scrutiny being one of the front runners. Santorum seemingly has relied on values voters support while appealing to what Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-MN) labeled "Wal Mart" conservatives.  After the Santorum surge, he need to convince Tea Party types that they should trust their hearts and direct their principled constitutional support to the Santorum campaign rather than standing with Newt.

 Romney took some serious blows by these loses. If Romney can recover from this tubthumping, then he will be a stronger candidate. However, now that the mantle of inevitable has been lifted from his candidacy, he will have to develop convincing new rationales that convince his supporters. Newt has to figure out what is his objective. Is it realistic for Newt to try to hold on until the April 3rd Texas primary, especially if conservatives solidly gravitate towards Santorum? Is Newt’s aim to ruin things for the pretty boy, come what may for everyone else? Is Newt willing to force a long shot brokered convention scenario where he might lead the GOP to the promised land but not be the candidate going forward? And is Gingrich willing to tarnish his reputation and intellectual future with conservatives by continuing a scorched earth policy that either so damages Romney that he is crippled in the general or stay in the race which divides the sizeable conservative vote?

Only time will tell.  Like sands through the hourglass, these are the days of our lives.

No comments: