The Weirdness of the 2012 Republican Primary

Mitt Romney has long been the presumptive winner of the 2012 Republican presidential nomination. After only one primary and a single caucus, it’s nearly impossible to seriously entertain the idea that this presumption won’t be confirmed. There’s been damned little real drama in this candidate selection process, despite the media’s desperate effort to promote first one, then another, and then another opponent as a viable challenger. It’s surprising that this should be so when there was no real candidate presumptive coming out of the 2008 election, and given how beatable conservatives believe Obama is. The odd story of the primary season, then, is that there is no story.

Or perhaps not. Charles Krauthammer thinks the story is Ron Paul’s ability to bring libertarianism in from the cold and finally achieve a respectable vote count. It’s an odd story Krauthammer tells, though. On the one hand he seems to be treating Paul’s success as something of a real and lasting achievement, but on the other hand he compares him to Jesse Jackson’s role in the Democratic Party in the ’80s and, most strangely, to Pat Buchanan, of whom he says, “Everyone remembers Buchanan’s fiery and disastrous culture-war address” at the ’92 GOP convention. Are these success stories? Perhaps, if we treat the last two Democratic presidents having allegedly been black as evidence of Jackson’s lasting influence, and the Tea Party as evidence of Buchanan’s lasting influence. But I’m dubious. And I’m dubious that Paul’s numbers represent a real breakthrough as much as they represent his name-recognition (attained over successive futile presidential runs) and the lack of substantive candidates in the GOP race. I see this as just another desperate attempt to find some kind of worthy story in this non-story year. I kind of feel for Krauthammer–he’s expected to write about politics and meet deadlines; he’s got to come up with something, even when there’s really nothing.

But there are stories behind the non-stories; one a story about expectations for the 2008 election, and one–the important one–about a radical innovation in the candidate selection process, the pre-primary debate.

The expectations story has to do with the clear disconnect between conservatives’ fervent belief that Obama’s a doomed lame-duck with no chance to win the election and the uncomfortable fact that any really good candidates the Republicans might have had didn’t show up for the supposed easy victory. One possible answer is that there really aren’t any good GOP candidates right now. It’s possible, but I’m not fully persuaded. It’s been fairly common in recent years for a candidate to rise from relative obscurity fairly quickly to become a serious candidate, so the absence of that person in the campaign doesn’t necessarily mean there isn’t such a person out there; it could just mean any potential such persons looked at the landscape and decided this year wasn’t a great bet.

And that’s the other answer; that the better candidates evaluated this election season differently from the conservatives in the street and are looking to ’16. The one flaw in this theory is that a first presidential campaign is often just a dumbshow for the purpose of gaining name recognition and future mentioning as a real contender the next time around. But look at what happened to Obama when he did that–somehow he wound up getting the nomination. Would a smart but not fully prepared candidate really want that to happen to them this year?

Granted, serious candidate Mitt Romney did show, but he really had little choice. Having run so hard in ’08 he could hardly explain sitting out ’12 then returning for ’16. His time would be past, and he’d certainly not be taken seriously. Good and bad luck in timing one’s presidential runs may not be much talked about, but it’s a reality. He’s lucky in that there is comparatively little serious competition this year, but he may be unlucky in that his shot just happens to come in a year when the incumbent really is going to be damned hard to unseat.

My GOP operative/academic consultant thinks both of these things are happening. He thinks the GOP really doesn’t have a lot of good candidates hiding out in the wings, but he also thinks the smart money is sitting out this year and looking to ’16 because, in his opinion, Obama really is going to be damned hard to beat. Intrade has pretty consistently been picking Obama for re-election, and by now we’ve all heard that he’s already raised nearly a quarter million dollars for his campaign, none of which has to be expended in a primary battle. He can point to major legislative success with the PPACT (even if much of the public is skeptical about it, the majority don’t loathe it and often just the act of major legislative success has more salience with the public than the substance of it does), he did bring the troops home from Iraq, and by god the unemployment rate is dropping, just in time for him to point to continued improvement.

The other story behind the non-stories has not received enough attention. Never before have we had a months-long pre-primary sequence of candidate debates. As much as any other cause this is the reason why Romney is on the verge of wrapping up the nomination with unprecedented rapidity (despite the curious storylet of Rick Santorum’s belated Iowa caucus victory. Usually the winnowing out occurs during the primaries, but the debate series did the real winnowing out work this time around.

How did this come about? I don’t know, but I’m eager for someone more focused on electoral politics to tell me.

Is it a good thing, and what does it portend for the future of presidential selection? I don’t know this, either, other than to say that it further strengthens the the primaries’ effect of selecting presidents who are built to be Wilsonian popular leaders, rather than 19th-century clerk-style presidents. Some think 19th-century presidents are not suited for the 21st-century. I incline toward thinking that 21st-century style presidents are an unmitigated disaster of popular leadership as feared by the founders.

In the big picture, I think that is the story of 2011/12; the rise of the independent but damn-near mandatory pre-primary debate. But how it plays out, how it ultimately shapes the electoral landscape, is a story we can’t yet tell.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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17 Responses to The Weirdness of the 2012 Republican Primary

  1. Matty says:

    Something strange is happening on this post, random words, which change if I reload the page are being linked to a competition to win an iphone.

  2. D. C. Sessions says:

    Yes and no. The primaries still perform a useful filtering process: they demand organization. A candidate needs to put together a campaign team across the country to get on the primary ballots (good example of FAIL on that this year in Virginia) and get out the vote generally (Sandorum’s shoe-leather victory in Iowa being a good example). This was where Bush43 really aced the 2000 primaries: McCain was dead before it started because Bush had locked up the preliminary logistics and fundraising.
    The debates are a good way of vetting other aspects of a candidate. It’s quite possible that they might have warned Republicans of McCain’s weaknesses before they committed to him. Or not.
    IMHO, though, to the extent that the primaries are going to remain their importance they’re going to have to get away from having New Hampshire pick the party candidates. New Hampshire has a lot of nice attributes, but it’s not really a very good proxy for the rest of the country so relying on it to pick the finalists is a bad strategy for both parties.

  3. Matty says:

    It’s gone now nevermind

  4. Lance says:

    I also wondered where the “good” Republican candidates were. I’m not sure the smart Republicans (oxymoron?) decided to sit this one out. I think it may be a matter of the Republican party becoming a self limiting organization.

    To win the primaries a candidate must appeal to the most conservative and religious republicans which attracts candidates that have little chance to appeal to moderate Republicans and Independents. Or they must be ideological chameleons that can change their “deeply held” convictions with deviations in atmospheric pressure. (Romney seems to be attempting this maneuver.)

    This last trick leaves the candidate open to accusations of “flip flopping” that make easy fodder for general election attack adds.

    Of course this applies to the Democratic party as well, but to a lesser degree. I don’t think the Democratic electorate is quite so demographically schismatic.

  5. James Hanley says:

    +1 to D.C.’s response. The necessity of organization to actually perform well in the primaries is indeed still relevant, and missing from my analysis. I think a guy like Gingrich thinks debate success will translate into people getting off the couch to go vote, but that’s a different story altogether. So these debates are really a pre-filter filter.

    Lance’s points are good as well. Watching the Republican party now is just weird; parties by definition are organized to win elections, so watching them purge people creates a lot of cognitive dissonance.

  6. D. C. Sessions says:

    parties by definition are organized to win elections

    Pretty poor definition, that. Libertarians, Greens, American Socialists, Dixiecrats, …

    It’s a long list. Unless you assume that every single registered Libertarian is hopelessly out of touch with reality, there’s something else going on. Or you could go tautological and declare them all non-parties, I suppose. In which case I’d appreciate suggestions for what to call them.

  7. James Hanley says:

    As my undergrad mentor said, “the Greens aren’t a political party, they’re a social club.”

    Technically a party is any organization that runs candidates for office under its label. That’s what distinguishes a political party from an interest group. To the extent the Greens, for example, succeed in winning some elections, even if it’s just local, they are reasonably considered political parties, even if small, weak, and broadly non-influential ones. But if they don’t actually make serious attempts to win elections they really are better understood as specialized interest groups masquerading as parties, like the Christian Falangists or Constitution Party. Or failed attempts at creating parties, like the Reform Party or, quite arguably, the Libertarian Party.

  8. D. C. Sessions says:

    Ah, then you’re making a bit of a stretch going from “any organization that runs candidates for office under its label” to “parties by definition are organized to win elections.”

    One could, I think, ascribe other motives to many Republicans besides “winning elections.” Newt Gingrich, for instance, appears to have entered the primary race last year to raise his profile for other purposes and was caught a bit behind when it appeared he might have a shot at it. The most famous unserious candidate in modern times was Barry Goldwater, who was frank (at least with friends) about wanting to use the campaign to promote his ideas regarding conservatism.
    In that vein, the Republican primary electorate this time around appear to be at least as concerned with purity as with winning. Which is quite common among religious parties, although we see that more in environments that are friendlier to minor parties.

  9. James Hanley says:

    I think the distinction you’re trying to make is based on short-term v. long-term goals. Goldwater had every interest in his party winning elections; he just wanted to shift the basis of their appeal to voters. And keep in mind that those Republicans concerned with purity actually believe–even if wrongly–that purity will help them win; they think mobilizing the base is a better strategy than trying to mobilize the moderate mushy middle. As for Gingrich, he isn’t a party but an individual, and individual motives won’t necessarily match up with party interests.

    So I don’t think it’s really a stretch from “they run candidates for office” to “organized to win elections.” The primary purpose for running candidates for office is to win. Those that don’t actually connect the two, the purely ideological, or vanity, parties, aren’t taken seriously as political parties, but are understood as specialized interests masquerading as parties.

  10. Lance says:

    WOW Gingrich huh?

  11. Matty says:

    Surely this is the best thing about the Republican primaries.

  12. Dr X says:

    @ Lance:

    WOW Gingrich huh?

    Amazing, isn’t it?

  13. Lance says:

    It’s like the Republicans are determined to fracture their party into tiny angry pieces to insure that their eventual nominee will have absolutely no momentum going into the general election.

  14. James Hanley says:

    It’s like the Republicans are determined to fracture their party into tiny angry pieces

    Perhaps they misunderstand just how “divide and conquer” is supposed to work.

  15. James Hanley says:

    Well, everybody was saying Moderate Mitt might have trouble in SC, and there’s no doubt Newt pandered hard there. But, yeah, WOW. 40%?

  16. D. C. Sessions says:

    But, yeah, WOW. 40%?

    I still don’t think Gingrich has the legs for the long run, but this may go a long way towards cancelling out the short-term funding disparity. He’s proven that he can get votes in critical States (OK, not Virginia) and that may lead to some impressive money drops going into Florida.

    Best guess: Gingrich wants to have enough power going into the convention to at least get some goodies, and maybe enough to play kingmaker.

  17. Lance says:

    Best guess: Gingrich wants to have enough power going into the convention to at least get some goodies, and maybe enough to play kingmaker.

    You, Sir, have underestimated the size of Newt’s self-aggrandized, delusional ego, which is even bigger than his enormous gelatinous head.

    I have no doubt that he wants, and expects, nothing less than the Republican nomination and perhaps a Kim Jong Il style parade replete with giant tasseled portraits of his bloatedness escorted by spandex clad, ribbon swirling maidens.

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