If you want informed, expert and insightful opinion on the Republican nomination race, I recommend the ConservativeHome USA site and Timothy Stanley’s blog. But if you are daft enough to be interested in my idle and half-informed reflections, read on.
As I see it, the Republicans are caught in a outwards-looking struggle between two theories about how to give themselves the best chance of beating Obama, and an inwards-looking struggle about how to make it worth winning if they do.
In Britain we tend to think of opposition parties needing to reach out to the voters of the other side – that elections are won by “swing” voters that switch between parties. Now there can be more than one way to swing voters – Thatcher famously won in 1979 by swinging many “C” social group voters that would have previously been regarded as fairly core Labour voters, rather than appealing to the soft social democrat / metropolitan liberal voters that are usually thought of as constituting the centre. But a winning coalition is supposed to identify some way to reach out beyond its core.
Swing voters can also be a factor in US elections. The Romney pitch is that he appeals to swing voters. He is not strident on social conservative issues or on the economy in a way that might disturb or alienate many voters – his positioning (if not always his actual policy) is a sort of “sensible Democrat-lite” with more than a dash of “I’m rich and smart so I’ll be competent” thrown in.
But to core Republicans he isn’t “one of us”. They don’t trust him on all sorts of issues. They don’t believe he will make restricting abortion further a priority. They see him as a part of the sort of Wall Street finance-and-the-state culture that the Tea Party was born to oppose. And they fear that choosing Romney is a way to lose to Obama respectably – which they definitely do not want to do.
For appealing to swing voters isn’t usually either sufficient or necessary to win a Republican presidency. US elections have low turnout percentages on very low proportions of eligible registered voters. It simply isn't necessary to appeal to any sort of "centre" – motivating a high enough proportion of voters at the wings can be a winning strategy without appealing to the centre much at all. Because of this, the demographics in the US mean that the Republicans really ought to win the presidency almost every time. All that is necessary is to put up a candidate that born-again Christians and conservative Catholics feel they can vote for in good conscience and good sense. I understand that across much of the US around half of registered voters are born-again Christians and, when motivated, they can secure much higher turnout than other groupings. These fundamentally conservative-minded voters have a number of key issues of interest – especially abortion, but also (these days) issues such as gay marriage, how Creation and Evolution are taught in schools, and the sense of deep, immoral unfairness associated with the bank bailouts.
A Republican can win comfortably simply by garnering enough of these natural conservative voters. If I recall correctly, in 1988 George H Bush secured more than 80% of evangelical and conservative Catholic votes – ample for a Republican to win every time. However, the Republican establishment is interesting unwilling to supply candidates that these conservative-minded voters would feel able to vote for. That person doesn’t have to be one of them – neither Reagan nor Bush Snr were conservative evangelical Christians, yet both secured high proportions of that vote. But those voters do have some needs – if you were having affairs, it was probably best you weren’t seeking to impeach sitting Presidents for doing so at the same time; if you must leave your wife, it’s probably best if you don’t wait for her to be crippled in a car accident first; most of them would probably prefer a candidate that believed that men had actually landed on the moon, and one that didn’t believe in the abolition of money.
I used to feel there was some remarkable pathology at the heart of the Republican Party that it seemed so implausibly incapable of putting up a straightforward married born-again Christian with a couple of kids who believed in restricting abortion, opposing torture and controlling public spending without privatising the army, was not given to bizarre conspiracy theories, and who, if he had ever been a drug addict or a drunk, had repented of it at least fifteen years ago, and who had not defrauded anyone or been involved in live involuntary human experimentation for some time.
But the thing is that the Republican party is actually historically a much more liberal Party than these conservative voters. It was, for example, founded as an anti-slavery Party. It isn’t that the establishment is not true to the Party core values represented by its voting base (an allegation sometimes made, for example, about the UK Conservative Party). The Republican establishment does reflect classical Republican ideas and ideals. Rather, the dilemma that the Republican establishment faces is whether a victory secured by appealing to its voting base is a victory worth winning.
The candidate that appeals to that voting base – at least much of the time – is Santorum. There is sometimes a misconception in the UK that this is for some religious reason, as if Santorum’s religious views were more in line with the religious views of Republican voters than Romney’s. But my understanding is that that isn’t so. Santorum is not an evangelical Christian. He is an archly-conservative Roman Catholic of the sort that even many British evangelicals would regard as verging on the heretical. At the same time, whilst in Britain Mormons are regarded as somewhere between Jehovah’s Witnesses and Scientologists on the cultic scale, in the US the Mormon church is much more respected, with some surveys suggesting (remarkably, to British Protestant ears) that somewhere between a half and three quarters of US evangelical Christians regard Mormons as Christian. For US evangelical Christians the Mormon vs the Marian is a struggle of two heretics on something close to a religious par.
The thing about Santorum isn’t his religion. It’s what he does with his religion in his politics. Santorum is as sound as can be on abortion from the born-again Christian’s perspective – indeed, if anything he perhaps goes too far for some and they might feel queasy about supporting him if they truly thought he could deliver on his beliefs. Ditto on gay marriage. And ditto in spades on Creative vs Evolution in schools – an arena in which Santorum, whilst in Congress, was the “Senator for Intelligent Design” with his high-profile support for the “teach the controversy” principle.
Unlike Romney, Santorum will alienate the usual centrist swing voters (whilst reaching out, Thatcher-style, to urban blue-collar workers in a way Romney won’t). But unlike Romney, Santorum could mobilise those born-again Christians and conservative Catholics.
Romney will run a dull-but-respectable campaign, and if Obama screws up he could even sneak it – but more likely he’ll come a respectable second and New York Republican voters won’t be ashamed to confess their stance in public. Santorum is unlikely to come a respectable second. He’ll either win big or, more probably, blow up in epic fashion and go down to a crushing defeat.
Conservative voters thinking Romney is more likely to win may think his would be a victory not worth having. Traditional Republican values voters (i.e. those more liberal than the conservatives) thinking Santorum is more likely to win may think his would be a victory not worth having.
Either way, they don’t know what they want and the Republican contest looks like dragging on and on. Meanwhile Obama, the real test, prepares and awaits…