Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney had trouble defeating Ron Paul in the Rhode Island Young Republican straw poll (okay, to be fair, that straw poll was meaningless). Now he crosses the finish line third in the Alabama and Mississippi primaries. At the time of writing, Hawaii and American Samoa are still up in the air, but they utilize a caucus system, rather than a primary system, and the news of the night will be Mr. Romney’s loss.
The air of inevitability is off, and though the math still favors Mr. Romney in the delegate race, his path to victory looks increasingly shaky.
Faced by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), former Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), and serving Representative Ron Paul (R-TX), Mr. Romney has had all the advantages in this race: money, name recognition, unlimited spending via SuperPACs, endorsements, support of the Republican establishment, and virtual “runner-up” status from the 2008 Republican presidential primary. And yet, he can’t seem to finish off any of his remaining opponents.
As the race continues it seems that the Republican Party’s much-vaunted discipline is falling apart in this presidential primary. Since the 1950s, Republicans have almost reliably nominated candidates at the convention who have been a credible runners-up in a previous primary season or else were vice president. Nixon: vice president; Ford: vice president; Reagan: runner-up in 1968 & 1976; George H. W. Bush: vice president and a runner up in 1980; Dole: runner-up in 1988; and McCain: the runner-up in 2000. The two aberrations have been Barry Goldwater in 1964 and George W. Bush in 2000; but in both those cases no candidate had been a previous runner-up or a vice president.
Interestingly, this begs the question, should Mr. Santorum emerge at the convention as the nominee and then lose, would Mr. Romney get another shot in 2016? I’d say no, simply because having lost two primary races in a row and a loss this year after virtually being the presumptive nominee would probably spell the end of his presidential ambitions. In such a scenario, Mr. Santorum’s ambitions would be over as well, leaving the Republican Party with no obvious nominee in 2016. But should Mr. Romney win, expect to see Mr. Santorum again in 2016 or 2020.
Unless, of course, American politics are about to undergo a sea change. Republicans nationwide appear to be eating themselves. The social agenda of the Tea Party and its politicians have made them the most unpopular group in the country. Less conservative candidates are unable to catch fire with the increasingly conservative base. Meanwhile, moderates continue their exodus from the Republicans while RINO-hunters are after their heads.
Each of the remaining candidates seems to represent a constituency in the Republican party. Mr. Romney represents the elite establishment interests. Mr. Santorum represents religious and social conservatives. Mr. Paul represents libertarians. And Mr. Gingrich represents philandering hypocrites. This may be because parties in America are less political parties than large coalitions of relatively unorganized factions. That the candidates seem to be reliably taking portions of various voters points to an increasing factionalism within the Republican Party.
Trust in the parties to accomplish the task of governing is at an all-time low. In this kind of environment, radical political movements like the Tea Party or Occupy Wall St. can come to the fore. However, with both groups having appeared to have spent their goodwill and life having moved on without them, look for new ones to crop up. Both parties are going to have to reinvent themselves to stay relevant with shifting demographics. But if it’s fair to say there’s a Republican Civil War going on, then it remains to be seen whether it’ll give them a head start or delay the process.