Managing Ideology: The 2012 Republican Primaries


April 11, 2012 03:10 EDT
A look at the 2012 US Republican Primaries.

Every four years the United States enters presidential election mode. Four months into the Republican presidential primary contest, nine contenders have been eliminated, with three official candidates still pursuing the road to the Republican National Convention in August. Among those top contenders are former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and former Texas congressional representative Ron Paul. Through a series of televised debates and individual campaigns, each candidate has tried to establish themselves as the most formidable challenger to take on President Obama in November’s general election.

The 2012 primaries have been marked by significant legal changes in campaign finance and competing political ideologies. The 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling permitted donors to make unlimited donations to “independent expenditure only committees” also known as super PACs. Super PACs are unique because they are unable to directly donate their funds to a specific candidate or campaign, but can accept unlimited donations for political spending from corporations, special interest groups, and individuals. For instance, the super PAC “Restore our Future", which supports Mr. Romney, has already spent $40mn during the primaries. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, top super PAC donors only make up 3.7% of all donations, but are responsible for 80% of the funds raised. This allows big ticket donations to not only play a role in campaign vitality, but begs the question of whose interests will be a priority after the election.

Along with unprecedented donations, the primaries have also been marked by changes in delegate allocation. For the first time, many states have decided to award delegates proportionally, instead of the traditional “winner takes all” model. This change was initially put in place to give lesser, un-known candidates a fighting chance, in addition to hopes that a longer race would revive the party (as the 2008 primary race was able to do for the Democrats). While both of these goals have been met, it is doubtful that the prolonged race has helped the Republican Party.

In addition to juggling campaign finance and acquiring delegates, the primary season has also been full of ideology. With women’s reproductive rights being approached with the same tenacity as the economy, it is clear that the candidates are not only being judged by their credentials, but also on their ideas about specific small government, limited regulation, and their religious profiles. These specific expectations have created a very small ideological platform and leave Republican candidates with very little elbowroom to foster a well-rounded discussion on issues such as contraception, abortion, taxes, jobs, and healthcare. This tailored profile has also led to accusations that the Republicans have declared a war on women and that their sole interest lies in protecting the wealth of America’s top 1%. The merits of these accusations can be debated, but more importantly, they show how American political discourse has started to focus more and more on political ideology. The attempt to brand what is ‘conservative’ has left the Republicans with the challenge of choosing a very conservative candidate, who also has the potential to appeal to the larger US population come November.

Despite these difficulties, the Republicans seem to have selected their candidate. Mr. Romney, who has long led the race in delegates, has seemingly secured his candidacy after victories in Wisconsin, the District of Columbia, and Maryland on April 3rd. Despite a clear advantage over his Republican rivals, Mr. Romney’s general electability remains in question. Will he be able to muster enough support to win the general election, when Republicans themselves have yet to enthusiastically rally behind his campaign? And what is it that has allowed Mr. Romney to come so far in the primary race, when he has repeatedly been described as hard to relate to or out of touch with average Americans?

Mr. Romney’s success in the primaries can be partially attributed to the polarization of US politics. Where there was once a middle ground with the option of courting a bipartisan agenda, politicians have now been pushed into two camps -- conservatives and liberals. It seems that political opinion only has two options: for the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act (“Obamacare”) or against it; pro-life or pro-choice; religious freedom in public spheres and institutions or government infringement -- the list goes on. There is very little room for a more diverse candidate to bridge the gap in American politics, instead of widening it. Although Romney clearly isn’t the Republican Party’s ideal candidate, he does have potential for garnering appeal beyond the conservative base, especially considering his business record and his term as Governor of Massachusetts.

As the Republican Party moves towards solidifying a candidate, Mr. Romney must rise above the issues posed by campaign finance and delegates, for he faces the greater challenge of uniting and convincing the rest of America that he has the ability to represent more than a conservative ideology and can provide better economic solutions than President Obama.

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