There is another round of Republican presidential primaries headed our way. Like before, a slew of candidates eagerly claim to be the end-all of American conservatism.
How did this strategy work out last time?
In what was one of modern history’s most toxic election cycles for moderate Republicans, Mitt Romney managed to clinch the GOP presidential nomination.
How, exactly, did this happen?
The answer is easy: Rick Santorum.
Following the Iowa caucuses, Santorum emerged as 2012’s Mike Huckabee, albeit with a far more radical spin on social issues. Using his Roman Catholic fundamentalism as a calling card to that special subset of voters whose politics are all but completely informed by theological concerns, Santorum managed to overtake Newt Gingrich as the standard bearer of fire-breathing, flat-earth-style rightism.
After he was knocked down several pegs in his supposed home territory of the South, Gingrich had little chance to climb back up the partisan ladder. Because his politics were rooted in principally secular populism, more than a few fundies were left decidedly unfulfilled.
Fortunately for them, Santorum’s campaign was able to harness the angry tone marketed by Gingrich and temper this with sprinklings of the familiar comforts usually found in a religious mass movement. Of course, the media wasted no time in pointing out Santorum’s theoconservative views, and he subse-quently lost any chance of mainstream acceptance.
By then, however, Gingrich had been throughly savaged by both the press and the machinations of the Romney campaign. He was left not only politically but personally unpopular with American voters. Despite trudging along for a few months after his electoral obituary had been written, published, and dis-tributed from sea to shining sea, the former Speaker of the House never regained his status as a viable candidate.
From this point on, Romney experienced relatively smooth sailing. His key opposition came not from either of his two notable contenders, but pundits and President Obama. When Santorum and Gingrich each dropped out of the primaries during April, their announcements were covered almost as footnotes in the emerging general election.
With all of the above being noted, 2012’s primary season stands as evidence to three important facts.
First, center-right Republicans can indeed win seemingly tough races. For a short period, Romney tried to out-conservative both Santorum and Gingrich. It should be no surprise that this was precisely when the former Massachusetts governor endured his greatest hardships. After he began focusing on issues instead of ideology, though, he regained his lead and never lost it.
Second, many Republicans in more than a handful of states find radical, if not comical, candidates like Santorum and Gingrich seriously appealing. The Party’s right-wing ran from crazy to crazier presidential aspirant throughout the latter half of 2011, so its affinity for unqualified individuals was never a secret. However, the reality that throngs of so-called conservatives fall for such nonsense to begin with should be addressed.
Third, the popularity of Santorum and Gingrich early on produced strongly negative returns for the primary season as a whole. This can be prevented by adopting a calendar which affords moderate states, such as that strange microcosm of the entire East Coast known as Florida, priority election dates. After that, reasonable candidates will gain traction by default.
While Mitt Romney’s win is a remarkable one for the traditionally centrist majority of the Republican Party, understanding how and why it occurred is of far greater importance than gloating in victory over the hardcore righties.
Should the GOP wish to remain viable in the foreseeable future, important lessons must be learned from its past.
Joseph Cotto is a historical and social journalist, and writes about politics, economics and social issues