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December 14, 2011 / Political Fluency

The Republican Base

Jonathan Bernstein wrote in The New Republic:

Newt Gingrich is having an impressive national polling surge…and the media is full of stories about whether it’s time to start taking him seriously. Here’s my advice: don’t. None of the recent polling means he’s going to win the Republican nomination, nor does it even mean that he’s going to have a serious shot at it. Newt is still the same wildly unelectable candidate he was five minutes ago, and the polls that say otherwise are no better indicator of voters’ true preferences than a game of darts.

The main reason for all this instability in the polls is that most Republicans just aren’t paying very much attention to the contest right now. That’s hard for the sorts of people who read The New Republic to accept, because for us politics is an active ongoing part of our lives, verging for some on an obsession. But that’s not how it is for most people. Even for those who will eventually care enough to vote, politics most of the time is background noise and an occasional conversation topic, not something to stay up-to-date on; it’s the difference between season ticket holders and people who start watching when the playoffs begin.

Moreover, most rank-and-file Republican voters just don’t care very much about the subtle differences between Romney and Cain and Perry and Gingrich and the rest. They pretty much like ’em all; after all, they’re all basically conservatives, and they’re all Republicans, aren’t they? The one that they’ll pick if they happen to get polled is therefore most likely going to be whichever one they’ve most recently heard something positive about, which in most cases probably boils down to whoever has been in heaviest rotation on Fox News recently.

That excerpt and the rest of the article does a great job detailing why politics can be so surprising and so disappointing: the citizenry is just not engaged the way it should be – even those who vote in primaries that are typically paying more attention than the average voter. The other thing to note: that editorial was published on Friday, December 2nd. It’s now 2 weeks later and Gingrich has maintained his lead.

The purpose of this site is to provide clarity in politics, but I have no explanation about how Gingrich is winning when he is a known commodity that has been in the race for months. In fact, he is not just a known commodity, he is too known according to Peggy Noonan.

One way to view this is that he is so rich and varied as a character, as geniuses often are, that he contains worlds, multitudes. One senses that would be his way of looking at it. Another way to look at it: In a long career, one will shift views, adapt to circumstances, tack this way and that. Another way: He’s philosophically unanchored, an unstable element. There are too many storms within him, and he seeks out external storms in order to equalize his own atmosphere. He’s a trouble magnet, a starter of fights that need not be fought. He is the first modern potential president about whom there is too much information.

Sean Trende came up with an explanation that is as good as any:

[The Republican electorate ] isn’t behaving the way it does because it hates Mitt Romney so much. In fact, “tepid” would probably be a better word to describe Romney’s standing with Republican voters. Consider the latest Gallup poll. It finds that 54 percent of Republicans consider Romney an acceptable nominee, while 41 percent find him unacceptable.

Drilling down further, we find that conservatives actually find Romney more acceptable than do moderates. Fully 55 percent of conservatives find Romney to be an acceptable nominee, while 51 percent of moderates say the same. At the same time, 58 percent of Tea Party supporters consider him acceptable, compared to 51 percent of non-Tea Party supporters.

So what is going on here? I think Romney’s problem isn’t that Republicans dislike him. It’s that no one loves him.

The problem for Romney is that GOP voters desperately want to fall in love with someone. They’re yearning for a confident conservative who can reasonably be expected to don the mantle of Ronald Reagan — a mantle that has quite frankly been gathering dust since Reagan left office in 1989. It’s the type of year where a conservative candidate who might be otherwise unelectable could get into office, and create major change in the country.

Republicans don’t look back at 1980 and 1984 fondly just because Reagan won. They do so because he crushed a president they had come to loathe, and then won a historic victory against that former president’s more liberal VP. With Obama, there is a similar, if not deeper loathing, a sense that he is a charlatan whom the media has been covering for consistently over the past five years.

Many Republicans sense that Gingrich wouldn’t just play it safe and win a quiet 52 percent of the vote, and then spend four years trying not to rock the boat. They see a candidate who would bludgeon Obama in debates, humiliate him in the campaign, and then spend four years twisting the knife into the liberal intelligentsia. Gingrich is someone Republicans could see on the stump talking about the media and paraphrasing FDR: “I welcome their hatred.” In other words, they see something to love. Erick Erickson of sums things up thusly: “I support Gingrich over Romney because Gingrich fights and I don’t ever have to doubt where he stands on an issue.” Note that “fights” comes before “where he stands” here.

But this is potentially very disturbing. First, we’ve had two bad presidential terms in a row and there needs to be a less polarizing figure as president – either Obama moderating himself to work with the Republican House and Senate come 2013 or a moderate Republican like Romney that doesn’t seek division. Newt Gingrich is one of the most polarizing political figures of the last 30 years. We have been too divided as a country over the past three Presidents and exacerbated by the last two. Gingrich would make the polarization even worse, which is unthinkable, but likely.

Second the line “GOP voters desperately want to fall in love with someone” should read “Democrat  voters desperately want to fall in love with someone.” Demcorats fall in love, the GOP falls in line. This isn’t how Republicans typically behave and it’s why I remain confused.  Instead of trying to win and “risk” being disappointed in the same the way they felt when George W. Bush left office only 3 years ago, it seems that the Republican primary voters want to make like Ndamukong Suh and stomp on Obama. At least he’ll be hurt even if the scoreboard shows him to be the winner.

This misremembers Ronald Reagan. He smiled when he wouldn’t “exploit for political purposes [his] opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Reagan was likeable. Even for those who are cynical that say he was an actor that faked it; he still came across that way. Newt Gingrich is not likeable enough to get elected. It is a popularity contest – just like in a middle school election.

As a long-suffering Islanders fan that has stopped watching hockey primarily due to that suffering, there was one year that the highlight of the Islanders season was when they beat up the Rangers in a series of fights during a loss. It would have been better if the puck went into the Rangers’ net more often than the puck went into the Islanders’ net.

Likewise, it is better for the Republicans to have more people going into the voting booth than the Democrats. Then let history and punditry judge Obama. The reason Carter can be looked upon so harshly is that he was a one-term President. There is social proof that Carter was seen as a bad President at the time when so many refused to re-elect him. For all of the criticism of George W. Bush, being re-elected is an accomplishment that can be pointed to showing his popularity among the people he was leading.   

You need to win the war. The best way for Republicans to “bludgeon” and “humiliate” Obama is to choose the most electable candidate to make Obama a one-term President and then have the Monday Morning Quarterbacks on TV and in print sully his name. There’s no consolation for Obama to be polling at 52% against Gingrich at 43% going into October and Newt winning all 3 debates handily to have the election end up at 51% to 48% with Obama victorious, but revealed to be “dumber” than the party of George W. Bush.

Or is the Republican base that… base?


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