Choosing The Right Wing

Political parties select their candidate for president at conventions in the summer of each presidential election year. Both Democrats and Republicans have a convention even if their candidate is uncontested such as the case this year with President Obama. Since a Republican is not currently president, the GOP is holding both caucuses and primaries in all 50 states to choose a nominee to oppose President Obama in the general election.

Party nominees for president are selected based on the number of delegates they have won in each state either through a caucus or primary. The main difference between a caucus and primary is simple. Caucuses are town meetings where supporters for each candidate who are registered party voters divide up into groups in support of their candidate. After speeches and other activities -party officials count the votes for each group and their respective candidate. These vote tallies determine how many delegates each candidate takes to the state convention and who wins the caucuses overall. It’s notable that in the caucus system there is no “secret ballot” like the primary system.

The primary system of selecting candidate delegates is more like a typical election by secret ballot and it is also more complicated. Voters “go to the polls” and vote for their choice. The ballot usually has the actual presidential candidates name on it but in a few states, only the convention delegate’s names appear on the ballot for each candidate.  Delegates to the national party convention can be either committed to voting for the primary winner by state law or “unpledged” where they are free to vote for anyone at the actual convention no matter who they supported beforehand in the primary.

Some primaries are “open” and some “closed.” A closed primary is only open to registered voters of the party holding the primary. Open primaries, on the other hand, are open to all registered voter regardless of political affiliation. When both parties are having primaries in a given state with open primaries, voters are only allowed to vote in one of the two primaries taking place on the same day. Primaries in most states are closed.

Primaries and caucuses tend to be representative of only a small segment of unusually politically active voters. Most registered voters do not participate in either caucuses or primaries because voter interest does not come to a zenith until the actual general election approaches. For Republican primaries, voters tend to be more conservative and for Democratic primaries, voters tend to be more liberal than the full electorate or even party base itself. Participation in primaries comes nowhere close to even the relatively low general election turnout of around 50 percent in presidential elections.

THE IOWA CAUCUS

There is no one big reason why Iowa is always the first state to hold presidential caucuses. Lawmakers in the state have made sure the state was first over many years. In fact, not long ago the state passed a law stating that its caucuses would always be held at least eight days before any other primaries or caucuses around the country.

Often people wonder not only why Iowa is first but ask themselves how representative of voters across America it really is. Iowa voters tend to be more conservative (even on the Democratic side) than most voters across the country. Iowa is generally a rural state and its voters do not represent, in most cases, the suburban cul-de-sac voters who ultimately decide presidential elections. Iowan’s are not exactly a bunch of “hicks” like some people think but they are more rural in character and out of the suburban stream that characterizes a larger majority of voters in America.

Of course, these facts do not mean Iowa should be written off. Iowa is the first “proving ground” for presidential candidates. Iowa’s caucuses are the first step into weeding out strong candidates verses weak ones –this is why candidates put so much effort into the state early on. A win or loss in Iowa can often make or break candidates –especially marginal ones. However, a win or loss here can also prove to be a fluke too -in 2008 Mike Huckabee won but John McCain eventually succeeded. Ironically Iowa has little “electoral map” significance so when the general election comes it’s most lasting influence, if any, is on who actually is nominated and runs.

Who were the winners and losers in Iowa in 2012? The big winner was Mitt Romney even if it was by only eight votes. The other big winner was Rick Santorum who was not really even been on the political radar since the GOP contest began until Iowa’s results. The other big winner was Ron Paul, given his insignificance leading into the Iowa contest, too.

No political pundit could have predicted such a strong showing for Santorum and Paul. Neither candidate may have lasting appeal but their sudden rise in the polls demonstrates just how “fluid” the GOP contest can be in 2012.

Romney did not like his results in Iowa because he did not get the “big win” that would have set him apart from the rest of the field from the start. Romney got 24.6% of the vote to Rick Santorum’s 24.5% and won by a mere eight-vote margin. While Romney proved himself a strong candidate, other candidates proved his weakness in some respects by having strong showings themselves. Santorum was right behind Romney and Ron Paul not far behind at 21.4%. Results like these underscore the fluid nature of the GOP race. It is notable that while Romney did throw his knockout punch in New Hampshire as expected, Ron Paul was a strong second, something that was surprising for a candidate many consider on the fringe.

THE SOUTH CAROLINA PRIMARY

South Carolina will be something of a toss-up for Romney. His opponents are spending a lot of money to tar and feather Romney on his past record and his various stances on issues. However, Romney’s opponents did the same thing in New Hampshire and Romney still won by a wide margin. The problem for Romney in South Carolina is that the state tends to be very conservative and it is also in the Bible Belt. Christian evangelical voters may not like Romney’s Mormonism and his somewhat moderate stance on many issues that conservative GOP voters consider important. South Carolina’s choice of a primary candidate in presidential years has almost always been the same candidate to win the party’s nomination. This was true in 2000 as well as 2008 with Bush and McCain respectively.

Romney needs consistent victories in the primaries and a big win in South Carolina to keep his campaign on top and set himself apart from the other GOP contenders. Winning in South Carolina and going on to win strong elsewhere will ensure that Romney establishes himself as the only serious candidate that can defeat Obama in the general election. If the primaries and caucuses turn into a fractured affair with no candidate emerging over the others due to prolonged mud-slinging between the contenders, it could hurt party unity overall going into the general election.

Iowa should have been the closing bell for Rick Perry though he decided to stay in where he likely will be slaughtered in South Carolina as he was in New Hampshire. Michelle Bachman saw the light – unlike Perry – and ditched the race. Bachman has never polled well and her support was minuscule compared to the other candidates. Bachman’s money was sure to dry up after such a dismal showing in Iowa.

THE TEA PARTY (TAXED ENOUGH ALREADY)

One of the biggest factors in the recent GOP nomination process is the rise of the Tea Party in recent years. GOP contenders are constantly pandering to the Tea Party because of their increasingly effective influence on the GOP. While some consider the Tea Party to be a wing of the GOP, it is really on an island to itself politically. Tea Partiers are ultra conservative – even more so than some hard-line conservatives in the GOP.  The group has gained increasingly widespread support from disgruntled voters unhappy with the main parties’ performance.

Tea Party folks have successfully injected their influence into mainstream GOP politics by electing candidates and sometimes overthrowing mainstream GOP candidates in primaries. The GOP candidates for president know how important it is to garner Tea Party support because, without it, they wouldn’t have much of a chance.

By Ted Manolatos
© Ernst Klett Verlag GmbH, Stuttgart 2011 | www.klett.de
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