If Forrest Gump were a political junky, he would have compared primary elections to a box of unlabeled chocolates: you really just don’t quite know what you are going to get. And he would have been right any other year, but not this time. These primaries are more like chocolates that come labeled as cream-filled, but you discover upon bighting into them that they are, instead, full of nuts. This second analogy is more apt for this Republican primary season. We all thought we knew what was going on a week ago, and then we realized that what we thought we knew was an illusion.
Mitt Romney came into South Carolinaas the only non-incumbent candidate to win both ultra-conservative Iowa and moderate New Hampshire. Everyone expected New Hampshire to be a blow-out, which it was, but Romney’s Iowa win was a complete surprise. It seemed that Romney’s questionability among conservatives had finally given way to inevitability. Then two things happened that changed everything.
Because the Iowa results were so close, election officials did an official recount to make sure the numbers were correct. Romney’s first blow came when the count revealed that Rick Santorum had won Iowa instead. Mitt’s historic accomplishment was no more, but at least he was still ahead by a fairly wide margin in South Carolina’s and Florida’s polls. Something more drastic would have to occur for such momentum to disappear. And disappear it did at the hands of the Christian Right.
Leaders of the extremely conservative religious establishment gathered in Texas to come to a consensus as to whom they would support as the nominee, which would send the clear message to their followers that the candidate they picked was, essentially, the one that God wants. This had less to do with their support of any one candidate and more to do with their skepticism of Romney; Mitt wasn’t even an option as far as they were concerned, and many of their followers individually felt the same way. A consensus among the Christian leaders would serve to make sure that the more conservative candidates would not end up splitting the vote, thereby giving Romney the de facto victory. In the end, their strategy largely worked, though not in the way they intended.
Their anointed conservative candidate was Rick Santorum, the newly minted winner of Iowa. He is Catholic, which is usually a non-starter for the Christian Right, but the choices are pretty slim for religious Republicans these days. If you can’t stand the thought of a Mormon in the White House, your other options are a protestant Rick Perry with no chance of winning (who has subsequently dropped out of the race), a very radical Ron Paul, a Catholic Newt Gingrich with a sketchy moral and political past, and yet another Catholic Santorum. Santorum stands out from the group with the best combination of moral record and popularity. This Catholic would be the Protestant Right’s candidate.
Anyone who has paid any attention to politics since the late 1970s should be keenly aware of the Christian Right’s hold on Republican politics. Traditionally (if tradition means the past 30 years), if you wanted to be a successful national Republican candidate, you needed to not only be Protestant, but hardcore Protestant. It seems, however, that the rules are changing. Not only will the only professing mainstream Protestant in the race for the White House be the Democrat that the Christian Right loves to hate (can Christians hate?), but it turns out that the anointing of a candidate by the Christian leaders holds almost no sway on their followers anymore whatsoever. Santorum won the Tony Perkins and James Dobson vote, but Gingrich ran away with the South Carolina votes of those who mattered.
Politics changes over time as a result of population trends and consequences from previous electoral choices. The Christian Right’s hold on conservatism came about in reaction to a chaotic 1970s, and both the Obama revolution and, consequently, the Tea Party, arose from reactions against what was called the Christian Right’s “Moral Majority.” Now things are changing again, even quicker and more dynamically than ever before. Everything we thought we knew about American politics is crumbling before our very eyes.
We thought we would know who the nominee would be by now. We don’t, and not by a long shot. We were sure that the Christian Right’s meeting in Texas would change the race in favor of the candidate they would choose. It didn’t. We thought the Tea Party candidate, whoever that may be at whatever moment we are talking about, would greatly benefit from a sustainable base of angry support. Instead, one after another has fallen hard after temporarily enjoying 15 minutes of fame because the Tea Party isn’t nearly as powerful or sustainable as we all thought. In the end, it has come down to: the establishment’s chosen candidate (Romney) who has the best chance to beat the incumbent but who no one in the traditional party base of voters likes; and the candidate with the sketchiest political and personal past, low general election polling, and low establishment and influential Christian support (Gingrich).
It seems as though this should have been an easy win for Romney, and it would likely have been if we were still living in the Republican past. But things are no longer what they seem to be. Everything we thought we knew is now bunk. All that used to be solid ground is now the quicksand that Herman Cain, Michelle Bachmann, and Rick Perry – normally perfectly acceptable candidates for the Republican nomination – have unwittingly fallen into. All, that is, except for two solid facts: Ron Paul is Ron Paul is Ron Paul; and President Obama’s reelection effort has just become a whole lot easier.