No closure in sight: the US Republican primaries

[IPA – March 29, 2012; Echo of India, April 1 2012]

In the United States, the presidential candidates are chosen through a far more democratic process than the one we follow in India. In India, the political parties and their bosses unilaterally announce candidates and force them on the people. The problem of a deep democratic deficit is compounded by the fact that most of the major political groups are ancestral parties. The organizational elections are either stage managed or worse still, the panels ‘announced’ by the incumbent cabal (generally a family or a group of powerfuls) go uncontested. The US system is radically different in some ways. Large numbers of people vote in what are called ‘primaries’ – which are designed to choose a party candidate for the general election against adversaries from other parties. Very few primaries go uncontested, ensure a say of the party loyalists and supporters in party affairs, candidates and directions directly.

The US is now in the middle of the primaries for the Republican nomination. This primary would throw up the person who would challenge the obvious Democratic Party candidate and incumbent president Barrack Obama for the US Presidency in late 2012. Starting with a much larger set of competitors, only four candidates now remain in the race – Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, with Mitt Romney leading the pack having come first in nearly 2/3 rd of the primaries that have happened in different states. Generally, the nomination is grabbed by this time, but that has not happened this year, giving Republican Party loyalists and supporters a lot to be concerned. Why this concern with the primary process dragging on till the Republican party convention in Tampa Bay, Florida in the last week of August. The character of a primary can be very different from the general election. In the primaries, the typical voter is more often the party loyalist, or the ‘base’ or ‘core constituents’ of a party. The message and the rhetoric that is employed by candidates to win primaries are naturally tailored towards the party faithful – such messages may not work on the general populace and would generally backfire. The more a primary process drags on, going on from one to another, more internecine bad blood if spilt by the candidates within the same party, thus weakening each other and also providing useful fodder and attack points by contenders from Democratic party, come general election time. The longer this process is, the less time the winning Republican nominee will have to substantially modify his message for a wider electorate. This system of speaking from a certain ideological slant and tone during the primaries and then after having won the nomination, changing the message to pragmatism is at its core nothing but cynical manipulation. It is precisely this that a major section of the Republican primary voters have not come to terms with this time and hence the primary is still on.

Mitt Romney, the most ‘moderate’ among the Republican candidates is the front-runner. A corporate animal, Romney has outspent his opponents many times over. This means, his face is seen in TV advertisements, his glossy campaign material is seen stuffed in letter boxes all over the country, much more than other candidates. While this visibility has translated into a kind of reluctant acceptability, an important part of the Republican base, namely the Christian conservative segment has not warmed up to his candidature. This segment, nurtured by Barry Goldwater’s insurgent campaign decades ago, is now a major force that has played a very important part in the agenda setting and campaign platform positioning in this election cycle. There is a view that Romney is simply a career politician, one of those slithery one without principle who whose conservatism on display during the primaries is largely false. That Romney is also a Mormon, a very non-mainstream Christian sect, much like the Ahmadiyya sect in the Muslim world, does not really help him, in general. This segment and some other have been desperately seeking an alternative to him, the ‘anti-Romney’, so to say. First it was Michele Bachmann, then Rick Perry, even Newt Gingrich, but now it seems to have coalesced around Rick Santorum whose Christian conservative credentials are impeccable. That is largely why even after being outspent by Mitt Romney by huge amounts of money, Rick Santorum has won state after state in what is called the ‘Bible belt’ in the deep south of the United States, at times by very large margins, as in Lousiana and Kansas. There are increasing calls for the other 2 candidates – Gingrich and Paul to bow out – calls that they have not heeded till now.

It can be assumed that Mitt Romney will be the eventual nominee, after a little more intra-clan warfare among the Republicans. At the same time, the Democratic candidate, Barrack Obama, supported by both large corporate donations and shallow pocket party loyalists has amassed a war chest of 172 million US Dollars, as of February. This amount is 12 times the cash on hand as Mitt Romney at the same time. Though certain large Republican funders are holding off till the nominee is clear, it is not easy to close such a gap. Unless Republican Politican Action Committees (PACs) get into serious fundraising, the half-black Goliath will trounce all white David come November. The anti-immigrant posturing by most Republican candidates, including Romney, will only hurt them, as the Hispanic-Latino (persons of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, South or Central American ethno-cultural origin) vote becomes more crucial than ever before.

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Filed under Americas, Democracy

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