The drawn-out process of choosing America’s next president is under way, with the field of Republican contenders vying for the Party’s nomination in the early primary contests. Although many are predicting that front-runner Mitt Romney will wrap up the nomination early on, he still needs to convince the diverse group of Republican voters across the geographic United States that he is worthy of their support.
The Republicans finally come together in Tampa, Florida, at the end of August to formally anoint their candidate after the months of primaries have been completed. In Charlotte, North Carolina, the following week the Democrats will formally nominate President Obama to see if he can win a second term as President.
Enormous interest in the current contest has been generated by the perception that President Obama is vulnerable in the November election, as well as by the ideological divisions within the Republican Party as to whom should best represent their interests in challenging the sitting President.
Australians always marvel at the intricacies and local variations in a system that takes over 12 months to choose a leader. Despite the President’s perceived international power the fact that he cannot even control the members of his own party in the Congress and Senate is often a source of bemusement to those of us watching from across the Pacific, and highlights the differences in our two nations’ political systems.
The American system is so different from ours, with all the pageantry and blood-letting, which create a fascinating spectacle. There is also an aura around the US presidency which has been popularised in TV and film, and through a variety of scandals around presidents that also plays a role in our interest.
The following is an analysis of the challenges that Mr Romney and President Obama face in their quest to win the election in November.
In his speech following his disappointing showing in the Iowa caucuses Newt Gingrich disparagingly referred to the Iowa winner Mitt Romney as the ‘Massachusetts moderate’ and promised to step up his attacks on Mr Romney‘s political record. Mr Gingrich himself had been leading the polls in Iowa less than a month before and it was a heavy advertising campaign by Romney-supporting organisations that had been partly responsible for derailing his chances in Iowa.
Mr Gingrich’s attack on Mr Romney does highlight a key problem for the Republican front runner as he seeks to win the nomination and then challenge President Obama in November – he is not feeling the love from significant sections of the Republican base, particularly social and religious conservatives.
Many of these people, significant numbers of whom are associated with the Tea Party, see Mr Romney as a wealthy flip-flopper who does not share their values. Mr Romney after all is a former governor of the liberal state of Massachusetts who prior to 2005 supported abortion rights, had a moderate position on same-sex unions and enacted a health care plan not dissimilar to President Obama’s.
At a time when conservatives see their increasing support within the Republican Party as an opportunity to nominate a ‘true conservative’ Mr Romney’s lack of ideological commitment to core conservative issues, such as opposition to abortion, is damaging his vote among these groups. Evidence of the significance of the abortion issue among religious conservatives was provided by the Iowa entrance polls that showed 57 per cent of those who voted for Romney’s conservative opponent Rick Santorum were doing so because of his consistent opposition to abortion. Mr Romney’s Mormon faith has also been seen as a stumbling block among these groups.
The antipathy that many in the Republican Party hold towards Mr Romney is further demonstrated by the fact that despite having campaigned in Iowa since 2008 when he also ran for president he was unable to garner an increase in his share of the vote from four years ago. The turnout among Republicans in Iowa is also estimated to have been lower than in 2008 despite the enormous interest in the race and the deep anger many on the conservative front feel towards President Obama. If Mr Romney can’t excite the Republican base, can he excite the electorate in November?
Evidence from Mr Romney’s political career suggests that he does not hold hard and fast positions on issues. He was criticised for raising taxes during his time as Massachusetts Governor yet now advocates a low tax environment with a cut in the size of the Federal Government. Romney’s position as a corporate manager, having been a co-founder of the management consultants Bain and Company, has also been both a boon and a millstone around his neck.
Some Republicans have recognised his business acumen as important at a time when they believe that the American Federal Government debt is out of control and there needs to be a significant tightening of the fiscal belt.
Others, however, suggest that Mr Romney’s involvement in downsizing companies and shedding jobs during his time at Bain may hurt his reputation among the millions of Americans who are suffering under the crippling effects of the post-GFC recession affecting the American economy.
President Obama, in an attempt to win back the hearts and minds of the American middle-class, has also sought to step up his criticism of the Republicans’ support for wealthy Americans at the expense of the middle-class. While Mr Romney and other Republicans pledge support for lower taxes for the wealthy and a reduced role for government, in a speech in Kansas last month President Obama pledged to restore the share of American income going to the middle-class. Government, he asserted, was not to blame for the economic crisis as Republicans like Mr Romney were suggesting. It was old-fashioned corporate greed left unchecked by federal regulation. The Republicans, he argued, wanted to bring this back at a time when many Americans were still suffering under the weight of its effects.
Some have suggested that Obama’s attempts to paint unregulated corporate excesses as the cause of the economic crisis were long overdue. Writing in the New York Times at the end of last year Drew Westen persuasively suggested that President Obama’s conciliatory bi-partisan approach to the economic crisis has undermined his support within the electorate. By not actively targeting corporate officials for responsibility, and not seeking to blame unbridled capitalism for the economic failures affecting Americans, President Obama has weakened his position among the electorate.
Mr Romney and other Republicans have long attacked President Obama over his economic record with unemployment still at 8.5 per cent and sought to blame the Government’s profligate spending for prolonging the crisis. Mr Romney’s potential to win in November (assuming that he does, as most predict, secure the Republican nomination) is going to be built on his attacks on President Obama’s economic record. If he can convince moderate and independent Americans that he would be a better economic manager than the President and that it is Government, not the private sector, that is responsible for American economic failures, he has a chance of winning the presidency.
While Mr Romney appears to be the Republicans’ best chance to beat President Obama, his failure to energise the Republican base around anything but a desire to beat the President, and his perceived lack of strong convictions may not hurt him only in the nomination race. It will also hurt him when the Tea Party people decide whether or not to step out of their houses on the first Tuesday in November and exercise their democratic rights in support of him.