While Romney was the front-runner going into the contest for the Republican nomination, he withstood a host of challengers, some of whom, like Tim Pawlenty and Rick Perry, transformed themselves from contenders to pretenders before our very eyes. Other Republican candidates -- Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain -- came out of nowhere to enjoy a few weeks of momentum before plummeting out of contention.
With almost a dozen wins under his belt in the 2012 election cycle, Santorum did better than he should have. The last time he faced the voters back home in Pennsylvania back in 2006, Santorum was routed, losing his U.S. Senate seat in a landslide to Bob Casey. Focusing on social issues instead of the economy, Santorum seemed to be ignoring what was most on the minds of the voters. The Santorum campaign was underfunded and often staggeringly disorganized, without full slates of delegates in some states.
To his credit, Santorum worked hard. No other candidate invested the amount of time that Santorum put into Iowa and it paid off handsomely for him. Santorum’s fourth place showing in the Iowa Republican straw poll in Ames back in August showed that he had amassed a following in the Hawkeye State. He would go on to win the Iowa caucus by the skin of his teeth -- and far outlast the likes of Bachmann and Perry.
Santorum’s hard work was also on display at the Presidency 5 straw poll in Orlando in September. While Cain won the event, Santorum took fourth again, beating out the likes of Newt Gingrich, Bachmann, Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman. While Cain won the headlines for his victory, Santorum survived. The former senator could be seen throughout the event meeting delegates in the lobbies, shaking hands and taking photos.
Still, whatever his merits, Rick Santorum should not have done as well as he did. His impressive collection of primary and caucus wins tells us more about Romney’s weaknesses than Santorum’s strengths.
Romney is different from most of the recent Republican presidential nominees. He has problems connecting with some of the Republican base and it’s telling that he crushed Santorum in states that are already in the bank for Obama come November -- Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois.
While his father may have served as governor of Michigan and in Richard Nixon’s Cabinet, Mitt Romney remains a bit of an outsider to the Republican mainstream. He is based in Massachusetts while the GOP increasingly looks to the South and West for its support. Romney is a Mormon in a party dominated by evangelicals and Catholics. With the tea party movement giving the GOP a more populist bent, Romney is not exactly the type of candidate who can resonate with those kinds of Republicans.
When he sews up the nomination, Romney will become the first post-Reagan Republican presidential nominee. Romney does not have the ties to the Gipper that the two Bush presidents had -- George H.W. Bush served eight years as Reagan’s understudy, after all, and that legacy helped pave the way for his son’s presidency. Nor did Romney carry water for Reagan in Congress the way Bob Dole and John McCain, who won Barry Goldwater’s Senate seat back in 1986, did. While he can talk about Reagan and his legacy, Romney is the first Republican candidate who was not directly a part of it.
While he may be a bit unfamiliar to the Republican base, Romney should be able to count on its support come November. When all is said and done, he is not Barack Obama.
But that may not be enough for independent voters and Romney will do his best to define himself in the coming months. In the meantime, the Democrats are already trying to define Romney in their own terms.
Picking up from the attacks launched by John McCain and Mike Huckabee against Romney in 2008 -- which were echoed and amplified by Santorum -- the Democrats are already taking shots at Romney. Moments after Santorum pulled out, the Obama camp launched a new Web video slamming Romney, trying to define him.
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From this vantage point, it appears that the 2012 election is going to be very different from the 2008 election.
For all its warts, the 2008 election was a rarity in American politics -- it was an uplifting election. There are very few of those in American history and they can often generate high turnout (like the 1880 contest between two Civil War heroes -- Republican James Garfield and Democrat Winfield S. Hancock). The first major African-American candidate who had a real chance at the White House defeated the first female candidate who had a good shot at sitting in the Oval Office for the Democratic nomination. John McCain, a war hero, plucked Sarah Palin to be the first woman to ever be on the Republican ticket and one, unlike Geraldine Ferraro back in 1984, who had a shot at being the country’s first female vice president.
But if 2008 was about hope, 2012 will be about fear. With a majority of voters still opposed to the health-care bill, the president's signature piece of legislation, and the economy continuing to struggle, the Obama team will go all out to attack Romney. If people voted for Obama in 2008, the Democrats are hoping that they will vote against Romney in 2012. It’s a far cry from the heady rhetoric that emerged from the Obama team in 2008 and their bottle washers and cornermen in the mainstream media. While there will be some cheers for Hillary Clinton’s tenure at State and reminders that Osama bin Laden was killed under their watch, the Obama team can’t offer much else after the last four years besides trying to make the 2012 election a contest of the lesser of two evils.
The 2008 election had the highest percentage of turnout for any presidential contest since the tumultuous 1968 election cycle and that clearly helped Obama. The Obama team could be taking a big risk if they make the contest all about attacks. Voter turnout drops when the election comes down to picking the lesser of two evils. The battle between George H.W. Bush and Mike Dukakis in 1988 saw 50 percent turnout while only 49 percent of voters hit the polls in 1996 when confronted with the choice of Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. Those elections went to the party that controlled the White House but the economy was in solid shape both times out.
Republicans are hoping for a replay of the 1980 campaign when a Democrat incumbent, Jimmy Carter, tried to make the election about the Republican challenger -- in this case Reagan instead of the ailing economy. But the comparison seems a little weak. Romney is no Reagan and Obama has had more successes than the hapless Carter did in both foreign and domestic policy. Obama, unlike Carter, has a unified base with no major primary challenger. While there are some impressive candidates waiting in the wings looking to win the nominations of various third parties -- former Gov. Gary Johnson of New Mexico, former Gov. Buddy Roemer of Louisiana, former U.S. Rep. Virgil Goode of Virginia, former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Johnson -- none of them seems poised to run off with the 7 percent of the vote that John Anderson, a moderate Republican who represented Illinois for two decades in Congress, carried in his third-party bid back in 1980.
While the 2012 contest is not shaping up to be a replay of 2008 or 1980, it promises to be a close and ugly contest where the candidates will attempt to make it a choice between the lesser of two evils. Hope and change will take a backseat to politics as usual. It's one more mark of how, for all his rhetoric, Barack Obama failed to live up to the expectations that he raised in 2008.
Reach Kevin Derby at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (850) 727-0859.