The American Debate: Swing voters amid the mess

Candidates at the GOP debate in Mesa, Ariz., (from left) Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich.
Candidates at the GOP debate in Mesa, Ariz., (from left) Ron Paul, Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich. (ROSS D. FRANKLIN / Associated Press)

The longer the Republican candidates fight one another, the better President Obama looks.

Posted: March 04, 2012

The Republican presidential race, a numbing slog doomed to be with us deep into the spring season, brings to mind the final line in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby:

"So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past."

Has there ever been a more dispiriting quartet than these finalists? The ostensible front-runner barely won his native state Tuesday. The main challenger, an ex-Pennsylvania senator who was kicked out of office by one of the largest margins in history, seems bent on rowing his boat ceaselessly into the past. The third guy, besotted by his own grandiosity, is being kept alive by donations from a casino mogul. The fourth guy, a fringe libertarian, has been a footnote from day one.

This week they'll traverse the 10 states of Super Tuesday. And when they emerge - battered anew, with no decisive verdict, and no choice but to beat on - Republicans everywhere will be confronting the same reality that has tortured them all winter. It can be stated quite simply: The longer these candidates fight each other, the better Barack Obama looks.

The smart Republican players know what's going on. They can read the polls. The incendiary rhetoric (Rick Santorum says JFK's separation-of-church-and-state speech makes him want to "throw up"); the racist innuendo (Newt Gingrich dismisses Obama as a "food-stamp president"); the clueless elitism (Mitt Romney panders to Detroit by saying that his wife drives "a couple of Cadillacs") - it's no wonder that swing voters have been swinging in droves to the president.

What's striking is that so many players are willing to air the angst publicly. That alone is a sign of serious distress.

Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist, remarked the other night that his colleagues were "going through the stages of death" as they witness this campaign. (I think he meant to say "grief.") Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain's 2008 race, said his people were "deeply, deeply unhappy" and "increasingly pessimistic" about beating Obama. Why? Because, first and foremost, "Mitt Romney is bleeding out among independent voters."

So true. Romney is still the likeliest nominee, but his prospects of winning in November are nil unless he can stanch the bleeding and get those swing voters back. Obama won independents by eight percentage points in 2008 (he won the election by seven), and, thanks in part to the scabrous Republican intramurals, he's currently well positioned to capture them again.

The first sign of trouble came in late January, when a national poll reported that Romney's unfavorability rating among independents had risen 20 percentage points in two months. But now comes a different survey - conducted on a bipartisan basis by a Democratic pollster and a Republican counterpart - and the numbers for Romney are even worse. Clearly, the bloody primaries have taken their toll.

The Politico/George Washington University Battleground Poll shows Obama topping both Romney and Santorum by double-digit percentages. Independent sentiment is the key. Among swing voters, Romney now trails Obama 49 percent to 37 percent. Santorum fares worse with swing voters (big surprise!), trailing Obama 50 percent to 34 percent. All told, Ed Goeas, the Republican pollster who co-ran the survey, acknowledged the obvious: "This is a trend that must be reversed before the general election if Republicans expect to be truly competitive in the fall."

No question, the longer these candidates parade themselves publicly, the worse they come off. Santorum has predictably turned off swing voters with his theocratic lectures about how women should live their private lives; he may be the darling du jour of social and religious conservatives, but their priorities are out of sync with the mainstream. Not surprising, the more Santorum voices those priorities, and the more the pliable Romney indulges those priorities, the more they cede the center to Obama.

The party's ever-rightward tilt has been particularly torturous for Romney. He insisted Tuesday that he wouldn't pander to the party's angry id ("I won't set my hair on fire"), but he has been doing it for months.

For instance, he has peppered his debate performances with fervent anti-immigrant rhetoric (undocumented workers will "self-deport" if their lives are made sufficiently miserable); he keeps recycling his lie about how Obama supposedly circles the globe "apologizing for America"; and on Wednesday, he voiced support for a Senate Republican measure that would allow a woman's boss to deny her contraceptive coverage if the boss has moral or religious objections. (Actually, he flip-flopped on that one. One hour earlier, he said he was against the measure: "The idea of presidential candidates getting into questions about contraception within a relationship between a man and a woman, husband and wife, I'm not going there.")

This behavior has damaged him on all fronts. He has lost five contests in part because conservatives don't believe he's one of them; they suspect - rightly - that he has moved rightward only out of necessity. And swing voters have fled Romney in part because they hear him mouthing conservative views that they can't abide. (Plus the fact that he has repeatedly revealed himself to be a rich guy who pays a 15 percent tax rate and can't rhetorically connect with the typical citizen.)

Romney is basically a George H.W. Bush moderate-conservative who has the misfortune of running for president in a year when grassroots Republicans are demanding far-right fealty. The tone for this primary season was set early on, when a debate audience booed Rick Perry - Rick Perry! - for touting the Texas law that gives tuition aid to young illegal immigrants who want to go to college. Swing voters prize tolerance; the dominant GOP tone is anything but.

Now the candidates are trudging toward Super Tuesday. We already know how it will play out. Romney wins Massachusetts and Vermont, Santorum (probably) wins Tennessee and Oklahoma, Gingrich wins home-state Georgia, Romney and Santorum run close in Ohio, Ron Paul as always wins nothing - and Republican leaders continue to writhe as the dream of beating Obama continues to recede.

Jeb Bush, brother of W. and son of H.W., lamented to an audience last week, "I watch these debates and . . . it's a little troubling sometimes when people are appealing to people's fears and emotion rather than trying to get them to look over the horizon for a broader perspective."

Jeb, a widely respected party player, has refused to endorse anyone this year. He already seems fixed on 2016, when presumably swing voters will have forgotten the current farce. Who can blame him?


Contact Dick Polman at dpolman@phillynews.com

or follow @dickpolman1 on Twitter.

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