Much of the case that Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have tried to make for themselves is that they are the most conservative of the GOP candidates. And the media is always on the hunt for who is the most true, committed right-winger. I think this misses an important point about the 2012 GOP voter. Florida is a big state, its primary by far was more representative of the American Republican Party as a whole. And Florida made clear that they want the Republican nominee to be “sufficiently conservative,” but electable. There is less of a fixation with ideological purity than some candidates and some in the media believe.
What makes the GOP seem particularly conservative is how worried our voters are about the country. Many Republicans believe someone must be elected that has the skills and commitment to urgently stop the momentum of America’s decline under Obama. Many of our voters believe that America is being severely wounded by the Obama presidency; that the president doesn’t know what to do, or worse, that the president thinks the American dream is too selfish and we are getting a dose of what we deserve for accommodating the greedy. Part of this president wants to change what he believes is America’s selfish vision of itself.
Mitt Romney has his share of problems confirming that he is sufficiently conservative, and he could use a little more intensity to reassure Republicans of his authentic commitment to change things, but the fact is that he clears the bar with the vast majority of Republican voters. His biggest assets are his experience, his moderate demeanor and his model family, which helps make the case that he is the most electable compared to the other candidates.
Gingrich can produce emotional appeal with his communications skills, but he is viewed by many in the party as erratic, undisciplined and angry. His problem isn’t that he is not conservative enough, but that these characteristics make him less likely to be elected.
Santorum, on the other hand, made strategic campaign mistakes that produced his 13 percent finish in Florida. He decided that he not only needed to be the most conservative, but also the most harsh conservative in the race, abandoning the potential asset he had of being a fresh, young, likeable, modern force that was plenty conservative but could also appeal to the center, and hence be more electable. Everybody who knows Santorum will attest to his good nature, enthusiasm, and commitment. He made a mistake thinking he had to remind voters every day that he was the farthest to the right.
Romney is our likely winner. Gingrich has peaked. Santorum could end up being the 2012 second-place finisher, and the GOP has a history of rewarding the second-place finishers if they decide to make another try. But he’s got to lose the faux-anger and let his natural broad appeal come through.