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Voter frustration makes for tumultuous GOP primary

By Ann Gerhart,

The American people, a small slice of them, have spoken, and they are none too pleased.

The rest are yet to be heard, as the men who would be president march West, to caucuses Saturday in Nevada, where the unemployment rate is 13 percent, and then to Colorado and Minnesota on Tuesday.

But let’s see if we can make any sense of this rambunctious story so far, and what the Republicans and independents in the first four states that held contests have told us about their hopes and fears — and volatility, insurgency and populism — in an unsettled America.

For now, they are angry and anxious and uncertain, sick of a bunch of elites in Washington who can’t fix their lives and suspicious of all promises, and their 2.6 million votes reflect the deep cracks in a party of people who can’t seem to get along.

This has been the most turbulent Republican presidential race in a generation. In a four-month span, four candidates have occupied the lead in national polls, boosted by a typhoon of unprecedented super-PAC spending and sometimes twice-weekly episodes of a wildly popular new reality TV series, “Tonight’s Republican Presidential Debate.” Candidates who might have been considered fringe in previous cycles, such as former pizza magnate Herman Cain, were lifted into the limelight before falling into disfavor among the public. For the first time in history, voters in the first three states to choose a candidate picked three different winners.

This is the work of an agitated electorate, fluctuating state by state in search of a candidate comfort they haven’t found.

In a South Carolina plump with social conservatives, Newt Gingrich received 41 percent of the votes of married women after he blew up at a debate moderator for inquiring about his personal life, which includes two affairs and two divorces. In Florida, 10 days later, he lost them, down to 28 percent; Mitt Romney, whose campaign and its allies dumped $15 million in ads questioning Gingrich’s steadiness, then grabbed 51 percent of the votes of married women.

What the voters keep telling us is that each state is its own special place, that conclusions are not yet possible, that they are still in a fickle state of mind.

Romney won 46 percent of the vote on Tuesday in Florida, where a clutch of white snowbird retirees, exurb dwellers, Puerto Ricans and Cuban emigres are said to most represent the diversity of the GOP in general. This made him the front-runner for, oh, the eighth time. But an unsettling 38 percent of those who voted for him indicated in exit polls that they would really like another candidate to enter the race.

The electorate is just as deeply conflicted about President Obama. One day this week, a Gallup poll deemed him one of the most polarizing presidents ever. Yet a day later, in a Washington Post-Pew survey, 55 percent of all respondents put him first, ahead of Romney and Gingrich, in understanding the problems of ordinary Americans.

The professional political class earns big money by analyzing statistics that relate to voter preference and behavior. This may be the year that those metrics produce static rather than clarity. And what if one talented, grandiose and volatile candidate can create volatility throughout a whole political season by tapping into the inchoate anger of people desperately trying to claw themselves out of a recession?

For many of those who have voted, turning out Obama is Job No. 1. They’re still arguing about who is best suited to do so.

“It’s kind of difficult this year,” as barber Danny Causey put it before the South Carolina primary. “Everybody I talk to, they want to — they want a change from the president we got. They just don’t know which way to go. Some of the ones they like the best, they think they don’t have a chance.”

The country-club Republicans consistently have been behind the man who is most like them. In every contest, according to exit polls, Romney won the crowd that had the greatest wealth, those with graduate degrees and those who oppose the tea party movement. These are folks who carefully survey their choices in a life that has remained orderly, do their research and make rational decisions, much as Romney presents himself as doing.

Among the most affluent, the former Massachusetts governor beat his nearest rival by 40 percentage points in New Hampshire, 15 in South Carolina and 37 in Florida.

Hospital administrator Michael Ricciardone and his wife, Elizabeth, a retired college professor, decided long ago that Romney was their man and never wavered. The key factors were his business know-how and character, they said after voting in Mount Pleasant, an upscale neighborhood of spacious porched houses outside Charleston.

“It’s okay to be successful in this country. Redistribution of wealth is not in my vocabulary,” Ricciardone said.

In each state, however, Gingrich consistently won the bulk of those who say that being a “true conservative” is the candidate quality that most matters to them. He also ran first among those who most strongly support the tea party movement, a fiery insurgency that routed a slew of conventional politicians of both parties in the 2010 midterm elections.

Gingrich lives in a mansion in McLean, made his millions not lobbying on K Street and shops at Tiffany, which might make him an odd choice for a crowd hoping to take over Washington by pitchfork. But he is the bomb thrower on Bain Capital, where Romney made his millions, and he refuses to dignify Obama by putting the title “president” before his name.

“He is a Saul Alinsky radical” who “tries to appease the Taliban,” he said of Obama at a rally in Sarasota last week, where some people wore “Newt-er Obama”
T-shirts and a few cheered “Kenya, Kenya!” after a line about sending the president back home to Chicago.

If the former House speaker’s life has zigzagged from blow-up to burnout and back to center stage again, fine; so has theirs.

“What I’ve been looking for in my candidate is: We’ve got to bloody Obama’s nose,” Vence Jelovchan told Gingrich in South Carolina.

“I don’t want to bloody his nose,” Gingrich shot back, with a grin. “I want to knock him out.”

People don’t always make sense in the best of times. In the worst of times, they can seem to be unleashing some kind of primal scream.

“The public isn’t that ideologically coherent or consistent, in the way that political elites want them to be,” said Vincent Hutchings, a political scientist at the University of Michigan who studies anger as a motivator for voters. “On some characteristics, they are moderate, and on some they are conservative.”

This is not hypocritical, but perhaps a part of our democratic DNA. The inconsistencies between principles and behavior were there at the very founding of our nation, with Thomas Jefferson crafting the soaring insistence on liberty in the Declaration of Independence even as he kept a meticulous ledger of his 130 slaves at Monticello, a paradox at the core of a new exhibit at the Museum of American History.

When anger sweeps through the electorate, turnout usually rises, according to Hutchings. More people voted this year in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina than in the Republican contests there in 2008, although the absence of a Democratic battle certainly was a factor.

On the other hand, in Florida on Tuesday, about 256,000 fewer votes were cast than four years ago, perhaps because of another paradox: The more that negative ads strafe the population, the less likely the voters are to show up. Often, they drop out in disgust, said Curtis Gans, who directs the Center for the Study of the American Electorate and has observed the phenomenon for years.

“People tend not to make great decisions when they are angry, and the American public is angry,” says Marc J. Hetherington, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University who studies trust in the electorate. “There is profound anger and dissatisfaction with both sides. In 2008, the people throw out one set of bums and in 2010 they threw that set of bums right back in. The political outcomes are lousy; government can’t fix problems. All it can do is argue — that is what the public sees, and so it is distrustful with good reason.”

Said Nicholas Brattan, who graduated from college last spring and is unemployed: “Politics in general is disheartening.” Brattan, who is living back home in New Hampshire and trying to make his student loan payments, said he voted for Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) because he was disappointed by all that Obama “promised and couldn’t accomplish.”

“It’s like politics is a black hole,” he added, “and whoever gets in is surrounded by yes men.”

Trust in institutions is down, the country is headed in the wrong direction, and yet 52 percent report they are thriving, according to Gallup’s well-being tracking, a number that has remained remarkably consistent over the past three years of economic crisis and 4 million foreclosures.

This highlights another inconsistency and prompts a question: How much of the anger and disaffection is based on personal hardship, and how much is based on some uneasy sense that the nation is drifting away from an idealized notion of what it should be?

Each of the Republican candidates has invoked a journey away from “now” that returns the nation to an unspecified “then.”

Romney’s super PAC is called Restore Our Future, as if we must reset an era that hasn’t even occurred. Gingrich talks of a “return to a classic America” and summons a pioneering spirit with talk of moon colonies. Former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) champions the hard work of his immigrant grandparents while railing against “a culture of dependency.”

Picking a president spurs a conversation we have with ourselves every four years, about who we are as Americans, and what kind of nation we aim to create. It’s not a frank conversation. It gets carried out in code, “social safety net” vs. “class warfare,” “business creators” vs. “fair share.”

The country’s two major political parties have long had their own bloody internal struggles. What seems most clear amid the volatility exhibited in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida is that Republicans remain locked in a crisis of identity and uncertainty.

Nancy Bonnell, a Florida insurance worker who attended a Gingrich rally in Tampa, is still not ready to coronate a candidate.

“Every time we find someone who’s electable — can you say McCain? — we lose.”

Staff writers Joel Achenbach, Stephanie McCrummen and Karen Tumulty and polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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