The 2012 Republican presidential contest sprawled across five time zones Tuesday, from the Sea Islands of Georgia to the Canadian border, from Nantucket to Nome. Millions of Republican voters finally had their say in the protracted presidential race. In interviews, they sounded a theme: They’re frustrated.
GOP unhappiness begins, of course, with President Obama. Republicans want him gone. “He’s got to get out. Got. To. Go,” said Don Lofstrom, 63, voting in suburban Nashville.
But many Republican voters also expressed dismay with the campaign they’re witnessing. They’ve seen infighting, negativity and a lack of message discipline among the GOP candidates.
Some have detected ideological wobbliness. Or they’ve stared at the ballot wishing to see a name that just wasn’t there. Barely more than four out of 10 voters in Ohio said they were strongly behind their candidate, according to exit polls.
This is an echo of what many GOP stalwarts have been saying all along: They worry about a lack of enthusiasm for their contenders after months of rancorous and chaotic campaigning. On Monday, former first lady Barbara Bush, speaking at a conference on first ladies in Dallas, called the 2012 contest “the worst campaign I’ve ever seen in my life.”
As Super Tuesdays go, this one was fairly modest: just 10 states, none of them on the scale of California or Texas. It had the usual Super Tuesday Southern drawl, with Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia holding primaries. Ohio spoke for the Midwest, Oklahoma for the southern Great Plains, and Massachusetts and Vermont for New England. Throw in the frozen north — North Dakota, Idaho and Alaska — and this was an event all over the map.
For the first time, the presidential candidates had to appeal to a spread-out and culturally disparate electorate — a miniature version of what they would face in November if they win the nomination. This remains a diverse country, and there are distinct regional differences even within a political party. For example, in Tennessee, three of four voters identified themselves as evangelical in exit polls, compared with only about half in Ohio.
If there was one thing Republicans seemed to agree on Tuesday — beyond the need to oust Obama — it was that the candidates have spent too much time attacking one another.
“They just spend so much time and money bashing each other. I don’t know why they would do that,” Jen Reneker, a 36-year-old professor from Canton, Ohio, said after casting her ballot for former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
“I think it’s a nightmare,” said Tim Kell, 50, president of a painting and decorating firm in North Canton, Ohio. “I just think with everything — with all the TV commercials and all the phone calls and everything that’s going on, I think it’s crazy. Nobody seems to run on their own merit.”
“Honestly, in my circle, I think there are more people disgusted with Obama than there are pro-Romney,” said Fred Ladebauche, 74, an Army veteran who voted Tuesday in Franklin, Tenn., south of Nashville. He remembers the candidate’s father, George, as an excellent governor of Michigan. He feels less passion for the son, Mitt. “None of my passionate Republicans ran. The governor of New Jersey. Allen West in Florida,” Ladebauche said.
Amid the general hints of queasiness could be heard the occasional straightforward declaration of despair.
“There’s no one out there who can beat Obama. The Republican Party is not together enough. We’re going to have another five years of Obama,” said Jim Perhac, a retired salesman from Franklin. “There’s no Republican that is lighting up the pack. There just isn’t. It’s too split. If you get all the Republicans behind one candidate, yeah, we could do it. But it’s not going to happen.”
As has been the case throughout this campaign process, supporters of Ron Paul expressed enthusiasm for the Texas congressman.
In Tok, Alaska, about 100 miles from the Canadian border on the Alaska Highway, Cindy Koestler, 60, prepared to vote for Paul at Tuesday evening’s caucus. She likes his foreign policy and his support for alternative medicine, she said. The others? All the same, all bad. “I don’t think any of them are following the Constitution, the Bill of Rights or anything else. I think they’re following their own agenda,” she said in a telephone interview.
In Belmont, Mass., Arlene Murphy said she has been a fervent Romney supporter since he first sought office. “I love his solid family values and his moral values — they all line up with mine,” she said. Is he a flip-flopper? “Oh, please. I think people can’t get through his shield of honesty. I have never doubted him.”
In Tennessee, at the historic white-clapboard Nolensville First United Methodist Church, about 20 miles southwest of Nashville, Santorum found enthusiastic fans.
“I think he’s the one who fears God the most,” said Chris Newell, an insurance salesman, 58, from Nolensville.
Phil Rosenik, a 62-year-old retiree from Plain Township, Ohio, had been deciding between Santorum and former House speaker Newt Gingrich. He cast a ballot for Santorum — though he didn’t exactly pump his fist when he did. He summarized his feeling: “More excited about Obama out of office than Santorum in office.”
The polls were quiet in some places. Romney owned Massachusetts, where he served as governor. He also easily carried Virginia, where Paul was the only other candidate who qualified for the ballot.
In Georgia — Gingrich country — the excitement level was on the verge of flat-lining. After a morning rush of voters, the polling place in Sandy Springs slowed to a steady trickle.
Vincent Pindat, 74, a retired software engineer, said he’s worried about government overreach.
“I don’t think the government has the right to mandate health insurance,” he said. And he thinks the new health-care programs will cost more than advertised: “If you’re going to look at the aging of America, you’re going to have a situation where we have rationing of health care.”
Tracey Cosby, 52, bemoaned the tone of contemporary politics.
“I just feel like everybody is spending all their time trying to blame everybody instead of coming together,” she said.
Cosby said that she and her brother are gay but that they are at opposite ends of the political spectrum. She is a steady conservative. He is a steady liberal.
“We just need someone who can bring us back together,” Cosby said. “We should not be divided by black, white or purple. We just need to come together. We’ve lost track of who we are as Americans.”
Thompson reported from Georgia; Helderman reported from Tennessee. Staff writers Joel Achenbach in Washington, Ann Gerhart in Massachusetts, Felicia Sonmez in Ohio and Pat Sullivan in Virginia contributed to this report.