By the time they got to South Carolina, Barack Obama won the primary with a clear majority, 55.44%. Hilary Clinton came in second at 26.52%. Native son John Edwards, who had spent by far the most time and money there, got only 17.57%. They obviously they knew who he was before the rest of us did. Seven Democrats were still in the field, compared with four contending in Saturday’s Republican contest. So Obama’s win back in 2008 is all the more impressive, reflecting a level of conviction that is absent in the Republican primaries of 2012. This is not to say that Obama had the nomination sewn up, which we know he didn’t. And along the way there were times when things got pretty nasty. Nonetheless while many Democrats, myself included, supported Obama and were confidant he would prevail, we could enthusiastically support Senator Clinton were that not the case. That may not be true for Republicans today.
From the outset, Mitt Romney, considered most likely to lead his party in November, has been unable to garner anywhere close to a majority support. Even on his home turf in New Hampshire he could only muster 39.9% of primary voters. We don’t know if Newt Gingrich’s surge spells Romney’s end —probably not — but it does suggest a race that will both drag on and whose outcome is more uncertain than ever. With Iowa, New Hampshire and countless debates on the record, exit polls suggest a vast majority of Gingrich voters made their decision either just before or on primary day. Primaries are not necessarily indicative of general elections but this certainly suggests a Republican electorate undecided and in flux.
The results of Edison Research’s exit poll are interesting. 98% of the participating voters where white. That certainly reinforces in the extreme my last post. To put this is perspective, according to the census bureau 66% of South Carolinians are white and nearly 28% are African American (more than twice the national average). That only 1% of GOP primary voters were black speaks for itself. Newt achieved a plurality in most of the attribute areas covered by Edison whether gender, self-identification or views on issues. The single exception is where he actually got a slim (51%) majority — can defeat Barack Obama. That number may prove most damaging to Romney, whose argument has largely been built around electability. Interestingly Newt (9%), the serial philanderer, and Romney (19%), the steady family man, both performed poorly on has strong moral character. The first’s showing shouldn’t be surprising, the second’s may have more to do with his social issue flip-flopping than necessarily with the business vulture charge he’s endured in recent days. I would think that Newt’s sordid private life, given a pass on Saturday, might not be overlooked in other places.
Republican voter turnout was appreciably higher this election cycle (601,111 vs. 445.677, up 35%) so you can argue enthusiasm runs higher. What I found most interesting as a measure of where we are, or perhaps how we feel, is that Ron Paul gained proportionately more. His numbers increased almost five fold from 16,155 in ’08 to 77,993 this year. Even more striking is that he had a plurality (albeit at only 31%) of the 10-29 demographic; only 16% of Romney supporters were in that age group. Those numbers probably reflect work Paul has done with younger people including many college campus appearances, but may also reflect an unease manifest in the next generation of which both Republicans and Democrats alike should take careful note. The prospects of young people just out of college or starting out in general just aren't very good these days; the much-touted American dream no longer seems within their reach. Without question, Ron Paul’s rhetoric is both simplistic and misleading, but taken by themselves his rants against government or against overseas wars resonate with many Americans, both young and old. It is also a reminder that people with no chance of being elected, which describes Paul and in a different way some of his young supporters, have the luxury of saying whatever they want. They will never be asked to back up their contentions or positions with action. Any elected official understands the difference between campaigning and governing, except seemingly the Teas in Congress.
Some Democrats may be disappointed with Obama’s performance to date. Like many others they may feel the country is headed in the wrong direction. Nevertheless, the President faces no opposition from within his party — no Gene McCarthy challenging LBJ. He can expect their full and most likely enthusiastic support in November. In contrast, few Republicans seem to be happy campers. They jumped on Newt’s bandwagon in South Carolina but were with Mitt two weeks back and more or less, it turns out, with Rick Santorum days earlier. If you listen to their audiences (ones that pale in comparison to crowds drawn by both Obama and Clinton in ’08) you may hear loud cheers but, if polls are any indication, there remains a serious enthusiasm gap. More Republicans are turning up this year to vote, but there just is no electricity in the air. Whatever passion there may be (and it’s very hard to discern much) seems to be fickle and fluid. That roller-coaster leader-of-the-moment we saw in the earliest days of the contest may say more about where Republicans are today than about this particular shrinking candidate field. Even with fewer options on the table, the choice remains uncertain and uncertainly taken by voters.
How the Republicans and Democrats feel about their candidates will certainly matter in November, but the election will be decided by independents. According to a 2009 Pew Research Study 39% of the electorate now identify as Independents (33% Democrats, 22% Republicans). Those numbers may have changed somewhat since, but I’d suggest Independents are de facto America’s third party. They may not have a candidate of their own nor are they likely to be of a single mind, but both major party candidates will definitely be paying them a great deal of attention in the run up to November. That fact, and the necessary nuance that is required in courting their votes, drives partisans up the wall. It is precisely why primary contests in which candidates must appeal to a very narrow, often near-fringe, constituency is not only so different from the General but can also be so damaging to the standard bearer who has leaned too far right or left in gaining the nomination. Barry Goldwater and George McGovern.
South Carolina showed again that unlike Nixon in his day, Romney is not yet The One nor that he necessarily will be in Tampa come summer. Will his party come together and evidence more than what the columnist Ross Douthat described as weary resignation in selecting their leader? Hard to say, but they may well yet muster up the passion that now remains elusive. Will it happen soon enough or be sufficiently intense to win back to the White House in November? I doubt it, but don’t fully discount it either. We are living in very fluid and unpredictable times. Just days before South Carolina, Mitt was a headed for certain victory and we know what happened to that, virtually overnight. Copies of the current New Yorker and New York Magazine appeared in my mailbox. Lots of good pieces and, in some areas, as timeless as things can ever be these days. But on the political front, both offered yesterday’s news and opinions. Print is dying not because it isn’t wonderful to hold a page in your hand, but because events are moving too fast for it. Our demands for information with real-time currency are just much more acute than ever before. We don’t only want it, but can get it minute by minute, and do. Those print magazines sitting before me as I write are a good metaphor for the GOP race. Don’t like the weather? Just wait an instant and it is sure to change and, even then, don’t expect it to be predictive of storms or sunshine to come.