Editorial: GOP primary is more about the message

Tuesday’s presidential primary in Illinois confirmed existing voting patterns and blocks, and it did little to build any new momentum for Mitt Romney’s campaign. What we learned is that when there are more rich people voting than there are evangelicals or the very conservative, Mitt Romney wins. When there are more evangelicals and those considering themselves very conservative voting, Santorum or Gingrich have won. To date that prevalent pattern hasn’t been broken. Looking down the road there are enough of those battles that split in Santorum’s favor to keep him in the race until the Republican convention in late August, which has interesting ramifications for both parties and are not wholly in the Democrats’ favor.
Romney’s victory in Illinois, 46.7 percent to 35 percent for Rick Santorum, did move him a step closer to his end goal: getting the 1,444 delegates needed to win the nomination. Romney won 43 delegates compared to 10 for Santorum. He now leads the delegate count with 563, compared to 263 for Santorum, 135 for Gingrich, and 50 for Ron Paul. Romney has also carried the popular vote in 15 states, compared to nine for Santorum and two for Gingrich.
For those Republicans wishing the fight would be over sooner than later so they can focus their resources and rhetoric on unseating President Obama, that’s not likely. Barring some stunning and unforeseen surprises, it is most likely a primary race that will continue right through the next-to-last primary on June 5, featuring California’s 172 delegates along with Montana (26 delegates), New Jersey (50), and South Dakota (28). The last primary is in Utah on June 26, but that’s a gimme for Romney, so chalk up those 40 delegates in his column right now.
More interesting is the upcoming drama this Saturday in Louisiana, which splits the state’s 46 delegates proportionately.
Most polls suggest this is Santorum’s race to lose. According to Magellan Strategies BR, a poll released March 19, Santorum leads Romney by 13 points, with Gingrich a close third: Santorum, 37 percent, Romney 24 percent and Gingrich 21 percent. Paul gets 3 percent, others 9 percent and undecided 6 percent. Importantly, Santorum has a strong positive image in Louisiana (72 percent favorable, 20 percent unfavorable) compared to Romney (49 percent favorable, 41 percent unfavorable).
The drama in this race is if Romney can do better than he has so far in the south, where he has lost every race, except Florida on Jan. 31, in which Santorum was not even entered. If he can’t and Santorum matches the poll’s forecast, once again the race stays within the status quo.
Ten days later, on April 3, Wisconsin provides another opportunity to redefine the race. Some say Romney should capture this northern, semi-industrial state, as he did in Illinois, Michigan and Ohio. But there’s also a good reason for Santorum to prevail
Consider that Romney barely won in Michigan (his home state) and Ohio (by less than 1 percent). Meanwhile, Santorum barely edged Romney in nearby Iowa, but trounced him in Kansas (by more than 20 points) and he took all but one of Minnesota’s 37 delegates, with the other going to Gingrich. The test will be who turns out, and how much time and money Romney puts into getting out his constituency there.
That same day, voters in the District of Columbia will choose 17 delegates, while Maryland’s 37 delegates are also on the line. The day will most likely belong to Romney, assuming these two trend his way, but a win in the industrial north for Santorum spreads the breadth of his victories and broadens his national appeal — and, at the very least, supports his claim to continue fighting what will likely continue to be a see-saw primary battle.
After the April 3 primary, there’s a three-week break leading up to another five-state super primary on April 24, including Connecticut (28 delegates), Delaware (17), New York (95), Pennsylvania (Santorum’s home state with 72 delegates), and Rhodes Island (19). Again, the day likely goes to Romney, but Santorum holds on with a home-state win — or Romney seals the deal with an upset there. (Santorum, after all, was rejected as an incumbent on his third run there for senator for being too conservative.) The question hanging in the wind is whether either Gingrich or Paul will have effectively exited the race by then — leaving Santorum as the only viable conservative to Romney. And would that be enough to allow him to take a surprise state or two?
The race moves back into conservative territory on May 8 with Indiana, North Carolina and West Virginia. Then it heads to Nebraska and Oregon on May 15, Arkansas and Kentucky on May 22, and on May 29 the big state of Texas and its 155 delegates. The race finally finishes with the June 5 and 26 primaries mentioned above.
Few doubt that Romney will end up with the nomination. The race is now about how conservative a future the party will embrace and, more immediately, what will Romney’s talking points have to be if he is to attract the party faithful.
While many Democrats seem to be gloating at the internecine bloodletting of the GOP primary — content in the belief that Republicans are harming themselves — author and prominent linguist George Lakoff warns that the public discourse is more damaging to liberal causes than it appears.
In a March 12 article analyzing the Santorum strategy, Lakoff explains that it is, at base, a strategy that “guarantees a radical conservative future for America … It is about pounding the most radical conservative ideas into the public by constant repetition … whether by Santorum himself, by Gingrich or by Ron Paul, by an intimidated Romney or by the Republican House majority.”
To that end, extending the Republican primary into the summer gives the GOP three more months of conservative public discourse with little counter from Democrats. Had Romney wrapped it up early and moved toward the political middle, such ultra-conservative thought would have been mitigated, at the very least, and Obama would have been engaged in a battle of ideas and morality with Romney.
Lakoff is emphatic that Democrats engage in this discussion of moral values, and that they must move beyond “the public discourse of policy and embrace the politics of morality,” as the Republicans realized years ago. Morality, Lakoff says, trumps policy in the public’s mind, and particularly so among conservatives and many independents.
Consider, he writes, how the Republicans defeated the Obama health care plan: “The president had polled the provisions and each had strong public support: No preconditions, no caps, no loss of coverage if you get sick, ability to keep your college-age child on your policy and so on. These are all policy details and they matter. The conservatives never argued against any of them. Instead, they reframed: They made a moral case against ‘Obamacare.’ Their moral principles were freedom and life; and they had the language to go with them. Freedom: ‘government takeover.’ Life: ‘death panels.’
“Republicans at all levels repeated them over and over, and convinced millions of people who were for the policy provisions of the Obama plan to be against the plan as a whole. They changed the public discourse, changed the brains of the electorate — especially, the independents — and won in 2010.
“The radical conservative discourse of the Republican presidential primary race has the same purpose, and conservative Republicans are luring Democrats into making the same mistakes.”
Lakoff’s thoughtful piece, along the same lines as his best-selling book in 2004, “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” is a must read for Democrats, but also a useful analysis for anyone interested in understanding the power of language and the disciplined use of it by political parties. Read Lakoff’s recent article here.
— Angelo S. Lynn

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