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Blog - Election Watch 12

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Lessig on campaign financing

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27 April 2012


Larry Lessig has a thought provoking piece over at The Atlantic on campaign finance reform, arguing that until we do something about the role of money in politics it will be almost impossible to address other challenges. Frustrated that neither political party is making any attempt to fix the problem, he argues for citizens to nominate a third party candidate through Americans Elect who will bring the issue to the forefront of the election.  If the nominee can get more than 15 per cent of the vote in six national polls they will be invited to participate in the presidential debates, and perhaps force Mr. Romney and President Obama to talk about campaign financing.  Many Democrats have worried that Americans Elect will hurt President Obama’s chances of re-election, but Professor Lessig-who is liberal-thinks it would be worth the costs:

 Let both major party candidates then address this issue. If the consequence is that Romney loses to Obama because of it, then Obama will have some mandate to return to the issue again. If the consequence is that Obama loses to Romney because of it, then maybe the next would-be-reformer president will carry through on the reform he promised. And if the unimaginable happens -- that a true reform candidate captures the imagination of America and wins -- then maybe we can finally address this, the most important issue in American politics today. Just maybe.

 I share Professor Lessig’s frustration that the issue has been absent from the campaign and that President Obama made no attempt in his first term to try and reform to the system. I’m sceptical though that having campaign financing mentioned in a debate or two would do much to change the political salience of the issue.  After all, the 2010 Citizens United decision put the question at the centre of public debate for a few weeks, but hasn’t led either of the parties to offer much in the way of reform.  In any case, changes to the way we conduct elections are long overdue. Choosing politicians the same way over and over and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.


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Cool. Cool cool cool.

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27 April 2012


The Karl Rove-founded American Crossroads group has released this commercial attacking Barack Obama for being "cool." Much of the footage comes from Obama's recent "slow jam the news" appearance on Jimmy Fallon, which charmed the Internet and infuriated Republicans in equal proportion.

Kevin Drum doesn't think it works, writing "this one makes Obama look a little too much like Will Smith, and I don't think the heartland really has anything against Will Smith." Greg Sargent sees a clear message: "This ad is basically a way of saying, See? We told you he was all slick and empty talk. You fell for it. Look what it got you."

As David Frum wrote in New York magazine last year, Republicans have a very different view of Obama than the rest of America:

Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system .... Outside the system, President Obama—whatever his policy ­errors—is a figure of imposing intellect and dignity. Within the system, he’s a pitiful nothing, unable to speak without a teleprompter, an affirmative-action phony doomed to inevitable defeat.

Notably, many of the attacks conservatives have been making against the President are based on their own understanding of him: the GOP primaries were rife with teleprompter jokes, for instance. The "cool" commercial follows in this vein; Republicans are convinced Obama is a preening fraud who coasts on the cultish devotion he cultivates among his supporters. Is the rest of America open to this interpretation? (Or, at least, would they agree with the American voter who told me recently that she disliked the Fallon appearance because it was undignified for a president to participate in a talk show sketch?)

Meanwhile, Jennifer Rubin has her own problems with the Obama image:

I found that irksome because I’m tired of the faux sophistication mixed with fake down-homeness (characterized by dropping “g’s”).

Possibly fair! But on that "dropping gs" thing: Is there a politician anywhere in America who could correctly pronounce gerunds and still get elected? This affectation is one as necessary as wearin' a flag pin or endin' a speech with "Gold Bless America." Over-enunciation is such a sure sign of snobbery that no one running for an office as esteemed as the presidency would dare indulge in it.


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Able was I, 'ere I saw Delaware

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26 April 2012


Newt Gingrich

The dream is over:

Following his five-state shutout this week, Newt Gingrich will suspend his yearlong campaign for president on Tuesday, multiple sources close to the campaign confirmed.

He will return to the Washington area, where he has lived since leaving office, to make the announcement official, they said.

And why?

Gingrich fell short again in a state in which he trained all of his attention leading up to a Tuesday night vote.

This time it was Delaware, a small state with a recent history of bucking the system. Gingrich told NBC that if he didn’t win there, he would seriously reconsider his campaign. Word leaked of his imminent departure on Wednesday morning.

Losing 22 states was one thing. Losing 30 states was another. But losing 35 states, including the Great State of Delaware? That's a burden too great for even a giant like Newton Leroy Gingrich to bear.

Good night, sweet prince. May your dreams consist of a multitude of moon bases, and may you always be unhaunted by ravenous penguins.


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Campaign Notes: Money matters

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26 April 2012


If having lots of money were all you need to get elected President of the United States then the likes of Ross Perot, Steve Forbes, Donald Trump, or Jon Huntsman could have been sliding their feet under the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.

Happily, that will only happen if they sneak past the Secret Service at a White House dinner — which on recent evidence is not entirely out of the realm of possibility, but would presumably only be for a few short moments of pondering what might have been.

No, money alone will not win you the Presidency, particularly if we are talking about a personal fortune rather than money from a legion of enthusiastic supporters.

Yet money can be both a reflection of a candidate’s support and a means to generate more of that support through spending on campaign activities and advertising.

As Mitt Romney showed during his now all-but-victorious campaign for the Republican Party presidential nomination, having more money than your opponent can turn a potential primary loss into a win.

Time and again since January, Romney wheeled out the big financial guns to bombard his opponents with negative television ads. First Newt Gingrich got the Romney-treatment in Florida after his strong showing in South Carolina, and once Newt was taken down, it was Rick Santorum’s turn.

Mitt Romney may have become the nominee even if he didn’t outspend his rivals by 10 to one or more in some crucial states like Michigan and Wisconsin, but it would surely have taken him a lot longer.

His sealing of the deal has come at a cost.

Financial disclosures for March have been released, and as Romney and President Barack Obama get on their marks and get set for the general election campaign their bank balances are rather unbalanced:

Cash On Hand in April

  • Mitt Romney: $10.1 million.
  • Barack Obama: $104 million.

Yes, there’s a small but significant decimal point on Romney’s bank statement. On those numbers alone it would be “game over,” as now Romney would face being outspent by 10 to one.

But that’s not the whole story. Those numbers don’t take into account the so-called SuperPACs, like former Bush advisor Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, and it’s secretive sibling Crossroads GPS, which have hauled in $99.8 million since last year and aim to spend three times that amount this year.

The SuperPACs and 501(c)4s (which for tax purposes are non-profit social welfare organisations) can take unlimited contributions, and in the case of 501(c)4s like GPS, they never need to disclose where the money is coming from.

We do know that someone penned a $10 million cheque for Crossroads GPS recently — we just can’t ever read their signature.

While that $99.8 million doesn’t belong to Romney’s campaign, it will certainly be spent boosting Republicans and tearing down Democrats — Barack Obama in particular.

Pro-Democratic SuperPACs have been formed as well, but they have struggled. The most closely aligned to President Obama has just $5 million in the bank.

Luckily then for Obama, his financial disclosures reveal he had more than half a million individual donors in March alone — close to 200 000 of whom have never given to his campaign before. While few of those Obama donors may ever be in a position to write a cheque for $10 million, they can all give up to $2500 this election – a potential wad of $1.2 billion.

So whether it’s coming in big bundles of loot from a relatively small number of wealthy donors, or small amounts from hundreds of thousands of less affluent supporters, it’s looking like the contest for money could be pretty close this year.


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Obamacare explained

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23 April 2012


ACA

In February I did a summary of the lengthy journey from bill to law of the Affordable Care Act also informally know as Obamacare. Here, I’m going to explore what the law actually does. This is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis of the nearly 1 000 pages of legislation, but rather a foundation for understanding the major aspects of the ACA.

If you’re looking for a more in depth look at the American health care system, I’d highly recommend Introduction to U.S. Health Care Policy by Donald A. Barr. I frequently cite the 2011 edition of the book in this post. If you have any questions about this post or health care policy in general, feel free to post them in the comment section or under the Ask Uncle Sam feature of the Election Watch website.

As its name suggests, the Affordable Care Act was designed to extend health insurance to 32 million Americans by making coverage more affordable. The ACA doesn’t get rid of the private health insurance market, but it does implement changes in the way it operates and also allows more people to obtain coverage through the government run Medicaid program. The law can be divided into three major parts: 1. Regulations on the insurance market intended to increase the availability of health insurance plans; 2. An individual mandate designed to make these regulations work; 3. Subsidies to help people with “lower incomes” afford the cost of insurance premiums. I’ll deal with these topics one at a time.

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The Affordable Care Act seeks to expand private health insurance coverage in several ways.  Most notably, all insurance companies must “offer the same premiums to all applicants of the same age and geographical location,” regardless of their health status. This is a dramatic departure from the previous system in which insurers would often charge those with pre-existing conditions substantially higher rates, or in many cases deny them coverage altogether. 

Beginning in 2014, companies with over 50 employees will be required to offer health insurance coverage to their workers or else pay a tax penalty . To facilitate access to insurance for those who do not receive it through work, states are required to set up health insurance exchanges in which consumers can compare plans.  Plans offered through these exchanges must provide a baseline set of benefits, and each exchange must offer at least two competing plans, one of which is provided by a non-profit organisation.  These plans must also offer four “predefined level of benefits".

The goal of the exchanges is to create a transparent one stop destination for small businesses and individuals who don’t obtain coverage through their employer to shop for health insurance, and to encourage market competition between insurance companies within a regulatory framework that ensures that they offer coverage to anyone who needs it.

The ACA also expands the scope of Medicaid, the government run health insurance program that is financed by a combination of federal and state funds and administered by the individual states.  Traditionally, Medicaid has been available to all children (and some parents) whose family income is below the poverty line, some pregnant women, the disabled, and seniors at a designated level below the poverty line. Citizens over 65 already receive health benefits through Medicare. Under the new law, all individuals and families with incomes below 133 per cent of the poverty line will be eligible for Medicaid. These changes are expected to extend coverage to 16 million previously uninsured Americans.

Prohibiting private insurers from discriminating against high risk applicants poses challenges though. Charging healthy and unhealthy individuals the same insurance rates creates an adverse selection problem; the sick will rush into the system while the healthy will choose to opt out. If I can purchase insurance at the same price once I get sick, it is rational to wait until I fall ill to buy it. Insurance works by pooling together the risk of individuals, but under the given rules, the pool will be flooded with high risk and expensive consumers. Since the per capita health expenditures within pools will be high, so too will the premiums that consumers pay. In order for these new regulations to work, there needs to be a way of bringing younger and healthier individuals into the risk pool.

This is where the individual mandate comes in. Under the ACA the uninsured -with the exception of select groups such as religious objectors-will be required to purchase a baseline level of health insurance coverage or pay an annual penalty of $695, or 2.5 per cent of annual income, whichever is greater. The penalty is not high enough to create de facto compliance, so it is anticipated that even with the mandate a fair number individuals will choose to opt out of coverage.

The federal government will also offer new subsidies to help offset the cost of purchasing health care.  People who are above the cut off line for Medicaid but whose income is less than four times the poverty level will be eligible for subsidies. Federal funding is provided on a sliding scale. Individuals and families with incomes 3 to 4 times the poverty level would not have to pay more than 9.5 per cent of their income for insurance, while those closer to the federal poverty level would not pay more than 3 to 4 per cent.  

Additionally, some small businesses that pay over 50 per cent of their workers health insurance costs will be eligible for tax credits.

In sum, the ACA attempts to address the affordability of health care by increasing the number of people eligible for Medicaid, preventing insurers from discriminating against those with pre-existing conditions, and increasing federal subsidies to low and middle income Americans.

The costs of the new healthcare program are financed in a number of ways. Most notably, is an additional 0.9 per cent payroll tax on individuals with an annual income over $200 000. Similarly, there is a 3.8 per cent tax on passive income, such as investments or royalties, that totals over $200 000 in a year. These taxes fund the Medicare program that provides health coverage to Americans over 65.

There is also a new excise tax on “group insurers with annual premium payments in excess of $10 200 for individual coverage and $27 500 for families.” The tax rate is “40 percent on the amount of premiums above the thresholds”

Additionally, the ACA imposes a variety of smaller fees on the “health care industry.” Among these are a 2.3 per cent tax on infrequently purchased medical devices , taxes on pay for health care executives whose companies fail to meet given government guidelines,  and an annual tax on “certain manufacturers and importers of brand name pharmaceuticals.” You can peruse the links I've provided if you’re interested in a fully comprehensive list of the funding mechanisms for the ACA. And here’s a good pie chart on how the bill is financed.

Estimating the total costs of the bill is not exactly a straightforward task because individuals disagree over the mechanisms used and in part because politically motivated individuals on both sides are excellent at obfuscating the issue. The Wikipedia article on the ACA provides a good summary of these areas of disagreement.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office which is responsible for scoring the costs of legislation estimated in March 2011 that the act will bring in $813 billion from 2012 to2021 and cost $613 billion to implement, resulting in a deficit reduction of $210 billion dollars. At the time it was passed into law the CBO projected that the ACA will cause “national health... expenditures to rise to 19.6 percent of GDP (by 2019) as compared to 19.3 percent had ACA not been enacted.”

There’s also a final point aspect of the health care bill worth touching on. As Sarah Kliff explains:

“much of the law’s 905 pages are dedicated to... an overhaul of America’s business model for medicine. It includes 45 changes to how doctors deliver health care — and how patients pay for it. These reforms, if successful, will move the country’s health system away from one that pays for volume and toward one that pays for value. "

I’d like to tackle the issue of cost controls on health expenditures in a later post. It’s an extremely important topic, but also a pretty wonky one.   A lot of the new regulations focus on incentivizing efficiency and encouraging health care providers and insurers to keep costs down (such as the previously mentioned tax on expensive health care plans.  Ezra Klein points out that the bill implants a wide variety of potential cost control mechanisms attempting to make “reform a continuous, rather than occasional, process.”

One area of agreement amongst both defenders and critics is that, even if the ACA is upheld by the Supreme Court, this will not be the end of the health care reform process. While the law makes significant attempts to address rising medical costs, it probably doesn't contain the sort of large scale cost-control mechanisms that will curb continuously increasing  health care expenditures. The ACA is not the cure-all for a troubled health care system, but is it an important step in the right direction or a journey down the wrong path?

 

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Swinging off-centre

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19 April 2012


"Swing voters" are always a big deal in Washington, but with the November election coming up, they're set to become hotter than Tamagotchis were in 1997. So what are these folks whose votes are up grabs like? Do they perhaps sit perfectly in the middle of the two parties, with no firm allegiance to either?

Nope, says Ruy Teixeira. There are so few voters of that sort — "pure independents" — that the vast majority of swing voters are actually those with a weak attachment to one of the two major parties:

Instead, the simplest and clearest way to think about it is on the level of the individual voter. For an individual voter to qualify as a swing voter, the relevant criterion that needs to be fulfilled is persuadability. And that’s not a quality that’s exclusive only to those who are completely undecided, or who are only weakly committed to a candidate. Even those who are moderately committed can be persuaded to deepen their commitment. And the deepening of an existing affiliation with a candidate can be just as significant, both statistically and electorally speaking, as attracting mild commitment from someone who had previously been mildly committed to another candidate.

The important factor is not where voters’ inclinations started out, but the fact that their inclinations were changed at all. The act of persuading a swing voter has traditionally been thought of as moving a given voter from more likely to vote against a given candidate to more likely to vote for him—say from 55 percent likely to vote against to 55 percent likely to vote for. But it could also mean moving that voter from somewhat likely to vote for a candidate to very likely to support that candidate (say from 55 percent likelihood to 65 percent)—or, for that matter, from very likely to almost certain (65 percent to 75 percent). All three of these examples are mathematically equivalent—and it makes sense to think of them all as swing voters.

 In fact, around 70 per cent of swing voters are "weak partisans." The result of this is that it can be just as electorally viable — in fact, more electorally viable — for parties to firm up support among their wavering supporters than to try to "triangulate" in an effort to capture the mythical centre. That's bad news if you're a political reporter with fond memories of the Clinton era, or a political strategist eager to talk up the supposed ballot box benefits of deficit reduction and entitlement reform, but it does accord with what I've said in this space before: independents are less informed and less likely to turn out than other voters. Parties are best off avoiding the Rorshach test that is devising policy to appeal to centrists.


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Campaign Notes: The little engine that couldn't

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12 April 2012


The first time I saw Senator Rick Santorum in person he was standing in the media “spin room” at Iowa State University just minutes after a Republican candidate debate.

It was getting on towards 11pm on a Thursday night last August, two days before an influential straw poll was to be held at the campus in Ames, about an hour’s drive north of Des Moines across seemingly endless fields of corn and soya beans.

Santorum was trying to win Iowa and the Republican presidential nomination the old fashioned way: going from door to door, store to store, and factory to factory across the Midwestern state's 99 counties.

That was how Presidential candidates from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama had done it: winning grassroots support for the Iowa caucuses that were to be held five months later and using that as a springboard to the nomination.

But on that warm late summer night last August Rick Santorum didn’t seem to be going anywhere. The main contest in Iowa back then was between two candidates from neighbouring Minnesota: Governor Tim Pawlenty and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

There was also considerable buzz building around a candidate who wasn’t even in the race but would soon become the national frontrunner: Texas governor Rick Perry.

Santorum’s appearance in the post-debate spin room was in itself an acknowledgement that he was an also-ran being starved of media attention. Top-tier candidates send surrogates in to face the throng of press; various state politicos and members of their campaign staff are paraded in front of reporters from around the world offering sound bites on why that particular candidate won the debate.

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But Rick Santorum wasn’t claiming victory, he was looking tense and red-faced, claiming media bias against him. He’d only been asked two questions as the usually affable Fox News moderator Brett Baier tried to goad a fight out of Pawlenty, Bachmann, and Mitt Romney.

Santorum was telling anyone who would listen that he was “the little engine that could,” and that he would perform strongly in the Straw Poll and win Iowa.

Not many people were listening. Unimpressed, I turned my microphone towards another long-shot who seemed to have a better chance of going places: businessman Herman Cain.

Two days later at the Ames Straw Poll, Santorum won only 1657 votes to come a very distant fourth. Tim Pawlenty, who came third, immediately dropped out of the race. All the attention was on the winner, Michele Bachman, and Rick Perry, who after a day of fasting and praying upstaged everyone by declaring his candidacy.

Little engine indeed.

But five months later it was Rick Santorum, not Michele Bachmann, or Rick Perry who tapped into the large evangelical Christian vote and won the Iowa Caucuses (although on the night Mitt Romney was incorrectly declared the winner) and it was Bachman who dropped out of the presidential contest.

And so it was Santorum, along with Newt Gingrich, who emerged as the unlikely “anti-Romney” candidates.

But money matters in American politics, and while Gingrich could count on casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson to write him cheques for $10 million for a few months, Santorum struggled to find either a sugar-daddy or a broad donor base.

As the weeks passed in January and February, a familiar pattern emerged: Santorum would pull ahead as various caucuses and primaries approached only to be torn down as Mitt Romney spent millions in negative TV ads.

Santorum promoted an ultra-conservative agenda, raising fears he was dragging the campaign too far to the right. Along the way he did register victories in Colorado, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri, and Louisiana, but Mitt Romney won a lot more.

But every time Santorum won, or came close to Romney, he underscored the frontrunner’s weakness.

The writing has been on the wall for weeks — if not months — so its hard to say why Santorum chose this week to drop out. Maybe it was the poll last week that showed him trailing Romney in Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania, which votes on April 24th. Maybe it was the hospitalisation of his three year old daughter Bella, who was born with a genetic disability, or maybe it was just having a few days at home over Easter that had him assess the realities of the campaign.

Romney is now effectively unopposed for the nomination. Santorum’s lasting impact may be to show just how uninspiring a candidate the former Massachusetts governor really is.

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Winning back women

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12 April 2012


I mentioned yesterday that Rick Santorum's effect on the Republican race had been to help usher in social issues that Republicans had for many years left alone and in which Americans had grown uninterested. If Santorum hadn't hyped up his opposition to contraception, it's doubtful the other candidates would have felt the need to decide where they stand on birth control, nor would it have been likely that they would have felt the need to placate their party's right wing by, for assistance, affirming their opposition to requiring employers to provide it as part of employee health insurance.

As presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney is reaping the effects of this, and it looks like it could be a big drag on his campaign. Via Ezra Klein, here's a finding from the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll of registered voters:

A wide gender gap underlies the current state of the race. Romney is up eight percentage points among male voters but trails by 19 among women.

Women have historically tended to prefer Democrats to Republicans, but this is an extraordinary gender gap that, if it were replicated in the general election, would significantly reshuffle American politics. It would make women a political demographic that did not just lean slightly to the left, but provided a solid base of support for the Democratic Party, akin to Jews or Latinos. Except women are 51 per cent of the American population, not 16 per cent, as with Hispanics or 1-2 per cent, as with Jews. 

The perception that the GOP is fighting a "war on women" is proving particularly damaging to Republican interests, and possibly much more so than the party's operatives realise. It's something that they must get under control. The problem for them, however, is that political reality is pulling in the opposite direction to the party's rigid and easily riled base. This is related to, but distinct, from the party's perhaps overstated difficulties with the country's changing demographics. In this case, it's not that social change is leaving the party behind. The American population hasn't experienced a sudden influx of women. The GOP's problem is that society has moved one way, but its base wants the party to head in the opposite direction.


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Santorum made the right choice

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11 April 2012


Santorum withdraws

Rick Santorum’s unpredictable campaign for presidency drew to a close in Gettysburg, PA on Tuesday. His withdrawal confirms what has been apparent for some time now; Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee for president.

This was the right move for the former senator from Pennsylvania. Santorum had no chance of securing the 1144 delegates needed to win the nomination, and almost no chance of stopping Romney from reaching this magic number. Staying in the race at this point would have been delaying the inevitable. While there were no compelling reasons for remaining on the campaign trail, there were good reasons for bowing out.

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When Santorum lost his Senate seat in 2006 by 18 points it looked like it could be the end to his political career. But, the man who was crushed in his own backyard was able to assemble enough of a national coalition to give Romney a run for his money. He went from an afterthought within Republican circles to someone who may well play a prominent role within the party in the coming years.

However, he stood to lose a lot of this positive publicity by staying in the race. Mitt Romney had moved ahead of Santorum in the Pennsylvania polls, and given his enormous cash advantages the former Massachusetts governor looked poised to win the Keystone State on April 24th. Even if Santorum pulled off the upset in Pennsylvania it was unlikely to alter the race much given that candidates are expected to carry their home states. In contrast, a loss would have brought instant comparisons to 2006, and his withdrawal from the race would have been cast in a less favourable light.

Putting aside Pennsylvania, there was already a growing consensus amongst Republicans that the time had come to coalesce around Romney and start looking toward the general election. The longer Santorum stayed in the race, the more it would appear that he was hindering the Republican’s chances in November.

It’s unclear what the future holds for Santorum. While the runner up in the Republican Primary often goes on to be the nominee in the next election cycle, it’s less likely that this will be the case with Santorum. There are a lot of talented young GOP’ers who will be ready to jump into the race in 2016 if Romney loses in 2012. Additionally, Santorum’s brand of conservatism inevitably turns off a large segment of moderate Republicans and independent voters. That being said, whatever Santorum’s future aspirations, they were likely bolstered by his decision to withdraw today.

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The end of Santorum

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11 April 2012


Rick Santorum announcing the suspension of his campaign

For the good part of half a decade, Rick Santorum has been a joke — and I'm not referring to the one propagated by Seattle sex columnist Dan Savage. The Pennsylvania senator lost his seat in 2006 by a humiliating 18 points, and, throughout 2011, ran a presidential campaign distinguished by its inability to attract support greater than the margin of error in most polls. With the national economy stumbling along in a recovery not robust enough to get anyone particularly excited, it seemed that the last thing Americans wanted was a social conservative with an apparent fixation on keeping women away from contraception and gay folks away from each other.

America likely didn't want that, but a significant proportion of the Republican party did, and Santorum's threading together of ostentatious religiosity, blue collar boilerplate, and vigorous traditionalism was enough to give him a surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses. Santorum wasn't the perfect Tea Party conservative, but up against the suspiciously Northeastern Mitt Romney, the fervently unorthodox Ron Paul, and the mercurial and unfocused Newt Gingrich, the Republican base accepted him as good enough. Good enough to throw some support behind — and good enough to keep Mitt Romney from a too-easy ride to the nomination.

But even in forcing the Republican Party to take him seriously, Santorum struggled to make himself a candidate at whom the wider American public would have to take a look. He could not convert his Iowa victory into the campaign donations or party endorsements that would have permitted him to provide a credible challenge to Romney, and his campaign was beset by organisational problems that prevented him from maximising the impact of his victories — in some states, he failed to file full delegate slates, meaning that he couldn't fully convert his popular support to representation at the national convention. Even on his best day, when he won victories in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado, he failed to use the opportunity to jumpstart his campaign. Ultimately the Republican Party proved to be more diverse in opinion than its conservative base, and Santorum couldn't persuade enough of the party that he could beat President Obama in November. His suspension of his campaign, announced today, was a confirmation of the inevitable.

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None of which makes his campaign an irrelevancy. The religious right had been marginalised from American politics ever since it had helped give President George W. Bush a second term in 2004, and found itself roundly ignored by him once he was back in office. Santorum didn't just put debates over gay marriage, pornography, and abortion back on the national agenda, he asked Americans to consider the morality of contraception for the first time since the 1960s. He didn't singlehandedly stir up the social conseravtive furore that permitted Democrats to accuse Republicans of declaring a "war on women," but he was a leading voice for a vision of America that many on the right feared had slipped away: a place where order and propriety reigned supreme, and where they did not need to worry that the primacy of whiteness, Christianity, and traditional family structures and gender roles had eroded. Even though it didn't resonate with the general population, Santorum's message was won a lot of Republicans found irresistable, and his competitors, including the party's now presumptual nominee Mitt Romney, were forced into arguing on his territory. To keep peace with his party, Romney had to adopt an aggressively conservative stance that could well come back to haunt him in November — and, if he should win, beyond.

Romney had effectively secured the nomination after he had won in Florida — or, depending on how fervently party actors were looking for an alternative, possibly even earlier. Only now, however, can he turn his full attention to the sitting president. He will do so after a battle that forced him into positions far more to the right than he felt comfortable adopting. (Remember his unintentionally revealing remarks at CPAC, where he declared himself to be "severely" conservative?) Romney will be hoping that with Santorum exiting the race, so too will depart the most strident demands of the Tea Party and the religious right.

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