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Will Republican hearts still rule their heads?

By John Barron

The weekend Republican Party presidential primary in the state of Louisiana reinforced a couple of key features of this fascinating nominating contest. Social and religious conservatives still want someone other than Mitt Romney — latterly Rick Santorum — even though they know Romney has the best chance of defeating Barack Obama.

In Louisiana, Santorum won 49 per cent of the vote with Romney back on 27 per cent, yet exit polls conducted by Langer Research for ABC found 43 per cent of voters believe Romney is the most likely to win in November.

So, 16 per cent of primary voters cast their ballot for Santorum even though they believe he’s less electable.

What exit polls don’t really explain is why.

Are voters hearing the “Romney is inevitable” drumbeat and lodging a protest vote?

Or would they really rather a more conservative nominee, even if it means one who is a lot less likely to win the presidential election?

According to Rasmussen this week, Santorum trails President Obama by 47 per cent to 42 per cent, where Romney enjoys a 2 per cent lead over the President.

Romney continues to build his national lead over Santorum as well, with the Gallup tracking poll taken after the Louisiana primary putting the pair at 41 per cent and 26 per cent respectively.

The numbers paint a compelling picture, yet some conservatives seem to be pausing before taking their medicine, out of fear it will again turn out to be spiked Kool Aid.

One of the most decisive moments of any nominating contest is when voters decide between who they want to be elected and who they think can be elected.

For a long time in 2008 Democrats wondered whether America was more ready for the first black president or the first female president, yet they had the reassurance of knowing they could have nominated just about any of their top tier candidates and won.

But in 2008, Republicans had a tougher decision: it seemed only left-field choices had a chance in a year that was going to require something out of the box.

In the end, of course, they opted for John McCain, a long-time senator with a maverick reputation who had learned to toe the establishment line, rather than the more conservative Mike Huckabee, the more progressive Rudy Giuliani, and the more, well, something-or-another Mitt Romney.

As soon as McCain lost, even with Sarah Palin hastily slotted on to the ticket to bolster social conservative support, the cry went up: “He didn’t win because he’s not conservative enough!”

Many Democrats felt the same when they fell in behind Senator John Kerry in 2004 over the candidate who had earlier capture their hearts, Governor Howard Dean of Vermont.

That concern explains, at least in part, the collective conservative baulking. Another consideration is that the most fraught choices often come in years that are going to be toughest to win.

26 March 2012