GOP round-up: 5 things we learned

Endorsements, gaffes and delegates from another week of the Republican candidate race.

Mitt Romney's convincing win in the Florida primary on Tuesday has put him firmly back in front of the race for Republican presidential nominee. Yet as John Stoehr noted on Wednesday, the GOP's new rules for candidates mean that unless the three other hopefuls run out of money in the next month, Barack Obama's opponent for November may not be named until March. Before then hundreds of delegate votes are up for grabs, with the Nevada and Maine caucuses taking place tomorrow (4 February), Colorado and Minnesota caucuses on the 7th, primaries for Arizona and Michigan on the 18th, the Washington state caucus on 3 March, and Super Tuesday, this year falling on 6 March.

The New Statesman's Republican primary tracker is tabulating the share of delegates so far, but here's a round up of recent developments in the race for which Romney and Newt Gingrich -- plus Ron Paul and Rick Santorum -- are still running.

1) The Donald Trump endorsement

On Thursday the billionaire real estate magnate and TV celebrity Donald Trump annouced his endorsement for Mitt Romney, as the man who's "not going to allow bad things to happen to this country that we all love."

 

On Tuesday, Trump (a former possible GOP candidate himself) told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that "in a very short time [he'd] be making an endorsement," though up until the moment his citation was unclear. Reports before the announcement suggested Trump's backing would go to former House Speaker, Newt Gingrich; two members of the Gingrich campaign even confirmed the rumours Wednesday evening.

But what's it worth for Romney? A poll by the Washington Post/Pew Center at the beginning of the year showed 64 per cent of voters would not be effected in their decision by Trump's endorsement; 20 per cent said they would be less likely to vote with Trump, and 13 per cent said they would be more likely to back his candidate. And as CNN's Alyssa McLendon notes, today's endless TV coverage and online debate over the merit of candidates means "voters feel they have more than enough information to make up their own minds," without being swayed by the mutual self-congratulation of politicians and public figures.

2) Romney's "not concerned about the very poor"

Until now he may not have been GOP's king of the gaffe (his sympathetic "I'm also unemployed" was possibly the worst), but Romney has certainly been called up on Wednesday's comment during a CNN television interview that he was "not concerned about the very poor" because they have an "ample safety net."

 

Campaigning in Hannibal, Missouri today, Rick Santorum said Romney's comment "sort of sent a chill down my spine as a conservative and a Republican . . . I want to belong to a party that focuses on 100 percent of Americans and creating opportunity for every single one." Gingrich took a plainer line yesterday, saying: "I really believe that we should care about the very poor, unlike Governor Romney . . . What the poor need is a trampoline so that they can spring up."

The Democractic National Committee got in the fastest, creating an attack ad around the comment in less than a day:

 

3) Who's in the money?

This week the Federal Election Commission released its donation data showing the half a million external contributions received by the campaigns of 2012 presidential hopefuls until December 2011. Obama raised $140m; Romney -- $56.5m; Newt Gingrich -- $12.7m; Ron Paul -- $25.5m, and Rick Santorum -- $3.3m.

Interestingly, the data also showed the sectors and professions of the donors, revealing that Romney's campaign received money from fewer, wealthier individuals and proportionally more corporations, whilst Obama's funding came largely from many small donations. The president's super PAC donations were made largely by individuals connected to Hollywood and labour unions.

4) Newt's still rooting on the moon

Despite dwindling funds, the Rick Santorum campaign has used $100,000 on national conservative radio ads to play over the next week. "Out of this world" urges potential Gingrich voters and Tea Partiers to back Santorum, "the one true conservative that can stop Romney and defeat Obama." The ad addresses the former House Speaker's support of the Wall Street bailout, his "radical healthcare mandates" and -- possibly his easiest target -- Gingrich's proposed $100 billion lunar colony.

 

5) There's 46 states remaining

As Newt's placards remind us, only four US states have voted for their Republican nominee so far; that's 103 delegates out of a total 2,286, with candidates needing a minimum 1,144 delegate votes to secure the nomination.

 

On Super Tuesday alone, the southern states of Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia -- where Gingrich typically fairs best and his strategy is largely focussed -- offer 226 delegates; over twice the number already awarded.

In a poll by Facebook/Politico in Nevada yesterday, 81 per cent of voters said they will not be influenced by the result of the Florida primary; only 8 per cent said it would effect their vote and 7 per cent said it might.

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.