Romney will win the nomination, the question is when

Whenever Romney has stumbled or been threatened by Gingrich or Santorum, he opens the cash spigot.

American media loves a good horse race. That's why you see so much feverish debate over trivia. For instance, does Mitt Romney have what it takes to appeal to white working-class Republicans? The answer, if you're clear-eyed, is moot, because voters who are truly working class - earning less than $50,000 - are most likely to vote Democratic in the general election. Reporters and pundits covering the GOP nomination for the White House are already bored. No need elevating that boredom to ennui with the realities of class.

The only question is when Romney will secure the nomination, not if. Other questions - if, say, he will be worn down politically and organizationally by November - are big questions no one can answer right now. In terms of party politics, no one can conceivably catch up to Romney, and this despite supporters who don't like really him.

Of the 10 states in play on Super Tuesday (March 6), he won six - Alaska, Idaho, Massachusetts, Ohio, Virginia and Vermont. Sure, there's room for debate amid victory. For instance, he won Ohio only by a hair. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich weren't on the ballot in Virginia. Mormons favoured a fellow Mormon in Idaho. And Massachusetts chose its former governor by a landslide (72.2 percent).

Romney now has 415 delegates, more than the others combined. He has more organization; he has more money; he has more momentum. Of all the differences between this nomination and those of the past (and there are obviously many), the one fundamental difference is the rule changes initiated by the Republican Party. Every state is supposed to allot delegates proportionally to ballots cast for each candidate. It used to be winner-takes-all. If there was any question about who the frontrunner might be, that was settled by the time the first Super Tuesday came around. But that can't happen this year, because some states, like Florida ignored the rule and remained winner-take-all while others, like Georgia, now issue a percentage of delegates. Bottom-line is Romney is winning. It's winning piecemeal but it's still winning.

What's fascinating is what 2012 has revealed about the GOP and American politics in general. For instance, the curious case of religion. Santorum is a Catholic and you'd think he'd be a shoo-in among Catholics. No so! You'd also think Catholics wouldn't care for a Mormon. Not so! Turn all that upside down. Santorum is so socially radical, as if he were speaking for Pope Benedict himself on, say, the issue of birth control, that Catholics have flocked to Romney. Meanwhile, Romney scarcely talks about religion at all, even waffling on abortion. Perhaps that why evangelical Christians, who favoured Bush, have rallied around Santorum's orthodox anti-abortionism.

Another curiosity is the beginning of what could be a split of the GOP. I don't mean to overstate this, but it's true that Ron Paul is the Tea Party favourite, and his positions on drug enforcement and war are contrary to party dogma. He has, however, a snowball's change in getting the GOP nomination. Even so, Paul, who ran in 2008, is laying the groundwork for a libertarian insurrection. Paul is elderly so some are saying the beneficiary of his effort is his son, Rand, who rode a wave of Tea Party enthusiasm to become a US Senator in 2010.

Then there's the money. No one has even spent as much at this time in the nomination process as Romney. Not even close. I'm talking about Romney's coffers as well as those of the super PAC (political action committee) that supports him. It's called Restore Our Future and it is the product of the 2009 ruling by the US Supreme Court that said money is the same as free speech and so it can't be subject to campaign finance laws. Romney's super PAC comprises huge donors, spending millions on each state during the nomination. Whenever Romney has stumbled or been threatened by Gingrich or Santorum, he opens the cash spigot. Romney might be the first GOP nominee universally known for not being able to sell his platform so he buys one.

As I said, American media loves a good horse race (and who doesn't!) but that also means a certain degree of myopia when it comes to explaining why Romney can't warm the cockles of Republicans. A better place to find answers is the larger cultural and political shifts that have taken place since the era of President George W. Bush.

The last decade saw significant and radical shifts to the right while Bush was in office. He and his henchmen Dick Cheney and Karl Rove were able to force the GOP's rank-and-file to get in line. The rank-and-file are of course now the same people in thrall to the radicalism of the Tea Party ideology. But once Bush left office, that radicalism could not be contained. Add to that the historic election of the first African-American President of the United States and you have the making of a reactionary extravaganza that was the 2010 mid-terms.

Without a strong leader like Bush - or for that matter, an influential intellectual like William F. Buckley, who died in 2008 - that radicalism has become unbridled. Even House Speaker John Boehner, who could reasonably presume that the rank-and-file would get in line as they historically have done, cannot control his right flank. Hence, the reason the GOP's top priority since 2008 has been unseating Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, pity the poor quarter-billionaire. While the party was moving to the radical right, Romney, as governor of Massachusetts from 2002 to 2007, was busy achieving health care reform, which had been a long-time objective of the Republican Party (yes, it's true!). I kind of feel sorry for the guy. He thought he was doing the right thing for the party - being a moderate Republican able to accomplish a Republican agenda while running a very liberal state. I can see why people would think he'd be a good candidate in a general election. Too bad he didn't foresee that his main problem would be his own party.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in English at Yale University.

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.