Super Tuesday: 5 things we learned

Here's where the GOP stand after another ten states choose their Republican candidate.

Earlier this week, the former First Lady Barbara Bush called the 2012 Republican race "the worst campaign I've ever seen in my life". Today's New York Times leading article agrees, noting that even with last night's Super Tuesday results counted, the dirty race continues to drag on:

Republican voters will have to go on for some time choosing between a candidate, Mitt Romney, who stands for nothing except country-club capitalism, and a candidate, Rick Santorum, so blinkered by his ideology that it's hard to imagine him considering any alternative ideas or listening to any dissenting voice.

So where does this long drawn-out process for the GOP to nominate a presidential candidate for November stand? Here's five things to take from last night and note in the coming weeks:

1) Mitt continues to struggle in the South

The frontrunner Romney lost South Carolina to Gingrich in January, and yesterday Newt took his home state of Georgia, while Santorum won Tennessee. Romney has a sizeable lead in the delegate count, but has not yet won over southern voters. It's not enough that these conservative Americans backed John McCain in 2008: Romney needs to make gains off his own personality and politics.

2) Evangelical votes could yet boost Rick

Santorum's success with conservative evangelical voters could help him make up some ground over the next week. Three of the four states holding primaries or caucuses in the coming week -- Kansas, Alabama and Mississippi -- hold 130 delegate votes between them and are of this demographic. It's now almost a certainty there won't be a Republican nominee until June.

3) Ron Paul keeps things interesting

Despite having yet to win a contest, Ron Paul continues to receive enough votes to keep things interesting. He finished in second place -- ahead of Romney -- in North Dakota, second in Vermont and in half the contests received more votes than Newt Gingrich. Should Paul leave the race soon, his not-insignificant fan base will be migrating towards another candidate, which could play out in various ways.

4) Was Ohio Mitt's coup?

This swing-state come November was an absolutely critical win for Romney. Had Santorum taken that state, he would have received an enormous momentum boost. Yet Romney's success comes with warnings: exit polls show he continues to struggle with working-class voters, evangelicals and those described as "very conservative". And with the Romney campaign spending four times that of Santorum's, a 15,000 vote margin is only barely good enough.

(As an aside, four years ago Hillary Clinton won the Ohio primary, only to go on to lose the nomination to Barack Obama who took the state in the Presidential election.)

5) GOP flailings are great for the President

Unsurprisingly (see Bush, above), the GOP race is doing little to soften the party around the edges. As I reported yesterday, the reduced turnout of voters in the primaries shows a clear gap of enthusiasm for the Republican party amongst their own people. Now new polling by Pew shows that the dirty battle between candidates is directly helping their rivals: Democrats, turned off by Romney &co. and rallying behind the president. As the New York Times writes:

A new Pew Research poll shows that 3 in 10 voters say their opinion of the Republicans has worsened during the primaries. Among Democrats, 49 percent said watching the primaries have made them more likely to vote for Mr. Obama. That is up from 36 percent in December, which shows that Mr. Obama has risen as the Republicans have fallen.

Still, it's eight months until the big election day, and the NYT leader notes, "the president, who can be frustratingly inert at times, still has a long way to go".

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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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.