Romney wins Florida but the battle is far from over

We may see a winner as late as March if candidates other than Romney don't run out of money first.

It used to be that if you won Florida, New Hampshire and (almost) Iowa, you'd be a shoo-in for the Grand Old Party's presidential nomination. But the Republican Party changed the rules this year so that even runners-up like Newt Gingrich can take a percentage of the number of delegates needed. It's why Gingrich, who won nearly 32 percent of the votes to Romney's 46, can say with confidence that he's going to run in every state in the union. We may see a winner as late as March if candidates other than Romney don't run out of money first.

The changes to those rules also mean that Republicans have a chance to tear each other apart for much longer than in the past. And Romney and Gingrich have sharper claws than most. Over 90 percent of TV ads in Florida were negative. Most of those came from Romney's camp, which had to win decisively after losing to Gingrich in South Carolina, and all of them are the result of the US Supreme Court's 2010 ruling that said spending money on politics is the same thing as freedom of speech.

The big news is that a crack that emerged after South Carolina is now widening. While Romney appeals to mainstream Republicans, Gingrich is courting the party's right wing. In exit polls, voters describing themselves as "very conservative" or supporters of the Tea Party got behind Gingrich. Conversely, four in 10 voters still don't think Romney is conservative enough. This likely stems from his past as governor of Massachusetts, a dependably liberal state, where Romney ushered in universal health care, aka "Romneycare."

A lot has been said about Ron Paul, the classical libertarian, and the viability of his forming a third party. But Gingrich might turn out to be the choice to lead such an insurgency. He will likely do well in the American South, where his dog-whistle tactics earn him praise, and establishment Republicans hate him. Matt Drudge, the conservative behind the Drudge Report, devoted more negative stories about Gingrich than to any other candidate. Gingrich, who loves to play the victim, could parlay that into a possible underdog strategy.

Surprisingly, voters worried about Romney's conservative credentials don't seem worried about his Mormonism. In fact, Romney's religion thus far has been a non-issue, even for Gingrich, who appears to have no scruples when it comes to attacking rivals. On primary day, he even said Romney, as governor, had barred Holocaust survivors on public assistance from eating kosher.

As Rick Perlstein wrote in Rolling Stone, Republicans have a history of changing their religious beliefs to suit their political circumstances, and that the rank and file know how to fall in line. In 2008, John McCain failed a similar purity test, but then the entire political machine got behind him when he won the nomination. This may happen again with Romney even though he's tepid on issues mattering most to Tea Party conservatives, like federal deficits and immigration.

Romney lost South Carolina in part because he was thinking about President Obama. He corrected course in Florida, where we saw the former private-equity executive do a little mud-slinging. It worked, and it may keep working, and this is the central difference between now and four years ago. In 2008, two establishment guys, Romney and McCain, took pains to avoid wounding each other before the big fight. With Gingrich, none of that matters. He taught Washington to get nasty. With him, and these new party rules, we're going to this get a whole lot nastier.

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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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times