Over the last couple of months, I’ve mentioned on numerous occasions that I’m perceiving a certain… lack of enthusiasm… over the GOP presidential nominating process in South Carolina this year.
Today, at the very height of hoopla in that neck of the woods, I see an indication that there is a similar dearth of excitement in Iowa (thanks to Andrew Sullivan for bringing this Philip Klein piece to my attention):
Those following the Iowa caucuses from home, hearing a steady stream of reports such as this about “packed rooms” that are “standing room only” with people still waiting outside, may be getting the impression that there’s a groundswell of enthusiasm for this year’s candidates that will drive turnout for the caucuses to stratospheric levels.
But don’t be fooled. The truth is that the venues candidates are holding events at this year are much smaller than in 2008, back when some candidates were filling large ballrooms or even small arenas. When going into a Barack Obama event in 2008, it wouldn’t be unusual have to get there early and still park a five or 10 minute walk away from the actual rally site, only to come into a massive venue where crowds in the thousands were going wild. Even on the Republican side, Mike Huckabee was filling larger venues.
Yet yesterday, reporters, photograhers and a few actual patrons were packed into a tiny diner at a Mitt Romney event in Atlantic, Iowa. True, later that evening, he attracted hundreds to a town hall-style building in Council Bluffs, but it was still a relatively small venue.
On Saturday, Newt Gingrich squeezed people into a diner in Council Bluffs and a small corner of a Coca Cola bottling factory in Atlantic.
At the same time, the audiences seem a lot more subdued than in 2008 — less shouting and sign waving….
Clever of the candidates’ handlers to make it look like they’re in demand by shrinking the venues. But I’m grateful to hear that this certain lack of vitality is not just a South Carolina phenomenon — and even more importantly, not in my imagination.
The causes? I haven’t sorted that out entirely, but among the causes I suspect are lack of enchantment with the field, an ongoing identity crisis in the GOP (are they about fiscal libertarianism? or is it values? and what happened to a muscular foreign policy?) and a general gut feeling, fairly broadly held, that the incumbent will win in the end.
The table is open to entertain other theories — as well as evidence to the contrary regarding this diminution of enthusiasm.
I think you have it about right. It seems as though most Republicans understand that Mitt Romney gives them their best shot at winning in November yet they are not enthusiastic about him. Plus, all the others are extremely imperfect in one or more ways. If the unemployment rate continues to drop the GOP faithful will become increasingly resigned to 4 more years of Obama. The candidates can rant and rave about Obamacare, military weakness and deficits all they want but none of those things resonate if the economy improves. Add to that the fact that Obama polls well in likeability measures and it’s no wonder enthusiasm is low this time around.
On the other hand Obama could be vulnerable if the economy dips dramatically. In that case voter turnout could drop to an all-time low and give the GOP a shot.
If one were a Republican rank-and-filer, one is feeling a bit whip-sawed by the Non-Romney Candidate-of-the-moment Club that has been the contest so far, especially if one were not a Romney fan.
“what happened to a muscular foreign policy?” Huh? Have you been following the same campaign I’ve been following? With candidates obsessively trying to outdo each other in promising to beat up on Iran/China/Venezuela/(Your favorite bogeyman here)? With Ron Paul being called a loon for refusing to play that game [Well, he is a loon, but for other reasons]? Actually, I don’t think the Republicans have an identity crisis; it’s just that every issue, including the economy and foreign policy, is a culture-war issue. In all cases, the problem is that “we” are surrounded by malevolent enemies; “they” (whoever they are–gays, ecofreaks, Muslims, China, immigrants, the unemployed) are out to get “us,” and the solution is to find the candidate with the strongest arm and the hardest fist (though the loudest mouth will do in a pinch). The difficulty is that none of the candidates can be perfectly trusted to slay all the dragons the base wants slain; those who have records have always at some point deviated from the True Path, and those who haven’t are jokes. No, the Republicans know what they want; they just can’t find it. Some of us are grateful.