The lack of a broadly popular Republican Presidential candidate in the 2012 election season has raised concerns from some GOP quarters that Barack Obama will be re-elected. Even Conservative columnist George Will has suggested that the Republicans cannot beat Obama, while MSNBC correspondent Joe Scarborough indicated that the GOP needs an attractive new candidate with widespread appeal in order to gain the White House.
What has happened to the Grand Old Party? Why does it appear to be so fractured and unable to deliver the kind of first-class national candidate that it used to?
International Business Times spoke with an expert on U.S. politics to explore this subject.
Lara M. Brown is an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University in Villanova, Pa.
IB TIMES: The Republican Party appears to be hopelessly divided, with no one presidential candidate that appeals to the broad GOP constituency. The presumed front-runner Mitt Romney is reviled by many Republican voters. Who dislikes Romney and why?
BROWN: It isn't fair to characterize Romney as being reviled by some Republican voters. The reality is that in American politics, where politicians and voters must form coalitions before the election (within each of the two major parties), rather than after (which is what happens in parliamentary systems), there is always intra-party tension between factions.
When it comes to the Republican Party, the factional split we see today has been around since 1964, when Barry Goldwater captured the nomination by promoting conservative positions highlighting individual liberty and states' rights. He stood against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because he believed the federal government was overreaching its power with it.
Thomas Dewey (who had run and lost in 1944 and 1948, and backed Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952) was more of a liberal as the former governor of New York, and it was his wing of the Republican Party that later became known as the Rockefeller Republicans.
When Richard Nixon ran in 1968, he brought in the conservatives and pushed out the liberals within the party. This factional fight arose again between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan in 1976.
IB TIMES: So this ideological split within the Republican Party has existed for decades?
BROWN: Yes. One of the things that has been interesting to watch is that many individuals who were once thought of as conservative are later viewed by activists as not conservative” and somehow “lacking in principles” when they are part of the establishment in Washington, D.C. for too long. This happened with Robert Dole in 1996 and John McCain in 2008. It is currently happening with Romney.
As governor of Massachusetts, Romney was indeed more moderate than many conservatives are comfortable with, and it is because of this past record that they distrust him.
However, it is also interesting to note that when he ran in 2008, he beat social conservative Mike Huckabee in a lot of the same counties (in Iowa, etc.) where Rick Santorum has beaten him this year.
In short, in 2008, Romney and Huckabee split the “conservative” vote, and that is why McCain won -- because in addition to winning some conservatives, he carried more of the “moderate” and “establishment” votes, which allowed him to win pluralities in enough winner-take-all contests to amass the necessary delegates to secure the nomination.
This means that the votes for Santorum and Newt Gingrich (and before that, the poll support for Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann) were not necessarily anti-Romney (because if anything, he has grown more conservative over the past four years) as much as they were anti-establishment.
For many conservatives, this fight then still somehow seems to be more about the difference between outsiders (like Goldwater, Reagan and George W. Bush) and insiders like Ford and Dole and McCain, than about ideology, per se.
Hence, some of the reaction against Romney is more about him as a symbol than as a personal politician.
Indeed, if you compared Romney’s platform with that of Reagan, Mitt is actually more conservative, especially on fiscal issues, but then in the present climate, Republican voters expect more conservative positions.
IB TIMES: The other remaining candidates (Ron Paul, Santorum, Gingrich) are either viewed as unelectable extremists or carry too much negative baggage. Why has the GOP been unable to unveil a ‘superstar’ candidate as they have in the past?
BROWN: There are two major reasons for this.
To a certain extent, it isn't about the Republicans; it’s more about the election year. Most strategic politicians understand that defeating an incumbent president is extraordinarily tough, no matter how poor the economy is. As a result, a number of people who may have run have likely thought that since Republicans will likely lose this time, it’s better to wait until 2016, when there won't be an incumbent on the ballot.
Many of them also are probably worried about going up against Obama -- both because he has a reputation as an amazing campaigner and because they may be worried about the Democrats using the race card against them, which is what happened to Hilary Clinton and John McCain in their political runs against Obama.
No politician wants to think that they can't go after their opponent for fear that what they say may be hurled back with the charge (fair or unfair) of racism.
Then there are also Republicans who may have been in a position to run for president in this cycle, but lost their seats in the Democratic wave year of 2006 (especially GOP governors and senators, like Virginia Senator George Allen). Further, since a lot of Republicans did not win again until 2010, a number of them feel as though it is too soon to jump into the arena.
Moreover, if those presidential aspirants had served in George W. Bush's administration, they also likely know they should wait until Bush's reputation recovers some and their connection to his presidency is not viewed as such a negative mark against them.
IB TIMES: Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal are rising stars in the party. Do you expect any of them to make a serious run for the presidency in 2016? What strengths and weaknesses do these three men have?
BROWN: Jeb Bush has one problem: his last name. He is associated with both his father and his brother, who for different reasons are not much liked either within the Republican party or around the country.
I would expect Jindal to run in 2016, and I imagine he'll do quite well -- Southern politicians typically do. That said, I think that if Romney loses in 2012, there will be substantial competition in 2016 and I'm not sure that Jindal will have the national network he would need to win the nomination.
Christie may run, but he'd have an even harder time than Romney or Rudolph Giuliani in 2008 because while he has been a fiscal conservative, on social issues, he has tended to be either libertarian or moderate, and that isn't likely to play well with the evangelicals in the party. If Romney wins in 2012, however, I imagine that Christie will have an important role in the administration.
IB TIMES: Most polls suggest Obama will be re-elected. Can you foresee the GOP just “sacrificing” 2012, and focusing more on gaining seats in Congress and Senate instead?
BROWN: No -- it is always foolish to not try to win the top of the ticket. If you just focus down ballot, you may end up losing lots of those as well because the opposition party's top spot could well end up with big coat-tails.
Beyond this, failing to try to organize your party for a serious and competitive presidential race ends up being a disaster because a sacrifice means that eight years will have passed in between elections and the party's voter/volunteer lists will not be as good.
It is tough to keep people engaged on a once every four year basis; it's even more difficult if you let things lapse for eight years.
IB TIMES: Is the Republican Party hamstrung by its evangelical Christian and social conservative base? That is, even though these groups helped Reagan get to power, are they now hampering the party’s success and popularity with the broader public?
BROWN: In some ways, the Republican Party is stronger now than it was in the mid-1990s. There are more House members and Governors, and the party itself has recovered from its post-George W. Bush lows.
Beyond this, Gallup has some interesting polling data which shows that the country thinks Obama is too liberal and they say they are closer to the GOP, even though on some specific issues, they agree with Obama. In other words, the nation is still divided. There are just a lot of elites (in the media and on each coast) who don't seem to believe it is and seem to think that the GOP is completely out of touch.
But really, if this were the case, then why was it that the Tea Party has been much more successful than the Occupy Wall Street movement (at least in terms of getting members elected and changing policy in Congress) since 2009?
IB TIMES: The Republicans are rapidly losing the support of women; and they have never polled highly with blacks or Hispanics. What kind of candidate would they have to field to maximize national votes?
BROWN: This is both true and not. In 2010, the GOP elected a number of high-profile women (Governors Susana Martinez, Nikki Haley, and Mary Fallin; Senator Kelly Ayotte; and Rep. Kristi Noem) and won the women's vote (51 percent for GOP and 48 percent for Democrats).
Pew Research also did a poll, released in July 2011, which showed that a large percentage of white women moved over to the GOP during the 2009-2011 period. However, the recent debate over birth control coverage has turned off women and caused a sharp drop-off among women supporters of the GOP. It may stay that way, it may not. We'll have to wait and see.
Incidentally, George W. Bush carried a lot of women (48 percent to John Kerry's 51 percent) in 2004, and he also carried a lot of Hispanics (44 percent). It will be interesting to see how this race shapes up because Obama's administration has actually deported more illegal aliens than Bush's did and has not made much of an effort to put forward a comprehensive immigration policy, so I'll be curious to see if these issues come back to haunt the Democrats or not.
The last polls I saw showed Hispanics supporting Obama in the low-60 percent range, quite a drop from the high-70 percent support he received in 2008.
IB TIMES: What differs the current crop of GOP presidential candidates from icons like Reagan and Nixon? What do you think those gentlemen would have thought of this field of 2012 Republicans?
BROWN: Both Nixon and Reagan had many more years of experience within the GOP, and both had long track records in politics. Even though Reagan had only been governor for eight years, he had been a national figure in the Republican Party since the mid-1960s.
In short, both were perceived as national leaders of the Republican Party years before they each won the presidency.