Rick Santorum’s recent victories in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri in the Republican presidential primaries have demonstrated that there are many GOP activists who are unwilling to do the bidding of the party establishment and get behind Mitt Romney.
Nevada was the first state in which he polled more than 50 per cent of the votes (50.1 per cent to be exact) in a single primary and, before Florida, he had received little over 30 per cent of the total popular vote. In Minnesota and Missouri he failed to win a single county and in Colorado he received 34.9 per cent of the vote to Santorum’s 40.3 per cent.
Throughout the campaign many activists have made their position clear: they would prefer a cultural warrior like Gingrich, a pious bible basher like Santorum, a candidate who believes the US should abandon taxation and foreign policy like Ron Paul, a fatuous Fox News populist like Michelle Bachmann, or someone who believes that overseeing the country with the largest GDP in the world is just like running a pizza franchise, like Herman Cain.
The poverty of the Republican candidates for 2012 has been matched by the low voter turnouts that reflect the disappointment felt by many activists that they don’t have a candidate who represents them. This is not uncommon in democracies. Many countries in the western world suffer voter apathy. For many people, even those engaged with current events, politics is rarely something about which they feel positive emotions. We vote in elections because we feel that we should. More often, we vote for candidates simply because they’re not the others – a University of Michigan study last year suggested that anger was the prime motivator for active voters.
A large percentage of people are not habitual or periodic participants in democracy: a report in 2010 revealed that 56 per cent of young people were not even registered to vote. The number of people voting in general elections in most modern democracies – 65 per cent voted in the 2010 general election in the UK – suggests that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the candidates: a malaise has spread among the electorate who believe, to use the line from the seventies, that whoever you vote for the government always wins.
In the UK, the Labour party has a similar problem to the Republicans: there are few mainstream Labour voters who really believe that Ed Miliband is likely to lead the party to a sweeping populist victory at the next election. At very best, it’s hoped that the Conservatives will be so unpopular that Labour might be able to sneak a small majority. Miliband won the leadership election largely on the basis that he wasn’t his brother, who was seen by rank-and-file members as too Blairite, too middle of the road, and not representative of the vision shared by Labour activists. In this case, the rank-and-file got what it wanted, and it looks like it got the wrong guy: according to the most recent YouGov poll, Miliband is significantly less popular than Neil Kinnock was as this stage of being opposition leader.
The number of people who get to vote in party leadership elections or nominate Presidential candidates is very small because the number of political activists is relatively small. In the final round of voting in 2009 Miliband won the leadership with 175,519 votes to his brother’s 147,220 votes. However, he won only one of the three major voting blocks, meaning that he was the first Labour leader since the electoral college system was implemented in 1980, to be elected without the approval of the majority of Labour members.
By allowing candidates to be chosen by those who feel most passionately about a political movement, parties don’t always end up with the best candidates. What they get is the candidate who appeals to those who are most ardent and purist in their feelings about the movement – a tyranny of the minority. This flies against a lot of what we have learned from the development of networks in the past twenty years – while technological innovation is focused on the crowd, the social and sharing, political decision-making is still the province of the self-selecting few. The system works in favour of the parochial and the insular, which, of course, doesn’t play to the electorate, who exist outside the party bubble.
Candidates who energize the base of the party sometimes manage to reach into the mainstream – for instance, Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Barack Obama in 2008. But these examples are the exceptions rather than the rule. Finding the candidate who can play well both to the minority (those who have a stake in the ideology of the party), and the majority (many of whom have fluctuating political allegiances) is an imprecise art.
Ironically, Obama would likely prefer to face one of the other candidates that so enamour the Republican base – the prospect of President Santorum would motivate the Democratic base and terrify all but evangelical Christians. In all likelihood, however, he’ll face Romney, the GOP candidate with the most realistic chance of beating the incumbent – whether the grassroots Republicans want him or not.