Surge, sag, repeat: Why the Republicans are so volatile.
Super PACs, the tea party, a surging and sagging field, and a party rule requiring proportional awarding of delegates in early-voting states are contributing to an unusually unsettled GOP race.
"GOP voters: 'Can we see what it looks like with Huntsman and Perry again?' "Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
That satirical headline from The Onion just about sums it up: The 2012 Republican primary season has been like no other, and the idea that voters might want a second look at some of the dropouts – such as the former governor of Utah and current governor of Texas – isn't hopelessly far-fetched.
After all, after nine contests and tens of millions of dollars spent by the campaigns, 62 percent of Republican primary voters wish they had a bigger choice of candidates, up from 46 percent last fall, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll taken in mid-February.
Establishment favorite Mitt Romney just isn't closing the sale. And after a surprise sweep of the three Feb. 7 contests – Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri – Rick Santorum has become the sixth Republican to surge in national polls, after Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, and Donald Trump. Suddenly, polls show Mr. Romney, a Michigan native, in trouble heading into that state's primary on Feb. 28 – a race analysts say he has to win, or risk severe damage to his perceived inevitability as the nominee.
RECOMMENDED: Rick Santorum: Top 7 culture war moments
Why such a roller-coaster ride? Analysts point to several factors: a weak field of candidates; the advent of "super political-action committees," outside groups that can take in unlimited donations to fund advertising in support of a campaign; a Republican Party that is shifting rightward; and new party rules designed to extend the primary race.
In recent decades, Republicans have typically nominated the candidate who was "next in line" – usually someone who had run before. This year, that would be Romney. But the rise of the GOP's populist conservative base – centered in the tea party movement – has moved the goal posts rightward since he ran in 2008.
Romney, who governed Democratic-dominated Massachusetts as a moderate, is now viewed warily by conservatives. Never mind that he was positioned four years ago as the conservative alternative to John McCain, the eventual nominee. Since then, President Obama signed into law a sweeping health-care reform modeled on Romney's statewide reform. Romney has refused to disavow the Massachusetts law, but it's far from certain that it would help much if he did. A lot of conservatives just don't trust him.
Conservatives also look at history and see a formula for defeat.