Since the beginning of the Republican primary process, the defining feature of the contest has been Mitt Romney, pollster Scott Rasmussen tells National Review Online. Other candidates have risen and fallen, but the former Massachusetts governor has stayed steady around 25 percent in the polls. As Rasmussen recounts the trajectory of the race, it becomes clear how furious the search for the anti-Mitt has been: “Early on, people were talking about Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee; then they turned to Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie.” Then, of course, Republicans settled for the candidates who were actually running.
The latest alternative, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, offers the same strength and the same weakness as those who came before him, Rasmussen argues. His strength? The broad swath of Republicans who yearn for a candidate other than Romney. His weakness? His untested ability to perform in the spotlight. For Santorum to succeed, he’ll need to satisfy two conditions: First, he’ll have to convince voters he can beat President Obama. Second, he’ll have to convince them he can bring change to the White House. The reason Romney has failed to close the deal so far, Rasmussen contends, is that, though Republicans believe he satisfies the first condition, “some aren’t so sure about the second part.” “People want to shake up the political class in Washington,” Rasmussen says. “Some think Mitt is just part of it and wants to run it better.”
Santorum’s best hope is a strong performance in the remaining debates, which Rasmussen will be watching with interest. Rasmussen attributes the large influence the debates have had to their format. “You don’t have a lot of time for all the candidates,” he notes. “That benefited Newt Gingrich. For a long time he was disciplined in using his debate appearances to really show himself in a positive light.”
Why have the debates played so large a role this year compared to 2008, when the field was similarly large and uninspired? “In 2008, Republicans weren’t as enthusiastic as they are this year,” Rasmussen explains. “There was a lot of concern whether they could win after eight years of the George W. Bush administration.” This time, Republicans are bullish on their prospects. “They believe Obama is vulnerable. They believe they can win back control of the Senate.”
“All they were missing was a presidential candidate,” he jokes. “Other than Mitt Romney, there wasn’t a logical choice among the candidates who entered the field, and I really do think that contributed a lot to the importance of the debates.” Because the other candidates were relatively unknown, and voters were eager to pour their hopes into them, they watched the debates with a special keenness.
“We do have a broken nominating process,” Rasmussen adds. “I don’t think it will survive beyond another election or two.”
What’s so broken about it? “Everything.” People declare their candidacies early — so early that a candidate’s raison d’être, such as Obama’s opposition to the Iraq War, may no longer be applicable by the time of the election. Add to that the fact that the timetable “was forced on us by the Florida legislature,” which moved its state’s primary into January, which prompted the other early states to move their primaries ahead also, rushing and truncating the entire process. What’s more, retail politics become a sham “when the entire media apparatus descends on Iowa” in a flash. The whole process is “almost like a reality show or speed dating — it’s not a serious discussion.”
Rasmussen believes these defects have huge repercussions. “Before 1972, the year we started having the primaries dominate everything, almost every election or every other election had a landslide,” he says. “That was very significant: The losing team understood they had lost. It built up legitimacy in the government.” But since 1972, “the only true landside was the Reagan reelection in 1984. I think the reason we’re getting more polarized is that primaries are taking a bigger role in the process and not allowing a type of deliberation to go on to find a candidate who can truly lead the nation.”
Nonetheless, at least for this cycle, Republicans are stuck with the primary process they’ve got. What are their chances for winning the general election? As in the primary election, Rasmussen says, there’s one defining feature of the general contest: Obama. “Until Republicans settle on a candidate, we won’t have a really good sense of where that leads,” he notes. “One number to watch is the way people rate their own personal finances. In the fall of 2008, 43 percent said their personal finances were in good shape. That number had fallen to 35 percent by the time Barack Obama took office, and it has been in the low-to-mid-30-percent range in the last couple of months. If people aren’t feeling good about their personal finances, it’s not very good to run as the incumbent.”
Should a Republican win the general election, by the way, how would he cut government spending? At the end of this month, Rasmussen is releasing a new book, The People’s Money: How Voters Will Balance the Budget and Eliminate the Federal Debt. In it, Rasmussen argues that “we have a fiscal crisis today because over the last four or five decades, the political class has pursued its own agenda instead of listening to the people.” Solid majorities support major spending cuts that the political class has eschewed.
Here are three examples: By a two-to-one margin, Americans believe the U.S. should bring home its troops currently stationed in Europe. “That is part of a larger belief that our military should be focused on defending the U.S., rather than policing the world.” Second, Americans believe “individuals should have the choice to pick their own retirement age. If you want to retire later, you should pay less in taxes; if you want to retire earlier, you can pay a little more in taxes,” Rasmussen explains. “You can work out the number to make sure you eliminate the unfunded liability in Social Security.” Finally, “voters absolutely hate every version of corporate welfare.” Farm subsidies and Small Business Administration loans — they’re looking at you.
Despite the disconnect between the politicians and the people, Rasmussen remains optimistic that voters will right our fiscal ship. “At the end of the day the American people always win,” he says. “Voters are always a couple of decades ahead of politicians.”
— Brian Bolduc is an editorial associate for National Review.