Super Tuesday and the Politics of Personality

What a difference a week makes! John McCain scored a knock out punch winning 9 states including New York and California, and netting 602 delegates to Romney’s 201 . Two days later Mitt Romney announced he was suspending his campaign. This event virtually secures the Republican nomination for McCain.

This is a remarkable achievement around for a nominee whose campaign only months earlier was deemed to be collapsing. The story on the Democratic side was dominated by the unexpected success of Barrack Obama who won 13 states across the nation, virtually catching up to Hillary in the delegate count.

If there is one thing both developments prove , it’s that – for better or worse –  personality shapes politics at least as much as the issues and ideas.  There is no question that Barrack Obama is a charismatic figure. His speeches seem to electrify audiences and his campaign is inspiring millions of young people to become interested and involved in American electoral politics.  Unlike Hillary who has many antagonists, even many Republicans tend to find Obama likable.

Yet when it comes to the substance of his candidacy as far as his issues and ideas it is very unclear what it is he offers. A television audience of Democrats appeared on Fox News recently, and many spoke of their enthusiasm for Obama. Yet when asked to name any significant achievement of Obama, most had difficulty. His speeches tend to involve vague, optimistic rhetoric often revolving around the theme of unity.  

Given the intensity of partisan conflict in US politics it is understandable that the hope of transcending disunity and conflict is very appealing.  But given the very real division on core  issues separating the two parties, the language of unity seems somewhat vaccuous.

Conservative pundit Dennis Prager in a recent column on the subject aptly asked  – what is the “unity” position on withdrawing from Iraq? Or same sex marriage?  As soon as you advocate one position or the other you are “disunited” from a great part of the electorate.  Unless all Obama means by “unity” is the Prager puts it “I want everyone to unite – behind my values.  I want everyone who disagrees with me to change the way they think so we can all be united. I have no plans to change my positions in order to achieve this unity.”

The issue of personality was also central in the Republican race. On paper Mitt Romney had every reason to do far better than he did. His positions on issues such as campaign finance reform, immigration, and the economy accord far more closely with those of the conservative base of the Republican party then those of his rival John McCain. 

So what happened? Part of it can be explained by the fact that Mike Huckabee also did well in the South, probably taking votes from the Christian right away from Romney. But there is more to it then that.  As columnist Byron York wrote, Romney “left a lot of voters asking: who is this guy? He says he believes certain things now, but he believed other things deeply not that long ago. And each time, it seems, his deeply held beliefs jibed with what was most advantageous politically.”

The most prominent example of this was the fact that when he was running for governor of the liberal state of Massachusetts, Romney took a position defending Roe v. Wade the Supreme Court decision that declared abortion a constitutional right. Yet running for the nomination of the Republican party he took a firmly pro-life position. Romney’s “conversion” probably was sincere, but many voters simply were not so sure.

John McCain on the other hand gained a reputation for “straight talk”.  On the issue of immigration reform John McCain stuck to his position, even when it aroused great anger among conservatives and seem to threaten his political future. In parts of the country like Michigan that were hurt economically, McCain did not paint a rosy picture, but told people that many of their jobs were probably never coming back.  Though many Republicans disagreed with McCain on a number issues, they had the sense that he was telling them the truth rather than what they wanted to hear. Strange as it seems many voters seem to turn to someone they trusted rather than someone they agreed with on the issues.
At this stage both parties have both advantages and obstacles.  There was great rancor against John McCain from many conservative leaders and influential radio talk show hosts as well as from the rank and file. There is even talk of a looming “civil war” within the Republican party.  Some conservative leaders have said they will sit out the election – and the Republicans simply cannot win the election without the conservative base. Thus McCain now has the formidable task of how to unite a deeply divided party. Moreover voter turn out among the Democrats was far higher than among the Republicans, indicating that Democratic voters are more mobilized and inspired about Hillary or Obama, than Republicans are by McCain or the other candidates.

But as Stratfor (a private firm dealing with politics and international relations) pointed out, the Republicans after Super Tuesday have a very major advantage – while McCain can focus on defeating the Democrats for the Presidency, Obama and Clinton must focus on defeating each other for the Democratic nomination. At the moment and it looks like the Democrats may face a long and bitter fight all the way to the convention. Another advantage that the Republicans have is the personal attributes of John McCain himself. Whatever differences other Republicans have with him, no one doubts that, John McCain is a war hero who has built his life around the values of honor, duty, and service to his country.



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