A month ago it was Newt Gingrich; now it’s Rick Santorum. Mitt Romney was trending at some point in between, but no one really noticed, or maybe no one wanted to. Romney is the candidate the GOP yawns over, with the candidate of the month consistently coming in and stealing his thunder. The thread I see running through all these other candidates is their authenticity, or at least the appearance of it, especially in relation to Romney.
Gingrich came along right before the South Carolina debate and blasted the moderator for calling him out on his alleged open marriage. The audience went nuts, cheering Gingrich on for sticking it to the man and standing up to the “liberal” media establishment. The members of the audience at the debate weren’t the only ones going crazy over Gingrich either, with the candidate winning decisively in the primary of that same state, and many pundits predicting he would be in the running for the GOP nomination right along there with Romney.
The same thing happened with Santorum. He made his social position very clear, taking a strong anti-abortion stance, touting his Christian values and claiming to be a strong fiscal conservative, essentially trying to be the second coming of Barry Goldwater, who will return the Republican Party to its true conservative roots.
The thing is though … neither of these guys is really as authentic as they say they are. Gingrich might have stood up for himself in the debate, but he was standing up for himself against accusations that he was cheating on his wife. He just got lucky that no one called him out at the debate. Santorum, on the other hand, wasn’t so lucky in the Arizona debate last Wednesday, when Romney attacked his Congressional voting record, saying that Santorum voted against his supposed beliefs in Congress, like backing Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program. Ron Paul, who might be the only truly authentic candidate in the GOP, even got in on the attack, calling Santorum a “fake,” and saying “I find it really fascinating that, when people are running for office they’re really fiscally conservative, [but] when they’re in office they do something different.” Santorum replied that he viewed politics as a “team sport” and would often “take one for the team.” When seemingly every GOP voter is just looking for an authentic candidate this seems like a pretty dangerous remark for Santorum. The audience at the debate loudly booed Santorum for the comment, but the impact of his comment could very well extend to the upcoming primaries as well.
But indeed voters do seem to want an authentic candidate. Rachel Maddow had some enlightening data on her show last week, pointing to polls conducted by Public Policy Polling in the next three states with primaries. The polls show that if Gingrich drops out of the race, Santorum’s lead in Washington and Michigan jumps from a small one to a commanding one. And in Arizona, Santorum even goes from second place, behind Romney, to first place.
As Gingrich and Santorum are the two candidates whom the GOP perceives as the genuine ones, the explanation for this trend seems pretty clear. All the voters who prefer Gingrich’s supposed authenticity just give their jump to the other genuine candidate when theirs exits the race. Ron Paul even gets some love in these polls, but I would think he would receive more considering he sticks to his positions more than any other candidate. Maybe he’s too authentic and he scares the GOP base away.
The point though is that voters are still looking for anyone but Romney, and the reason seems to because of Romney’s lack of authenticity. He’s frequently framed as a moderate, with his leadership in establishing a Massachusetts health care bill that was the basis of “Obama-care” just being one of the many examples his detractors like to point out. One of the more pertinent examples was given by Frank Rich in New York Magazine. Rich points to Romney’s Mormon faith, which the candidate claims is one of the biggest parts of his life. But if it is really such a big part of his life, no one would know that from his public appearances, because he never talks about it in public. So if we don’t know about the biggest part of his life, his faith, then, as businessman says in Rich’s piece, “none of us [have] any idea who this guy [is].”
Authenticity alone isn’t going to get Mitt Romney the nomination, but if he’s already in contention, then if he just lets the voters know who he really is, he can win the race.
Joel Marshall is a third-year literary journalism major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.