It's been a hard few weeks for Mitt Romney, and perhaps worse for his supporters who had to digest the reality that their seemingly invincible candidate could be stalled in South Carolina.
Millions of dollars in campaign ads and the most well-organized campaign by far weren't able to wrap up the nomination last week, even though days before the contest the probability seemed inevitable.
Could the same fate await him in Florida?
The latest polls suggest, no. According to the latest Quinnipiac survey, Romney has a nine point lead in the state, with just 6% undecided. Then again, 32% claim they could still change their minds before election day. Among Tea Party supporters, Gingrich is leading Romney by a 2-1 margin. And these are the people most likely to vote.
This means that while Romney supporters should feel confident, they can't afford to be complacent. To understand the dynamics of the race going into Florida, I think we should reassess the real reasons why Romney lost South Carolina.
The dominant theory about his defeat was that he fell down in the debates in the week before the poll. He had weak answers about his tax returns, the story goes, and he wasn't prepared for the intensity of attacks from Gingrich and Santorum.
The exit poll figures seemed to support that theory. ABC's survey found that two-thirds of voters claimed they chose Gingrich because of the performances of the candidates during the debates.
Still, I think there's a more fundamental explanation here that has nothing to do with the debates: it's the influence of the Tea Party. And there are a number of reasons why Romney, and maybe even the GOP overall, may have underestimated its strength.
From the beginning of the campaign, Cain, Bachmann, Gingrich, Perry, Santorum, and to some extent Paul, were all taking slices of the conservative pie. Sure, the field quickly slimmed down, but it wasn't until Santorum slumped in New Hampshire and Perry dropped out just before the South Carolina poll, that right-wingers could consolidate.
What's more, the Tea Party didn't even exist at the time of the last presidential election. It was only in early 2009 that we heard their first rumblings. By the 2010 midterm elections, candidates endorsed by the Tea Party did manage to unseat mainstream Republicans in a number of high profile primaries. Still, that was only the Tea Party's first run, so it would have been difficult to deduce the extent of their strength across the country or their future electoral success, especially without a coordinated organization.
And let's face it, to most Democrats and Republicans alike, they seem like a rag tag group of disgruntled, radicalized right-wingers, unified perhaps by their rhetoric about the Constitution and reducing government spending and taxation, but not by specific and credible policies. Many of their candidates sound ignorant and ridiculous. Plenty of their supporters act absurd.
Now I realize that I am violating Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment, "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican," but frankly, I'm not sure why I should consider these people Republicans.
About six in ten Tea Party supporters say that global warming is not a proven fact. Most non-Tea Party Republicans don't agree. Six in 10 Tea Party supporters say the Department of Education should be abolished, while only one in five mainstream Republicans would agree. Tea Party people are also twice as likely as other Republicans to say abortion should be illegal, half as likely to support gay marriage, and twice as likely to believe that the Social Security system should be replaced.
The Tea Party movement is essentially a populist protest against the Republican Party. Indeed, a survey by the Washington Post back in October 2010 found that 87% of local Tea Party organizers said that "dissatisfaction with mainstream Republican Party leaders" was "an important factor in the support the group has received so far."
The problem is, in an age of political apathy, the American system of primaries is uniquely vulnerable to ideological renegades. They can hijack a primary in a matter of weeks, demanding polarized positions on abortion, guns, and taxes, for example, and bullying more moderate candidates into sounding more extreme. Then they'll turn out their politically-charged base in a way that moderates simply can't, even if they do represent the silent majority.
And that makes me angry. It makes me angry because as a life-long Republican, they have managed to undermine the influence and credibility of my well-balanced party. It makes me angry because they call themselves Republicans but they act like lunatics. And it makes me angry because in their foolishness, they have no problem about recklessly championing unelectable candidates and risking the Republican Party's electoral viability.
So Mitt Romney's more aggressive strategy going into Florida was really his only choice if he was to re-establish his dominance. At the same time, as much as I wish this wasn't necessary, the Romney campaign would be wise to adopt a more populist tone on taxes and spending to capture more voters on the right.
Perhaps the 2012 primary in South Carolina will also be a turning point for the GOP's national strategy. The Republican Party needs to recognize that it is now effectively fighting a war on two fronts, and dedicate resources to making sure the party's own extremists don't derail the process of choosing the strongest candidates for nomination.
In this contest, I'm convinced that candidate is Mitt.