The Republican Party presidential contest descended into schoolyard name-calling this week.
It began when Newt Gingrich on Sunday blasted Mitt Romney as “probably the weakest Republican frontrunner since Leonard Wood in 1920” — a classic I’m-the-smartest-on-the-playground insult for which Gingrich has no political peer. Romney responded the next day with his best blue-blood neener-neener: he pointed to his greater than 3-to-1 lead in delegates over the Georgian, and said, “If I’m a weak frontrunner, what does that make Newt Gingrich?”
On Tuesday morning before primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, Romney blustered that his closest competitor, Rick Santorum, was at the “desperate end” of his campaign. Santorum won both primaries that evening, and Wednesday morning a Santorum adviser lobbed his best your-mama comeback. He invoked a Romney vacation in which the candidate did something unusual, and said the Santorum campaign wasn’t about to listen to the “value judgment of a guy who strapped his own dog on the top of a car and went hurling down the highway.”
A double-dog dare is next, I’m sure.
This is not helping the GOP. Or any else, for that matter.
The Republican presidential nomination contest nearly ended, for all intents and purposes, on January 21. Had Romney held onto his double-digit lead that week in South Carolina, he would have coasted to the nomination. But Gingrich came from behind to win the Palmetto State, and ever since Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, and Ron Paul have been puffing their chests and arguing relentlessly over the economy, health care, foreign policy, earmarks, immigration, and social issues.
It has been especially negative. One report shows that half of the advertising in the GOP campaign has been negative, compared to less than 10% of ads during the 2008 Republican contest. Such attack ads have focused primarily on tearing apart each other instead of focusing on President Barack Obama, who will be the Democratic candidate in the general election.
The public is not liking what they’re seeing, evidence indicates.
For example, the favorability ratings of Romney, and in recent weeks Santorum, have dropped dramatically since the primary contest began in earnest. The Pew Research Center released a poll yesterday that includes questions about the public’s impressions of each candidate, as well as of President Obama. Nonpartisan Pew has asked these questions four times in recent months, and the trend lines are ominous for the Republicans.
Romney sat at a 36% favorable/42% unfavorable public impression in November (some voters don’t offer a specific impression, that’s why the numbers don’t equal 100%), which was a -6 net favorability standing. This impression has worsened each month, and now stands at 29% favorable/51% unfavorable, for a net -22. Santorum today is at 27% fav/44% unfav, for a net -17.
Meanwhile, across the partisan aisle, Obama sits at 56% fav/41% unfav, a +15 net — an improvement from four months ago when he was +6. The president is the current top dog in the schoolyard who looks on with a smile, awaiting as potential competitors wrestle in the mud to gain the privilege to take him on. (By the way, the center horizontal line runs straight across; it only looks like it rises as it moves right because the lines descending are so much longer those ascending — an interesting political optical illusion.)
To get a good sense of how badly this primary campaign is hurting the Republicans, it is useful to look back to 2008. In March of that election season — when Obama and Hillary Clinton were dueling it out and John McCain was clinching the Republican nomination — Obama had a 56% favorability rating, Clinton had a 50% favorability rating, and McCain was at 45%. There is no Republican even close to McCain’s number right now, while Obama sits at exactly the same number, a remarkable position given the partisan strife over the last four years.
Republicans have concluded that the primary is hurting their candidates. Well, actually, only those who support Romney have reached this conclusion.
In early February among Republican voters, according to Pew, 55% said the primary was good for the party and 36% said it was bad. This past week, among Republican voters, 47% said it was good for the party while 43% said it was bad. When you slice the current numbers according to which candidate the voter favors, Romney supporters say the primary is bad for the party, whereas Santorum and Gingrich supporters — not surprisingly, as they are hoping their candidate comes back on Romney — hold a vastly different view.
Had Romney won in South Carolina in January, this would all have been avoided. But he did not, and Santorum’s wins in Alabama and Mississippi ensure that this contest will go for at least a few more months.
The Republicans need to figure out how to move the debate from the schoolyard to a more befitting location, such as the public square. It would be good for all of us.