Conservative Republicans are proving as fickle as luck at a casino, flocking behind and then just as quickly discarding candidates to challenge President Barack Obama next year.
Students of American politics link the flightiness and topsy-turvy nature of this year’s nominating contest to the deepening partisan divisions that shape the U.S. political climate.
Some political scientists believe this extraordinary political season finds origins in the tea party movement that exploded as a power in the Republican Party in the aftermath of Obama’s election in 2008.
The low-tax, small-government group has gained an outsized voice among Republicans, especially because its members dominated the new class in the House of Representatives that led the party in recapturing the majority in the lower chamber in the 2010 elections.
“This year has the feel of one where the tea party people are looking for a savior,” said John Baick, professor of political science at New England College. “But they will never find someone who fits the bill. No one can be a savior because everyone has flaws.”
Since Rep. Michelle Bachmann won the closely watched but nonbinding Iowa Straw Poll in August, she has quickly ceded her status in the top tier of hopefuls to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who just as rapidly fell from favor to the easygoing, slick-talking, but politically untested Herman Cain.
He now is battling to keep his No. 1 spot after reports of payouts to two women who had accused him of sexual harassment when he headed the National Restaurant Association.
Through the rise and fall of fortunes, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney - favorite of the more moderate party establishment - has held steady in the polls but failed to move above a tepid 20 percent to 30 percent backing.
Jack Holmes, political science professor at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, explains that Romney has failed to catch fire because the most conservative among Republicans are looking for an antiestablishment candidate, albeit one who can defeat Obama.
“If the candidate doesn’t measure up, politicians are quickly abandoned,” said Holmes, who is active in Republican politics.
Seth Masket, assistant professor of political science at the University of Denver, contends the conservatives are “trying all these non-Romneys on for size.
“The active part of the Republican base right now is much further to the right than they used to be. If the party base were somewhat more moderate, I think they would have converged in support of Romney by now,” said Masket.
Romney, while favored by the Republican establishment and tested on the national scene given his attempt at the nomination in 2008, fails with the conservatives for many reasons. Chief among them is his involvement in setting up health care reform when he was Massachusetts governor. Much of that plan served as a template for the national plan pushed through by Obama. It is anathema for Republicans, who have vowed to repeal it.
Romney also held moderate positions in the past on social issues such as abortion, and is seen as too willing to change course as political winds dictate. His Mormon faith also plays against him with evangelical Christians, who are core Republican voters. Many in that group see Mormonism as a sect.
Political divisiveness is nothing new in American politics. Both Baick and G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College, cited the early 1930s, when Franklin D. Roosevelt won the presidency in the midst of the Great Depression.
Madonna noted that in 1964, Republicans nominated the ultraconservative Barry Goldwater. He was trounced by incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson.
“A hard-right tea party candidate will have very little appeal for the center,” Madonna said, reminding that independent voters dominate the U.S. electorate and decide presidential elections.
While Romney remains the odds-on favorite with the Republican establishment, Baick said a “dream candidate” still could emerge for the deeply conservative base.
“Those Republicans are hoping for a candidate with no negative history, no negative record. Just a staunch conservative. If that candidate could just offer them something, some symbolism, those conservatives would follow,” he said.
So far it doesn’t appear the current field is measuring up.
What is more, says James Riddlesperger, professor of political science at Texas Christian University, the party base “cares a lot more about policy than winning. They would rather be ideologically pure than win.”
(Hurst is AP international political writer.)