Why Can't the GOP Race Settle Down?

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From the weak candidates to the elongated calendar, everybody has a different theory for why the Republican presidential contest is taking so long.

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The race for the Republican presidential nomination was supposed to be over by now. And yet, somehow, it isn't. If anything, as Michigan and Arizona prepare to weigh in with their primaries Tuesday, things seem more up in the air than ever.

Two candidates, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, have each won four states apiece; another, Newt Gingrich, has won just South Carolina but swears he's staying in all the way to the convention; and a fourth, Ron Paul, hasn't won a single contest, but seems to live in a parallel political universe where losing primaries is no obstacle to eventual victory. The latest polls put Romney just a hair ahead of Santorum in Tuesday's Michigan primary, but Santorum has tended to outperform polls on Election Day, and can credibly argue that even a close loss in Romney's native state is a major blow to the former Massachusetts governor. Then next week it's on to Super Tuesday, where 10 diverse states, from Ohio to Oklahoma to Idaho, present a new wide-open landscape.

Analyses seeking to explain the still-unsettled nature of the contest have hit on various factors as the supposed explanation, but no single cause seems to explain it. Here are a few of the causes we've seen cited -- and why they fall short.

1. It's the candidates. In a word, they're all terrible. The remaining field consists of a squishy, unprincipled one-term governor who has no idea what real people's lives are like; a former House speaker who resigned in disgrace after personal and political scandals; a former senator who lost his last election by 18 percentage points and wants to return American society to the 19th century; and a nutty congressional back-bencher obsessed with the gold standard. The also-rans weren't much better, from the Texan who made George W. Bush look like an intellectual heavyweight to the former Chinese ambassador who somehow thought he could win the GOP grassroots by talking down to them. With their choices limited to this bunch of clowns, is it any wonder Republican primary voters are ambivalent?

"The race is so up in the air because conservatives have decided they can't embrace Mitt Romney -- the deal-closing that everybody thought would happen isn't happening -- but they're not sure about the other guys either," said RedState founder Erick Erickson. "Everybody wants to beat Barack Obama, and it seems that may not be possible with the current field."

What's wrong with this theory: No candidate, or president for that matter, has ever been perfect, and the GOP politicians who are currently the subject of if-only-they'd-run wishful thinking -- Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels -- all have obvious personal and ideological liabilities that probably would have made their runs no more successful than the current candidates'. Plus, they didn't want to run. "We saw what happened with Fred Thompson last time and Rick Perry this time," Erickson said. "When you drag a candidate in who doesn't really want to be there, it doesn't end well."

2. It's the voters. They're so right-wing, so obsessed with ideological purity and determined to thwart the Washington establishment, whatever that is, that they can't reach consensus. In these days of Tea Party ferment and directionless anger, voters are impossible to satisfy; what's more, they're so consumed with antagonism for absolutely everything that it's impossible for them to make a positive choice. The sort of purity-over-electability attitude that in 2010 led to the Senate nominations of candidates like Christine O'Donnell and Sharron Angle is at war with rank-and-file Republicans' desire for orderliness. If these too-picky suitors would just settle for Mr. Right Now, this argument goes, we would have a nominee by now.

"The chaos in the race reflects the convulsions that are still roiling the Republican Party," said John Feehery, a GOP consultant and former congressional aide. "The consensus of what the GOP stands for has broken down post-Bush." In Reagan's day, the "three-legged stool" of economic, social and national-security conservatism was mutually reinforcing, but these days those three strands are more likely to see themselves as competing in a zero-sum struggle for the heart of the party. Meanwhile, a relentlessly negative campaign is extremely skilled at convincing people what they can't accept -- leaving them no positive alternative.

What's wrong with this theory: The Republican Party was arguably no less chaotic four years ago, neatly split between an economic conservative (Romney), a social conservative (Mike Huckabee) and a national-security conservative (John McCain), yet it didn't take too long for all the strains to congeal behind McCain: By this time in 2008, Romney had been out of the race for three weeks and McCain was the presumptive nominee.

3. It's the calendar. Changes to the Republican nominating process implemented after the 2008 election purposely elongated the nominating schedule so that more states could have their say -- and a chance to activate their GOP voters. Now, that's not looking like such a good idea. Super Tuesday 2012 is still a week in the future, but by this time in 2008, that day had come and gone, and with 20 states voting rather than the 10 that will vote next week. Not only that, the rules this time around have more states allocating delegates proportionally, so losers can still pick up some delegates. The end result is that it takes longer for any one candidate to reach the 1,144-delegate threshold that would make him the certain nominee. And so the candidates continue tearing each other apart with no end in sight.

"These RNC rules that turned to proportional awarding of delegates, this was the dumbest idea anybody ever had," Christie said recently. "You're running against an incumbent president who will not have a primary, so your idea is make ours longer so we can beat each other up longer?"

What's wrong with this theory: The idea that fewer contests were proportional in 2008 turns out to be a myth: In fact, all the states that have awarded delegates proportionally thus far -- which is every state that's voted except Florida -- also did so in 2008.

4. It's the process. From the constant drumbeat of debates to the new primacy of super PACs, every aspect of this nominating contest has served to jack up the volatility level and destabilize the calculus.

"The added stress of a series and confluence of unintended unfortuitous events overloaded the tolerance calibration" is the way preeminent GOP strategist Mary Matalin put it. Super PACs "provide a lifeline to otherwise cradle death candidacies," she said, while the death march of debates "ended up devolving into an ad hominem hammer rather than an illuminating turbo drive."

Pollster Whit Ayres, who worked for Jon Huntsman's defunct campaign, said the fractured, partisan, overheated media environment has helped prevent consensus. "It's a media with an extremely negative cast that is going to try to poke holes in every little thing; it's cable news that tends to promote people who bring more heat than light; it's the Internet that gives voice to every nutcase sitting in pajamas in a basement, hurling vitriol."

What's wrong with this theory: There were actually more Republican debates in 2008 -- 21 -- than the 20 we've had this cycle, yet they somehow never took on the feel of a grueling slog the way they have this time. And complaining about the media and money in politics have been fallbacks of political life since time immemorial.

The likeliest explanation: It's a combination of all these factors. What most observers seem able to agree on, though, is that they wish it would be over soon.

Image credit: Getty Images/Joe Raedle

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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