This year’s Republican presidential nominating process is probably no more or less quirky than in past election cycles. And it’s probably no more odd than past Democratic primary seasons. But consider how so much turns on so little:
Though he didn’t spend a lot of time in the state that hosts the nation’s first contest, the Iowa caucuses, Mitt Romney’s win there — by a scant eight votes — seemed to cement his status as the front-runner. Except maybe he didn’t win. As the final votes are tallied, it seems that Rick Santorum may have prevailed (and maybe by fewer than 100 votes). If former Sen. Santorum had been declared the winner the day after the caucus, would the rest of the primary process have been different?
Mr. Romney won big in New Hampshire, but that victory was discounted by the facts that he has a home there and that the Granite State is a neighbor to Massachusetts, where Mr. Romney had been governor. That bit of geographical luck will help him in Saturday’s South Carolina primary.
Other factors remake the political landscape like a Tilt-a-Whirl. New Gingrich’s ex-wife tells a reporter her then-hubby wanted an “open marriage” so he could cavort with the now-wife No. 3 and still stay hitched to No. 2. Had this news broken six months ago or a month from now, its effect might be less profound then it will have in South Carolina, a state where evangelical Christians make up a large bloc of GOP primary voters.
And so it goes.
Running effectively for president certainly requires a Herculean organization effort and lots and lots of money. But getting into the top tier of candidates can hinge on appealing to a very few voters in a few small states.
Some states allow voters not enrolled in any party to vote in a partisan primary. This is a healthy strategy in that it gauges candidates’ appeal to a voter bloc that often swings elections.
Another way to broaden the process is through third-party candidacies. Ross Perot in 1992 brought many new voters into the process, though his candidacy probably doomed George H.W. Bush’s chances at winning re-election. No third-party candidate of the modern era has been anything but a spoiler, and that includes a popular former president, Theodore Roosevelt, who ran unsuccessfully as the Bull Moose Party nominee 100 years ago.
Yet another force is stirring in the electorate that has the potential to introduce the voices of millions of more voters into the process. Americans Elect is working to win ballot access for a centrist third-party candidate. The party hopes to hold an “Internet convention” to select its nominee.
“Our goal is to open up what has been an anti-competitive process to people in the middle who are unsatisfied with the choices of the two parties,” the group’s CEO Kahlil Byrd told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. But it’s more than a third party. It’s a very different, Web-based way to select a candidate for the ballot. It doesn’t turn away Republicans, Democrats or unenrolled voters, but instead seeks their views. Candidates can be drafted or supported by registered users at the site.
In April, the field will be narrowed to six candidates through three rounds of Web voting. The finalists must pick a running mate from another party; a Democrat must pick a Republican, and vice-versa. The online convention in June selects the final nominee.
Mr. Friedman predicts Americans Elect will do to elections what the iPod did to music. Time will tell. But the process is worth watching. It’s certainly more substantive than learning about a candidate’s sexual predilections.