When Newt Gingrich surged in South Carolina, he brought along massive gains in turnout - record turnout, in fact, with bigger gains in voter participation than in Iowa and New Hampshire. The Jan. 21 South Carolina primary drew about 602,000 voters, a 35 percent increase over 2008, as the former House speaker defeated former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Mr. Gingrich received 40.4 percent of the vote to Mr. Romney’s 27.8 percent.
In Florida, Mr. Romney surged but turnout was low. The Romney-Gingrich battle in Florida appears to have produced slightly fewer than 1.7 million voters. That is a decrease of about 12 percent from the 1.94 million who voted in 2008. Mr. Romney received 46 percent to Mr. Gingrich’s 33 percent.
In Florida, Mr. Romney mounted an aerial assault, running around 13,000 negative TV and radio ads, outspending Mr. Gingrich 5 to 1. Mr. Romney won by flooding the airwaves with negative personal attacks, but we still do not know his campaign theme. He didn’t win because he had a clear message, but because he cut and slashed his opponent with negative ads. To win in a general election, you need an aerial assault and boots on the ground, and you also need a message. Negative ads without a clear message will not turn into votes at the national level.
Mr. Romney still has not connected with evangelicals, Tea Party people or conservative voters. The more moderate-to-liberal Republican voters are more likely to support Mr. Romney, but moderate-to-liberal Republicans do not constitute an army on the ground. Liberal Democrats share something in common with conservative Republicans and independents: They organize and bring excitement to the campaign. But moderate-to-liberal Republicans do not bring the same excitement to a campaign. They do not organize and mobilize their friends and communities.
Mr. Romney connects more with moderate-to-liberal Republicans because he is viewed by many GOP voters as being moderate-to-liberal himself.
Republicans have not fared well when nominating a moderate-to-liberal presidential candidate. Sen. Bob Dole and Sen. John McCain are bookend examples of what happens when Republicans nominate a moderate to lead the country. Conservatives simply cannot get excited about a moderate-to-liberal presidential candidate. If he should become the nominee, Mr. Romney easily could be to the 2012 presidential race what Mr. Dole was in 1996 or Mr. McCain was in 2008.
For a Republican presidential candidate to win a national election, evangelical and conservative support is required. Evangelical and conservative voters provide the army that will increase voter turnout for Republicans.
It appears Rick Santorum is running against Mr. Gingrich to support Mr. Romney but, in reality, is not running for president himself. The former Pennsylvania senator has absolutely no chance of winning. Mr. Santorum likely could become this election’s H. Ross Perot, who split the ticket in 1992 and 1996, allowing Bill Clinton to win two terms. Hoping to get a seat in the Romney administration likely will keep Mr. Santorum in the primaries because the more votes he takes from Mr. Gingrich, the more he helps Mr. Romney, whom he endorsed in 2008. If his presence in the Republican primaries continues to take just enough votes away from Mr. Gingrich that Mr. Romney becomes the nominee, he will be looked upon by evangelicals and conservatives as the spoiler and will lose favor with the very base from which he seeks support. Even worse for Mr. Santorum, if Mr. Romney becomes the Republican nominee and is unable to motivate evangelicals and conservatives and opens the door for President Obama’s second term, Mr. Santorum’s political career is toast.
As for Texas Rep. Ron Paul, he is simply trying to build his own movement. He knows he cannot win the nomination. He is not in the race to win. Self-interest will keep him in the primaries until the convention.
To win against Mr. Obama, Republicans will need record voter turnout. To obtain that turnout, Republicans will need a conservative nominee. Electing a moderate to head the Republican ticket will play right into Mr. Obama’s hands. That is what happened in 2008, and that is exactly what could happen again in 2012.
Mathew D. Staver is chairman of Liberty Counsel Action.