Opinion: Cain, Ron Paul and the Ever-Shifting GOP Sands

Romney and Perry? No! Ron Paul and Herman Cain

As we try desperately to make sense of the Republican search for a presidential candidate to beat President Obama each week seems to bring a new fork in the road.

We had just gotten used to Michelle Bachmann plunging and Rick Perry ascending. We were sure the die was cast and we were witnessing a two-man race between the former Massachusetts governor and the current Texas governor.

The suddenly, BAM! Herman Cain wins a Florida straw poll and Florida moves its primary up so we figger “Oh oh! The Tea party is restless and they want a non-politician businessman as their standard bearer.”

Now we are really confused because this weekend there was a new fork in the road at the Family Research Council’s Values Voter Summit where over 3K social conservatives met to sell their merchandise, vet the contenders and vote in another straw poll.

And wouldn’t you know it they gave Ron Paul 37 percent of the vote, putting the Texas Congressman and doctor in first place! Of course, the media long ago decided that Paul is NOT going to be the GOP candidate for president and I’m betting that even is he were to get the nomination at the GOP national convention next year the media will still ignore him.

Regardless, Herman Cain came in second with 23 percent, which still puts him at the top in these tests of the Republican Party conservative base.

Now matters turn serious. Third place should have gone to one of the former top contenders Perry or Romney, but the surprise here was Rick Santorum with 16 percent! The former Pennsylvania Senator is a bonafide conservative, but he has almost disappeared from the radar. Now he came to annoy Rick Perry who places fourth with only eight percent (167) votes. And that after evangelical preacher Robert Jeffress gave Perry a big “atta boy” by labeling Mitt Romney’s religion a “cult” and saying he would never vote for anyone except a “real” Christian who has Jesus Christ in his heart. How’d that work out for ya Governor Perry?

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has been labeled the new comeback kid scored three percent (not enough of a comeback I guess), but still managed to lead Michelle Bachmann in fifth and Mitt Romney in sixth with only 88 votes (which is half as many students as I have in my American govt class this semester. Pitiful) 

So what does this all mean? First, it means that the Republican base is still very uncertain about who they like best and they are changing their minds as they see more of the contenders.

Second, Iowa is not Florida; Florida is not South Carolina; New Hampshire is not Nevada (I think I have all the “early” primaries and caucuses accounted for.) That means there are regional differences that may present advantages for some of the candidates.

Third, the GOP political season is littered with special interest organizations that sometimes trump and overshadow the established GOP party organizations. As I watch all of this I’m again not sure that’s a good thing. The party leadership and organization tends to be pragmatic and focuses on picking someone who can actually win the general election in November of 2012.

The special interest groups, state caucuses, straw poll-meisters are often driven by a different agenda. While it’s admirable that we give passionate grass roots groups a real voice in the political process, that sometimes does not prove to be an effective strategy for choosing someone who needs to win the party base as well as a big chunk of independents.

Steffen W. Schmidt is University Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Iowa State University and Chief Political Correspondent of Insider Iowa.