With Texas Gov. Rick Perry now in the Republican primary fray, some are having trouble finding a road to the GOP nomination for either Mitt Romney or Jon Huntsman. Will Tea Party fringe-makers derail efforts by the Mormons in the fray? After all, the Republican primary is dominated by its hard-right faithful.
Perhaps. But maybe that’s what Romney and Huntsman are banking on.
And maybe they’re watching mainstream pop culture trends, too, from blockbuster movies to hit cable shows and compelling headlines, typically setting the tone for who gets picked as “The One” in modern political campaigns. Since presidential campaigns are more like high school popularity contests (who votes on the issues anymore, right?), voters look to trends. Media-unleashed trends take off like viruses … or wildfires, depending on how you end up seeing it.
Ultimately, the subconscious of the electorate catches on, and the concept or idea of a particular candidate evolves into one of the more prominent images in the collective American psyche.
For example, we knew an African American president was on the way long before Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, hit the convention stage in 2004. We just didn’t know who — until that moment.
But Morgan Freeman playing Leader of a Free World on verge of apocalypse in “Deep Impact” (1998) eased any stereotypical fears that black folks couldn’t manage superpowers. President David Palmer was so effective in the hit series we still miss, “24,” that cats attempted to draft actor Dennis Haysbert for a run.
So by the time 2007 arrived, there was little ambush or pleasant surprise in watching then Candidate Obama jump on a chilly stage in Springfield, Illinois, to announce his seemingly impossible bid for president. The anticipation had been bubbling for some time. The idea of a black president was acceptable.
Fast forward to 2011 and we see signs of a similar calculus unraveling for Mormons. “Big Love,” the HBO hit show about a closet polygamist Mormon business man who becomes a Utah political star, got much love from curious viewers who gave props to Bill Henrickson for juggling his multi-wife enterprise.
Something is trending like a hashtag for the Mormons to win — at least as far as the Republican primary is concerned. Pundits and journalists, falling weak-kneed for affable Huntsman, regularly wax poetic about the former Utah Governor’s chances. In what some D.C. insiders joked was a “hit piece,” Jonathan Martin critically examined Huntsman’s irascible campaign manager John Weaver in POLITICO, driving speculation that some political journalists were attempting to get his campaign on the right track.
For Romney, observers talk in muted exuberance about how Wall Street and the business community dig the former businessman and investment manager turned perennial pol. Bloomberg Businessweek went so far as to pronounce in a June piece that Mormon CEOs were “God’s MBAs: Why Mormon Missions Produce Leaders.”
And, in the Washington Post is Mormon Joanna Brooks pleading with readers to change their perceptions of the religion in “Five Myths about Mormonism.” That received so much play that it trended for a while on the Post at the top of its “Most Popular” list online.
A big question is if anyone is really feeling the return of boot-wearing, college-flunking Texas cowboys with an evangelical streak. Is Perry really electable? We have to assume GOP primary voters are smart enough to answer that question.
Romney could also win based on the principle of Republican default. The GOP nomination crown typically goes to the cat who has ran for years. This was Sen. John McCain of Arizona in 2008. Eventually, it’s a matter of party courtesy and discipline. Once the favored nominee is picked, party bosses will push all the noise out of the way. Party bosses may include the Bushes, who can’t stand Perry, even though they hail from Texas, too.
Additionally, the field is crowded enough to split the primary vote in multiple directions, with the highly unpredictable and emotional Tea Partiers and the red-meat conservatives throwing their votes to the firebrands — Perry, Herman Cain or Rep. Michelle Bachmann of Minnesota.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum, at the moment, is not even registering 2 percentage points to get noticed. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich has enough name recognition to snag a few, and Rep Ron Paul of Texas is at 10 percentage points, healthy enough to get a mix of extreme fiscal conservatives and small-to-no-government libertarians. If Sarah Palin jumps into the mix, it becomes a food fight.
The intra-primary cage match will be between Tea Party Republicans and conservative Republicans – there is a difference. Romney and Huntsman are waging that they don’t need Tea Party primary voters, since they’ll be divvied up amongst the flamethrower candidates. They believe they can get a decent slice of your traditional conservative Republicans and the entire chunk of moderate, independent, centrist, establishment and country club/soccer mom Republicans who more than likely view Tea Partiers as “poor white trash.”
Tim Pawlenty’s exit might shift some of his 3 percent over to either Huntsman or Romney, as there is still a segment of the GOP electorate in search of sanity. And, they’re also wagering that with popular culture and discourse feeling much more comfortable with the Mormon “thang” that their religion won’t be much of an issue with evangelical Republican voters – who might also get split up voting for the firebrands, too.
Charles D. Ellison is Chief Political Correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune, author of the critically-acclaimed urban political thriller TANTRUM and a nationally recognized, frequently featured expert on politics.