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    Richard Nixon tells all about zany U.S. primaries

    Confused by the circus in which a couple American politicians are waging mud-slinging election campaigns to win the nomination as the Republican candidate to oppose Barrack Obama in the presidential elections in November? We will call on the late Richard Nixon—yes, he of Watergate ill repute—to elucidate.

    Not the complex nitty-gritty mechanics of how the U.S. primary system works—that would take a college course on the U.S. political system, and I’m no professor—but the guts of what’s really going on.

    And that’s complex enough.

    Consider the recent primary in South Carolina that essentially narrowed the field of Republican wanna-be presidents to Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, the walking scandal of whom. His lesbian half-sister, Candace Gingrich, once wrote of the former Congressional Speaker, “Newt/ I think you’re cute/ You speaker of that house of ill-repute.”

    From news media accounts one might get the impression that South Carolina is entirely populated by ultra-conservative Republican evangelicals, with the exception of Jimmy Carter, who is a liberal Democratic evangelical.

    Exit polls of those who voted in the January 21 primary seemed to confirm that South Carolinians are, indeed, very conservative. Almost two-thirds said they were Tea Party supporters (sixty-four percent) and slightly more said they were born-again or evangelical Christians (sixty-five percent). Thirty-seven percent said they were “very conservative.” And—despite 13 million unemployed Americans—more than half said cutting the U.S. government deficit was more important than encouraging job growth.

    But wait a minute! Media reports might have left an impression that this is the prevailing view of South Carolinians. But they are the views of a minority. Most South Carolinians are not likely that conservative. A record 602,000 voted in the primary, but that was still only twenty-two percent of the 2.7 million registered voters. And if 602,000 cannot be taken as representative of South Carolinians, even less can 4.3 million South Carolinians be considered representative of 310 million Americans.

    So what’s going on here?

    This is where we can call on the well-seasoned political expertise of Richard Nixon. In a 1995 letter to aspiring president Republican Senator Robert Dole, Nixon claimed, “You have to run as far as you can to the right because that’s where forty percent of the people who decide the nomination are.” But Nixon added that if Dole won the nomination, then “To get elected you have to run as fast as you can back to the middle because only about four percent of the nation’s voters are on the extreme right wing.”

    So if Nixon is correct, the Republican primaries are all about seeking the votes of “the extreme right wing” of the party, not the votes of most Americans. And those who have been stumping for the 20012 Republican nomination seem to have been following Nixon’s advice. They have been spewing messages designed to appeal to that extreme right wing. They must hope they can do that without alienating too many of the other voters. Or perhaps they are counting on short memories.

    That extreme right wing of the Republican Party might today be larger than the four percent of all voters that Nixon mentioned in 1995, but they are still surely very much a minority.

    This must be a sticky wicket for the Republicans. They could wind up in November with a presidential candidate enthusiastically supported by the extreme right wing, and just as enthusiastically rejected by most other voters. Or, by the time all the primary character-assassinations are finished, a Mitt Romney with little appeal left for anyone.

    Thank you, Mr. Nixon, for enlightening us about that encouraging prospect.


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