Conservative electorate different than just two years ago

Elections are as much a barometer on the people voting in them as they are a reflection of the men and women running in them.

And in the case of this year’s excruciatingly interminable GOP presidential primary, that is certainly true.

There is much to ascertain about the mindset of the American conservative, the state of the tea party and the prospects of Grand Old Party heading into the fall from the long slog of a nomination contest that started in Iowa.

Implicit in writing a retrospective on this cycle’s primary is an assumption that it is in fact, over. And it is.

With a three-state sweep in Mitt Romney’s back pocket this week, and exit polls showing all groups and demographics of Republicans are swiftly coalescing behind the former Massachusetts governor, this thing is done.

Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, who have both exceeded all expectations and solidified their standing as important leadership voices in the party, really ought to wake up to the reality of the situation. They ran, and ran well, but they lost. Time to move on.

I don’t think them staying in until the convention will have any bearing on anything at this point. But, if for no reason other than personal pride (the good kind of pride, as in tucking in your shirt and combing your hair), it is time for both to bid adieu.

So let’s get to those lessons in the conservative electorate.

Lesson 1: 2012 is not 2010. In 2010, about the only thing it took to win the nomination in Republican races big and small was a pulse, a solid pitch on the stump, and some sort of evidence (real, circumstantial or counterfeit) that a candidate was not part of the dastardly Republican establishment.

This year, even the outsiders were insiders. In the end, the last three standing were men with significant time in government, imperfect voting records with character flaws and/or public policy positions that would have been disqualifying two years ago.

Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich probably couldn’t have won a Senate primary in a lot of states in 2010. But this year is different. Republicans want competence, they want to win and they want leaders who are ready to govern.

Lesson 2: Fox News and the Drudge Report are the most important forces in the conservative power structure.

Fox’s storylines drove the national narrative, and the Drudge Report did as much to shine the bright lights on the various candidates as the candidates did themselves.

The power of these institutional players in many ways fed the volatility of the primary race. Candidates rose as quickly as they fell, based on the narrative whipped by Fox and Drudge (and the hundreds of other media sources that recycle, repost and regurgitate what they see there).

Conservative opinion is now shaped by an informal but very real web of hubs and spokes. The hub — Fox, Drudge and a few other sources. The spokes — the thousand of blogs, news aggregators and well-networked right-wing Facebookers who disseminate information from their hand-held devices all day and night.

More than any other factor, this drove the volatility of the race.

A new opposition research dump, a fresh revelation, a new hard-hitting TV ad — these things moved like wildfire from Fox and Drudge across the Internet, catapulting one candidate after another to the top of the polls — even if for only a day or two.

In the future, winning the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary won’t be nearly as important as being in good stead with these key movers of information.

Lesson 3: Republicans learned from the campaign tactics of Team Obama. The complexity of the strategy, the efficiency of the operations, the general capacity of our campaign operations has vastly improved. More to discuss here, but for the first time in a long time, Republicans on an operational level are poised to compete with the left.

This was especially true for Romney. His campaign team fought hard — some would say ruthlessly — and masterfully.

Lesson 4: Republicans really, really want to win. Over the last six weeks, most people I encountered had the whole primary tuned out. They just wanted to get on with the fight that matters.

This phenomenon definitely muted ideological differences and, whatever residual ill will might have percolated for Romney into the fall, well, let’s just say it won’t last long once Obama starts moving his lips.

Republicans are a different party than we were even two years ago. We view candidates differently, we glean information differently, and the precision of our focus on the ultimate prize is a little different too.

Whatever your opinion of these changes, what truly matters for Americans is the fight of the lifetime that comes next.

Josh Penry is a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate. He graduated from Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.


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