Republican Presidential Nominating Contests

A crowded field of candidates — encouraged by President Obama's weak approval ratings in 2011 — sought the Republican nomination. Interestingly, some of the individuals who were thought to be very formidable Republican candidates in the general election decided not to seek the nomination: Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Thus, some commentators evaluated the field of candidates as large but lacking in quality candidates.

Several candidates withdrew early, some even before January 3, when the Iowa caucuses began the official delegate selection process. Others withdrew shortly afterwards, failing to generate sufficient support in the early contests (Burden 2014, 23-27). Some of these candidates, such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry, briefly did quite well in early polls, but then quickly plummeted and finished well behind in Iowa and New Hampshire. By the end of January, only four candidates seriously contested the remaining primaries: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Georgia congressman Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and Texas congressman Ron Paul. Paul was not considered a serious threat by most observers; however, he had strong support from libertarians within the Republican Party, and he often did well in caucus states because his intense supporters turned out for the meetings, but his support was limited to a minority of Republicans (Burden 2014, 30).

Romney and Santorum finished in a dead heat in Iowa, while Paul finished third and Gingrich fourth. A week later, Romney decisively won the New Hampshire primary, with Paul finishing second, and Gingrich and Santorum far behind. Ginrich won the third contest, the South Carolina primary, with Romney finishing second, Santorum third, and Paul fourth. Many Republicans appeared reluctant to enthusiastically embrace Romney, largely because they questioned his conservative credentials. At the same time, the conservative opposition to Romney failed to coalesce behind a single candidate. As the primary season progressed, Romney did better. After March 6 (Super Tuesday), when 10 states held primaries or caucuses, Romney appeared to be on a path to victory. He won five of the seven primaries that day, losing only to Gingrich in Georgia (Gingrich's home state) and to Santorum in Oklahoma, and he won two of the three small states that held caucuses (Norrander 2013, 63-65). Santorum emerged as the main rival, but he was subsequently able only to win primaries in three Southern states plus the Kansas caucuses. Romney won elsewhere, often by wide margins (Burden 2014, 35-37). By early April, there was no doubt Romney would be the Republican nominee.

In his pursuit of the Republican nomination, Romney had to cast himself as a strong conservative; he even termed himself "severely conservative." This contrasted with his record in Massachusetts, when he not only supported a progressive health care bill, one that contained a mandate for individual coverage, but also took liberal positions on social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage. Opponents, especially social conservatives, charged that he was changing his positions for political expediency, raising questions about what he truly favored. At the same time, the conservative positions that he took during the nomination contest, such as on immigration reform, hampered him in the general election, when he had to appeal to a broader group of voters. He also had to endure attacks on his record as a businessman from his Republican opponents. Several anti-Romney ads focused on workers who lost their jobs when Bain Capital, Romney's venture capital business, took over their company and closed plants. All of this provided a basis for Democrats to later argue that Romney was a heartless businessman who was both too conservative and too willing to tell voters whatever they wanted to hear.