"This is still a free country, ladies and gentlemen!"
New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, after almost being booed off the stage at the 1964 Republican Convention.
The strong finish of ultra-conservative Rick Santorum in Iowa, just eight votes behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, follows a familiar script in the modern Republican Party.
In the 1960s, a New Right arose in opposition to the Great Society programs and civil rights laws, and it has had a strong base among socially conservative voters, especially in the South and Midwest. In the 1970s, the New Right also began to attract support from religious conservatives of all parties by opposing legalized abortion and gay rights. This new breed of conservative has repeatedly opposed the more moderate Republican establishment.
Barry Goldwater in 1964 was the first New Right Republican nominee. Goldwater lost badly, but numerous social conservatives have run since: Ronald Reagan, John Ashbrook, Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan (who famously fought the establishment with an "army of peasants with pitchforks"), Gary Bauer, Mike Huckabee and, this year, Santorum, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachmann. Reagan's triumph in 1980 seemed to have signaled the capture of the Grand Old Party by the New Right. However, he's the only New Right candidate to go the distance.
Romney, a practical Northeastern governor, Harvard grad and former investment banker, is an almost textbook establishment candidate. His ideas are also classically moderate: as governor, Romney allowed tax increases; tolerated gay rights, abortion and gun control; and worked with Sen. Ted Kennedy on a universal health care bill. After failing to win over social conservatives in 2008, Romney is now ignoring them and focusing squarely on economics. As expected, Romney swept every category of Republicans on his New England home turf. Santorum, Perry, Gingrich and Ron Paul are, respectively, a middle-class Catholic and three Southerners; all target constituencies of the New Right. (Gingrich is also a convert to Catholicism). If it comes down to Romney versus Santorum, it will be a classic battle between a wealthy moderate and a middle-class social conservative.
Will the GOP establishment win again, or can either Gingrich or Santorum unite the right and follow the trail blazed by Goldwater and Reagan? The answer will depend on whether Romney will continue to face a divided conservative movement or one single New Right opponent. In their New Hampshire concession speeches (where they bombed with about 10 percent each), both Gingrich and Santorum argued that they were the "true conservative" who could defeat Romney one-on-one. We shall soon find out in South Carolina, which will be the right's last clear chance to stop the Romney bandwagon.
Since its founding, the Republican Party has been a coalition of urban business interests and small-town folks in the heartland running from Ohio to the Rocky Mountains, an alliance of Wall Street and Main Street. Republican Party regulars have dominated the small towns of the Midwest for more than 150 years, while the GOP establishment is located in the big metro areas across the Northern tier (New York to San Francisco). Heartland conservatives always resented the power of the GOP establishment. Goldwater mused that perhaps the East Coast should be "sliced off and cut adrift."
All through the '40s, '50s and early '60s, establishment Republicans controlled GOP presidential nominations, arguing that it took a moderate Republican to appeal to the nation's Democratic majority that Franklin Roosevelt had built. Heartland Republicans supported conservative isolationists like Ohio Sen. Robert Taft, but were consistently outmaneuvered by the Eastern establishment types like New York Gov. Tom Dewey and Dwight Eisenhower.
After Richard Nixon lost in 1960, conservative Republicans chose a different direction. Noticing that the normally Democratic South was ripe to defect because of civil rights pressures and middle-class growth, they unveiled the "Southern Strategy" of writing off big Eastern states like New York and Pennsylvania, hoping to win with a coalition of the South and the West plus the normally Republican Farm Belt. As Goldwater said to a suburban Atlanta Republican audience, "We're not going to get the Negro vote as a bloc in 1964, so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are." And the way to get the white Southern ducks into the GOP fold was by opposing civil rights laws: "I would not like to see my party assume it is the role of the federal government to enforce integration in the schools."
This "Southern Strategy" led directly to the greatest confrontation in the Republican Party's history: Rockefeller of New York leading the charge for the old establishment against Goldwater surging out of the West with an opening to the South. The two men evenly traded punches until Goldwater won a key victory in California.
The Eastern establishment desperately tried to derail Goldwater before the GOP Convention in what Teddy White called "the dance of the elephants." It failed, and when Rockefeller asked the convention to moderate the platform, he was booed lustily. Goldwater further alienated moderates with his acceptance speech: "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue."
While Goldwater won the nomination, the establishment took its revenge in the general election when Goldwater went down to a record-breaking defeat, losing New York State by an astounding 69 percent to 31 percent. But Goldwater may have had the last laugh: He broke new ground by becoming the first Republican to carry a majority of white Southerners, and the South became part of the Republican base. (Since 1968, Jimmy Carter is the only Democrat to win a majority of the South, and he lasted only one term).
The decline of the Eastern Republican establishment was proved in 1968 when Nixon once again used the GOP regulars to defeat Rockefeller. After Nixon's resignation, the GOP establishment had one last hurrah when Gerald Ford of Michigan became president, and appointed Rockefeller as his vice president.
Reagan mounted a strong challenge to Ford in 1976, forcing him to drop Rockefeller from the ticket. Reagan then revived the Republicans in 1980 with a combination of fiscal (tax cuts) and social (opposition to abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment) conservatism. Reagan swept to two straight landslides and seemed to make the GOP permanently right wing, but the Republican establishment has maintained influence with the nominations of the two George Bushes, Bob Dole and John McCain.
Polls of Republican primary voters consistently show that conservatives outnumber moderate liberals by at least a 60-to-40 ratio. So, why don't conservatives win more often? First, even most establishment Republicans are conservative enough on business issues. Second, except for Reagan and Goldwater, the Republican right has had trouble unifying behind a single person. In both Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney won with less than 40 percent because Paul, Gingrich, Santorum, Perry and Bachmann split the social conservative vote. The "Massachusetts Moderate," as Gingrich calls him, benefited from the old saying: "happiness is a divided opposition." While Romney's lead in actual delegates is small, he may be building unstoppable momentum. No candidate in either party who won both Iowa and New Hampshire has ever been denied the nomination.
Is it too late to stop Romney? Maybe not. As Richard Viguerie, the direct mail wizard of the New Right points out, roughly 70 percent of Republicans nationwide don't want Romney as their nominee. Christian right leaders are planning a last-ditch effort to stop Romney. "It's hard to see that it could be anyone other than Santorum," said Viguerie. Consolidating the conservative anti-Romney vote may be the only chance of victory for the under-funded Santorum.
Who will win? South Carolina and Florida come next. Both are a mixture of Christian fundamentalists and Northern retirees. If either Gingrich, Santorum or Perry can win South Carolina, he would knock out the other two social conservatives. The survivor of this intramural contest on the right will then have one last chance to get a one-on-one matchup with Romney after March 1, when most GOP delegates will be chosen. If either Gingrich or Santorum can consolidate the right, he will have an outside shot at re-creating the Goldwater-Reagan coalition.
But if Romney continues to win with 35 percent to 40 percent pluralities against a multi-candidate field, he'll be giving his acceptance speech in Tampa this summer.
Patrick Reddy is a Democratic political consultant in California and the co-author of "California After Arnold." He is now working on a book on 21st century American politics.