Primaries often signal the growth or decline of political parties. In 2008, the spirited contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton served to invigorate the Democratic core electorate. Even the sometime bitter conflict between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan had a salutary effect on Republican fortunes in 1976. But the latest skirmish between GOP aspirants for its presidential nomination seems to be more harmful to the party's prospects.
Certainly it exposes more factional tensions than in 1976 or 2008. Part of the reason is that two forces, the libertarian wing and Christian right, are demanding to be placed more prominently at the table. A generation ago libertarians were an oddity waving copies of Ayn Rand books and fulminating against Richard Nixon's decision to get rid of the last vestiges of the Gold Standard in 1971. In 1972, Roger McBride ran as the standard bearer of the libertarian party followed by Ed Clark in 1980. Ron Paul would lead the same charge in 1988.
Christian activists started initially in the Democratic Party. Indeed the first anti-abortion candidate, Ellen McCormick, ran as a Democrat for the nomination. Born-again voters backed Jimmy Carter in 1976. Because Democrats were going further toward tolerance on abortion, feminism and gay rights, most them became Republicans in 1980. Like libertarians, they were strangers to the GOP. Not until Pat Robertson ran in 1988 were there any attempts by evangelicals to vie for party leadership.
For religious activists, the Republican Party was a different home for which many were unfamiliar. Moral questions were approached by GOP leaders as a wedge, sort of an instrument to be taken out of a bag of political tricks.
Nixon, in 1972, painted George McGovern as the candidate of "acid, amnesty and abortion," yet on the last point he was himself ambivalent. In 1992, he told Monica Crowley that he thought his former aide Pat Buchanan had gone too far. "He's so extreme; he's over there with the nuts," Nixon asserted. "I didn't like his attack on the gays. It's important that they consolidate the core - the evangelicals, the anti-abortion crowd, et cetera. But that's not enough. Attacking the gays was wrong, wrong, wrong. Besides they vote, too."
Cynicism has been the watchword of the Republican establishment such as it is. For Christian evangelicals, all of these concerns are of vital importance. Rick Santorum, more than Mike Huckabee, has been persistent - going so far as denouncing all forms of contraception. Santorum at least has called the party leaders out and inquired of whether they're serious on moral issues or simply trying to appease the base for electoral purposes. For Paul the concern is similar except he worries about the GOP's fealty to the Constitution.
Mitt Romney hasn't helped because he has assumed that these voters will be with him come hell or high water in November. He has waged a campaign so negative that one does not know where he stands on anything. He has assumed that the rank and file's dislike for Obama is so strong that he can do anything to his GOP opponents and get away with it. In this, as with almost everything, he remains in the 1970s, and fails to take into account the history of the GOP since 1980. Romney might yet test the notion that conservatives will back anything.
Moreover, the South, admittedly a tough place for Obama, is finally asserting its role through Newt Gingrich and Santorum. But the party is fractured and the South underscored the schism. Paul did well in earlier primaries, but not in the South. Dixie conservatives have brought their populist spirit into the party. Attempts by Romney or Haley Barbour to ignore the vibrant libertarian and evangelical moral values factions will force many heretofore faithful Republicans to rethink their commitments. To blithely ignore either group is to court defeat and permanent division.