Jeremi Suri, the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs, teaches courses on the history of international affairs, global strategy and contemporary politics in the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and the Department of History.
Suri's essay below is the first in a series of articles and videos on the 2012 election season. Experts from across The University of Texas at Austin will weigh in here on the politics and the issues: the economy, the environment, demographics, immigration, energy and social change.
Newt Gingrich's victory in the South Carolina primary exposes a fact that Republicans have tried to hide. The party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan does not have a credible candidate to challenge President Barack Obama. This is ironic considering President Obama's profound vulnerabilities. He is not very popular. Unfortunately for Republicans, their party has clearly failed to promote a candidate who can mobilize people for an alternative. South Carolina proved that none of the Republican candidates can build a consensus in their own party. They have no chance with a much larger and far more diverse national electorate.
It is hard to see how any of the four remaining Republican candidates can secure the party's nomination. Gingrich won South Carolina among extreme partisans in one of the country's poorest states. He faces irreconcilable opposition from the establishment and mainstream of the party. No one who has observed his erratic behavior up-close, particularly during his ignominious period as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, will tolerate a replay of that nightmare. Although Gingrich can rant about his opponents, his appeal is confined to extremes.
The same can be said for Rick Santorum. He, of course, appeals to the most religious parts of the Republican Party. He has little following beyond that. South Carolina also showed that religious voters will frequently grant privilege to other issues in these difficult economic times. Santorum's followers are motivated, but they are a distinct minority, even among strong Republican loyalists.
Mitt Romney has the money, the experience, and the mainstream credentials to be the candidate many observers would expect to capture the imagination of those who want to defeat Obama and elect a Republican president. The primaries and caucuses have shown, however, that Romney's appeal is capped at around 25 percent of Republican voters. The rest of the party simply does not trust him to be a true conservative, rather than a moderate or a compromiser or even a pragmatist. Romney's Mormon faith does not help with those who seek a "trusted Christian" in office.
Ron Paul is the most authentic candidate and he has the most loyal following among young voters. He is also consistently the most interesting, if misguided, presidential hopeful to hear. Paul will stay in the race, but he is a fringe candidate. He has potential as a gadfly and a spoiler; not a nominee.
This analysis means that the battle for the Republican presidential nomination will continue probably until the party convention in late August 2012. The Democrats obviously know their nominee, but the Republicans will not have one all summer. They are likely to enter their convention deadlocked, divided and very disoriented.
Although party conventions without a clear nominee have not occurred in recent memory, they have a long history. Before the Second World War they were, in fact, the norm. Party nominees emerged from long summer days of debate, longer nights of horse-trading, and smoke-filled rooms of hard-nosed deliberation. The party elders, not the rank-and-file, made the final choices. The outcomes were unpredictable. Most of all, new names came forward as the obvious candidates could not gain enough support.
Expect the same from the Republican nomination process this year. There is a good chance that none of the four remaining party candidates will be the final nominee. Someone else will emerge during the coming months. In desperation, the Republican Party will look to draft prominent figures with broad appeal who have stayed on the sidelines. Yes, we will hear a lot more about Chris Christie of New Jersey, Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Michael Bloomberg of New York and even former Florida governor, Jeb Bush.
Fasten your seat belts. This wild election season has only just begun.
More from Jeremi Suri: