How many Republican Parties are out there?

By - Last modified: February 23, 2012 at 8:48 AM

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With the economy expanding and the unemployment rate dropping as of late, President Barack Obama's chances for re-election are improving as we head closer to November.

However, it has been the incessant in-fighting and factional divisions within the Republican Party that have helped Obama shore up his liberal base, strengthen his appeal to independent voters, and fashion himself as the candidate most personally likeable.

The inability of Republicans to unify around one candidate against a seemingly weak president has exposed tensions within the GOP. With Mitt Romney seen as the preferred candidate of the GOP establishment, Rick Santorum has been able to shine as a social conservative with working class appeal. Ron Paul will simply “live on” given his ability to fundraise based on a sort of Libertarian brand. While Gingrich has been able to craft an appeal to tea party Republicans, his campaign was not able to build lasting momentum since his victory in South Carolina.

What we could be witnessing is not one unified conservative Republican Party, but the rise of at least three smaller Republican Parties with each representing different constituencies. Because Romney has not been able to broaden his appeal to social conservatives, who are suspicious of his pro-choice background and his support for the individual mandate in the Massachusetts health law, he has allowed Santorum and, at times Gingrich, to cut into his campaign momentum.

Unaffiliated independent and moderate voters, who are not registered with either of the two major political parties, likely will decide the outcome of this presidential election. Because Republicans have yet to coalesce around one candidate, there has been little focus on presenting independent voters with a legitimate alternative to Obama.

The recent campaign rhetoric over accessibility to birth control will not carry much weight with independents whose concerns and worries are primarily with the state of the economy. The debate has been over whether employers, including religious organizations, should provide coverage for birth control at no cost. With Santorum arguing that as president he would warn Americans about “the dangers of contraception," he seems to be ignoring the reality that most people want unimpeded access to birth control or just do not care about the issue enough to make it an election-year priority.

Does the recent focus on social issues present Republicans with a fresh line of attack against President Obama? Or does it reveal schisms within a fractured political party that is experiencing growing pains?

Chris Dolan is an assistant professor of political science at Lebanon Valley College and the author of “Striking First,” “In War We Trust” and “The Presidency and Economic Policy.”

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