After last weekend’s elections in Finland and America, both countries are closer to choosing a president. In the case of Finland, a lot closer. Practically done, in fact. For the US, however, it is still a long slog, but with some fascinating twists sure to come.
The Finnish poll turned out as expected with Sauli Niinistö getting the lion’s share of the vote, some 37 percent. The Green Party candidate, Pekka Haavisto, also as expected had a strong showing, though squeaking into second place only 1% ahead of the third-place finisher, veteran politician Paavo Väryrnen. Niinistö and Haavisto now continue to the next round, to be decided a week from today. Early voting has already started.
A couple of encouraging things to note from the first round. “True Finn” Timo Soini came in a distant fourth with only 9.4% of the vote, a far cry from the nearly 20% his party garnered in the parliamentary election that shook things up so much last spring. However, it might be wise not to read this as a complete repudiation (almost wrote refudiation there, shades of Sarah Palin!) of the xenophobic party that Soini represents. The presidential race here has more to do with the individual candidate, not the party, which helps explain how Haavisto’s personal popularity outstrips the Green Party’s relatively low level of support (only 10 MPs in a 200-member parliament).
The other positive takeaway was the turnout. A few weeks ago, I heard a Finn lamenting how people here don’t bother to vote as much as they should, with a typical turnout (he said) of only 60-something percent. That sounded low to me, though not bad compared to voter turnout in the US. Average turnout is around 50% for US congressional elections, maybe more for higher-profile White House races, which is pathetic for a country that prides itself as the model of democracy.
It turns out that the 60-something figure for Finland claimed by my friend is indeed too low. In the first election round last Sunday, almost 73% of voters turned out nationwide, and even more in Helsinki. I can’t help but boast a little that turnout in my neighborhood was a whopping 85%. As I’ve said, Finns are a civic-minded people.
While the Finnish election was satisfying, the one in South Carolina was absolutely galvanizing. I even stayed up to watch the coverage on CNN, which started at one in the morning Helsinki time. When the voting ended an hour later, CNN was ready within minutes to declare Newt Gingrich the winner, a stunning comeback for the Georgian who had until a week earlier been badly trailing Mitt Romney in the polls. Not only did Gingrich beat Romney, he trounced him by 13 points.
The victory for Gingrich, which keeps him in the running and denies Romney an early anointment as GOP nominee, was bizarre. And it highlights the bizarre, you could say even schizophrenic, nature of the Republican Party in 2012.
The winner of the first 2012 Republican primary to be held in the conservative and religious South is a two-time adulterer who has most recently been attacking the GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney for being a capitalist tool. Go figure.
Something like 65% of South Carolina GOP voters identify themselves as evangelical Christians, the most earnest and in-your-face type of churchgoers in a region that’s not known as the Bible Belt for nothing. Yet by a margin of nearly 2 to 1, this devout demographic voted for a man who has traded in not only his wife three times, but also his faith. He was born a Lutheran, became a Southern Baptist while in college, then converted in 2009 to the Catholicism of his current wife.
I’m not saying there is anything wrong with this; it’s just a bit ironic a deep-red, born-again state like South Carolina doesn't have a problem with it. You could think that Gingrich’s flipping churches is his way of applying free-market principles to religion. If a particular religion doesn’t serve your needs, why not shop around for one that does? At least you have then given the matter of religion more thought than most people, who usually stick with the faith that was chosen for them by accident of birth. That's the charitable way of looking at it. When it comes to Gingrich’s ditching his first two wives, I'm afraid there’s no charitable way of looking at that. None at all.
This is beside the point anyway. It’s not that Palmetto State voters chose Gingrich because they admired his freewheeling attitude toward spouses or churches. (After all, as people always like to point out, redemption is an important tenet of Christianity – good news for the occasional politician or clergyman caught with their pants down.)
And South Carolinians’ enthusiasm for Gingrich probably has nothing to do with his critique of Mitt Romney’s money-grubbing business skills, which were dubbed “vulture capitalism” by leftist Rick Perry before he dropped out of the race. South Carolina voters seem to be riled up for Newt mainly because they are mad as hell, and they see in Gingrich someone who not only shares their blinding anger at Obama and the Democrats, but also is also snarly enough to fight.
If voters didn’t think so before, they saw the light when Gingrich lashed out at CNN debate moderator John King, who had the nerve to ask Gingrich about claims from Gingrich’s second wife that he had asked her for “an open marriage” so that he could carry on unhindered with his mistress Callista. With that outburst, he won their hearts.
South Carolina may well turn out to be a fluke, however, since mainstream Republican leaders and pundits have piled on Newt, and polls in Florida, where voting next takes place on Tuesday, are showing Gingrich back in his familiar second place, far behind Mitt Romney. Maybe even yesterday’s endorsement from Herman Cain won’t be enough of a boost to save Gingrich. Come to think of it, a nod from Cain might be the last thing Newt needs.
Anyway, I’ll probably be drifting off to sleep in front of the TV in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, watching to see how Gingrich fares in Florida. Looking ahead, I can’t wait to see what happens with Gingrich on Super Tuesday in my, and his, home state of Georgia – not as diverse as Florida, but not as reactionary (I hope) as South Carolina.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. I have a feeling that by the time March 6th rolls around, karma will finally bite and Georgia Republicans will no longer have the option of voting for their native, and very prodigal, son.