By Nicole Hemmer
AFTER a New Orleans-bound hurricane scotched their convention kick-off for the second time in a row, Republicans must have wondered what they did to deserve such rotten luck. (The Democrats would no doubt be willing to provide some suggestions.)
But these attention-grabbing hurricanes have been a boon for the GOP. In 2008 the cancellation meant George W. Bush and Dick Cheney appeared in diminished roles. In 2012 it meant Donald Trump wouldn't be appearing at all. Mitt Romney's decision to invite Trump to his nominating convention was a head-scratcher. The billionaire businessman, never one to shy away from superlatives, is America's leading birther. His belief Barack Obama was born outside the US is his only significant political stance.
Getting Trump out of the spotlight saved the party the embarrassment of highlighting its right-wing fringe. Given a reprieve, will Romney seize the opportunity to distance himself from the conspiratorial? All signs point to 'no'.
Conspiracy theorists are a perennial problem for American politicians. When a party falls out of power, the base soon starts sniffing out the nefarious forces responsible for its minority status. Birthers and 9/11-truthers cling like barnacles to a campaign's hull.
Most of the time candidates simply shrug off these groups. When running for governor in 1966, Ronald Reagan had to navigate the vocal support of the John Birch Society. The Birch Society dwelt on the fringes of American conservatism thanks to its founder's statement that President Dwight Eisenhower was "a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy."
But Reagan neither embraced nor denounced the Birchers. He simply said that their support was proof that he had "persuaded them to accept my philosophy, not me accepting theirs."
Birchers and birthers are cut from the same cloth, but Reagan and Romney are not. Romney sounded Reaganesque when he responded to Trump-based criticisms. "You know, I don't agree with all the people who support me and my guess is they don't all agree with everything I believe in," Romney explained. "But I need to get 50.1 per cent or more and I'm appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people."
Romney's actions belie his words. Rather than simply accepting Trump's support, he has trotted the mogul out whenever possible. Endorsements, fundraisers, rallies, conventions: Trump and Romney planned to appear together at them all. The free-wheeling financier and the buttoned-up politico have become the Odd Couple of this year's race.
His decision to play the Trump card signals Romney's resolve to sync up with his base. The American Right seems particularly open to conspiratorial musings these days. Check the box office receipts. A new film by conservative commentator Dinesh D'Souza, "2016: Obama's America," came in at number three this weekend. It's now the country's highest grossing right-wing documentary ever. The film purports to reveal the president's secret anti-American, pro-communist ties - mostly by quoting from his two best-selling autobiographies.
"Love him or hate him, you don't know him," the tagline claims. The use of widely available information to reveal the "real Obama" didn't seem to bother the moviegoers in the Miami theatre where I saw the film. As the credits rolled, the seventy or so attendees leapt to their feet in robust applause. At the exit a representative of the conservative group FreedomWorks passed out Romney-Ryan flyers.
With so few undecided voters this year only about 3-5 per cent have yet to make up their minds the goal for both parties is to turn out the base. And there's no doubt that the men and women nodding along with "2016" are the core of the Republican base.
Confounding as his decision to keep Trump close at hand may seem, embracing the illogical even the patently absurd in his quest for 50.1 per cent of the vote may be the most logical move Mitt Romney could make.
Thus the disruption caused by Hurricane Isaac may prove doubly lucky. Trump wasn't be on hand this week to scare away undecided voters who might feel uncomfortable voting for a candidate willing to pal around with birthers. But the men and women filling theatres knew Trump's ties to Romney remain strong. If this mix of undecideds and base voters helps get Romney across the finish line in November, it may well be that the GOP kicks off their 2016 convention praying for rain.
Nicole Hemmer is a research associate at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney