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Next GOP Nominee: Conservative Record, Moderate Tone

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With New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie enmeshed in scandal, the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination suddenly looks wide open. But before the GOP coalesces around a new front-runner, they need to drop dangerous delusions about what went wrong in 2008 and 2012.

For Republicans, that means abandoning the groundless conclusion that they lost twice to Barack Obama because they nominated the wrong candidates — two “mushy moderates” who couldn’t excite the base and led millions of frustrated conservatives to stay home. No political party can hope for future victories unless it comes to terms with the real reasons for past defeats.

If John McCain and Mitt Romney counted as terrible choices, which of their intraparty rivals would have fared better?

In 2008, McCain’s chief rival for the nomination was….Mitt Romney, who carried only one important primary state (his native ground of Michigan) in a lavishly expensive primary campaign that drew less than half McCain’s vote total in primaries and caucuses. McCain, meanwhile, swept primary contests in 31 states, including every one of the crucial Electoral College battlegrounds – Florida, Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Missouri, New Hampshire and more. If Romney or Huckabee couldn’t win primaries in these decisive swing states why is it logical to assume they would have fared better there in the general election?

In 2012, Romney won the most votes in 37 state primaries or caucuses, including 10 of the 11 most populous states. If Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain and Ron Paul failed to compete successfully in primaries where right-leaning voters predominate, then how would they magically manage to build a majority of voters in the November election, where voters are far more moderate and diverse?

Exit polls prove that self-described conservatives never deserted the Romney-Ryan or McCain-Palin tickets, actually turning out in record numbers. In the long history of modern exit polling, going all the way back to 1976, no contest ever produced a higher percentage of voters (35%) who identified themselves as “conservative” than did the Romney-Obama battle in 2012. McCain’s 2008 challenge wasn’t far behind, with 34%.

Moreover, both McCain and Romney captured even bigger margins among conservatives than did Ronald Reagan in 1980, when he crushed Jimmy Carter.

How, then, did Reagan win huge landslides in both his races as nominee while the two most recent GOP contenders fell short?

The answer is that Reagan won because he did better among moderates, not conservatives. In fact, no other Republican has ever won clear pluralities in the decisive moderate bloc; Reagan did it twice. His conservative bona fides allowed him to run campaigns with a distinctly moderate tone without risking charges of treason; he had a free hand to select an establishment running mate (George H.W. Bush) while reassuring the public that he was a cheerful pragmatist, not an angry ideologue.

McCain and Romney, on the other hand, came into their presidential campaigns with histories of challenging conservative orthodoxy and so felt the need to protect their right flank by claiming to be “severely conservative” (in Romney’s unfortunate phrase). Running combative campaigns with no explicit reach toward the center produced an overwhelming win among conservatives but a catastrophic loss with moderates, who, in every presidential contest, always represent the largest single ideological segment of the electorate.

Republican primary voters selected McCain and Romney not because they were the most conservative, but because they seemed conservative enough and offered the best shot at unifying the party.

Republicans will likely make similar choices in 2016, picking a nominee who can bring together all factions rather than delivering definitive dominance to one faction over all others. On that basis, Rand Paul is too closely identified with the party’s libertarian wing, Ted Cruz with the Tea Party and Chris Christie with Northeastern post-partisanship. Instead of one of the electrifying but polarizing figures in intraparty squabbles, the GOP will probably settle on a mainstream candidate with an unequivocally conservative record but a non-threatening approach to persuasion. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is one such possibility, or his fellow cheesehead Paul Ryan, or former Florida governor Jeb Bush, or waiting-in-the-wings governors such as Indiana’s Mike Pence or New Mexico’s Susana Martinez.

Such a selection wouldn’t require ditching conservative principles; the GOP will remain unmistakably right of center. But that conservative substance must combine with a moderate tone if the GOP is to provide a more welcoming home for Hispanics, single women, young people and others currently alienated from the party’s messages and messengers.

With the choices available, GOP primary voters picked the right nominees in 2008 and 2012, but two years from now they need a contender whose deep conservative roots allow him to spend less time constantly calming right-wing activists and more time reaching out to new voting blocs. Such a nominee could help true believer conservatives become participants in the project of persuasion, not its target.

A version of this column appeared first in USA TODAY.

Comments (14)

  1. From: John Tobias   On: January 24, 2014

    To my mind, “National Notariety” will largely be “The Name of the Game” in defeating that Clinton broad come 2016, and Paul Ryan is the only GOP guy with national cred at this time among the people named as realistic potentials. Christie, Cruz and Rand Paul are, to my way of thinking, “yesterday’s news”, and unfortunately, the Bush name is off-putting to many, even if Jeb IS a fantastic guy, in many respects. Of Walker, Pence and Martinez, only the first is of any hope for “building a brand” to compete with the Clinton B- S- Machine & libs that support it so unless things change mightily, I’m thinking that Paul Ryan’s “The Guy”.

  2. From: Tammy   On: January 24, 2014

    Really enjoy your insight. What about Condi Rice or Nikki Haley? I like those two better than the ones you mentioned. I really think Rice would be the best because she’s intelligent, attractive, elegant and, no offense (and I have interracial families in my family), she’s black AND a woman. Now color doesn’t matter to me but, evidently, it does to the left. Nikki is proving she is a great Governor and she matches Condi’s traits.
    Thanks for your thoughts, Tammy

    • From: Carmelo Junior   On: March 4, 2014

      Condi Rice is a liberal who worked for Republican presidents just like Colin Powel. Condi is lesbian-pro choice and for that alone she won’t have ANY chances in the primaries besides maybe New Hamphire.
      Nikki Haley is the right choice: young, minority, governor of a Southern state, married with a cute family, attractive, experienced, 100% anti Obama and anti Clinton, with Tea Party and evangelical Christians support(say Iowa and South Carolina). A Haley/ Bush ticket would be unbeatable!

  3. From: Craig   On: January 24, 2014

    Michael, you’re so right. Reagan won two presidential elections because he spoke to average, moderate, independent American voters. They are who determine presidential election outcomes. Yet, Reagan was never unclear about his conservative principles, far from it. Speaking to the moderate middle while standing firm on conservative principles, primarily through the actions taken as an elected official, is the key to Republican success in 2016. I like the possibility of Gov Scott Walker. He’s made difficult and clear cut actions that speak his conservative principles, and those actions have been admired by the average American. To his credit, I’ve never heard Walker rambling on about his conservative principles. He doesn’t have to. I believe average Americans are smarter than we think. They are sick and tired of rhetoric, from either side, but quite impressed by responsible action.

  4. From: Bill Petrovic   On: January 24, 2014

    I will be working for the smartist candidate around, Ben Carson!! Read about this man and you will be working for him too

  5. From: lms   On: January 24, 2014

    Republicans need a candidate who is not boring. Reagan was charismatic and inspiring, which McCain and Romney were not. Romney was too matter of fact and logical, and McCain (sorry to say) looked like an “old white guy.” You can’t overlook the personality factor in this day and age. Leadership is more than being right on the issues: you have to inspire and motivate people. I voted for both Romney and McCain, but wasn’t enthusiastic about either one (both were very dull and uninspiring). I think Scott Walker exhibits many leadership characteristics since he has managed to reverse the course in Wisconsin, is young enough to interest younger voters, speaks plainly (but not aggressively), and works with the legislature.

  6. From: Bernard Wolff   On: January 24, 2014

    McCain lost because of Oct 2008 collapse of the economy, inept debating skills, and identity with the “ossified elite” in Washington. Romney lost because 4 million conservatives failed to vote (some, admittedly, due to the IRS harassment), because Romney refused to confront Obama over his failures. .

    Michael does not recognize WHY Reagan gained so much of the independent, and Democrat votes: He focused on the power of the individual and the Greatness of America in his speeches during a time when America had fallen into ruin by policies of a series of administrations beginning with LBJ, including Nixon and Ford, ending with Carter. Reagan was despised by the Republican Elite, including George HW Bush, and won by the force of his message of the individual contrasted with Washington.

    The key to a Republican victory is to emulate Reagan. Win over Independents and Democrats as Reagan did: Contrast the authoritarian federal government with the proven worth of individual Americans working in a free market (that is now in chains).

    The perfect message strategy is, as Mr Petrovic states, demonstrated by Dr. Ben Carson. Rather than assuming the government is the answer to all issues, offer free market solutions to solve problems that Washington elite reflexively delegate to the Federal Government.

    Rather than the Affordable Care Act which is dysfunctional, expensive, and destroys the best medical system in the world, use Health Savings Accounts initiated at birth, high deductible personally owned health insurance policies, sensible tort reform, and tax benefits to fix existing problems with out bankrupting our country. All within the private sector, all generating tax revenue & progress.

    Illegal immigration: The Federal government is a failure in protecting our borders & providing low cost labor. Politics reins vs the needs of the Country. A free market alternative: Private Employment Agencies with overseas offices contracted by American entities to recruit workers in foreign countries, arrange visas, transport to the employment site; ensure that the workers are properly paid, taxes are paid, and when the job is finished, transport the worker back to his/her home. Those workers that are rehired & show promise can be put in line for citizenship. Those entities caught using illegal aliens would be fined $40,000, to be waived if they pay to return the alien to his domicile as arranged by the Employment Agency. Tax revenue generated, workers provided, no illegal immigrants.

    Social Security: Mismanagement by Federal Government has bankrupted Social Security. In contrast, having the same monthly funds invested in conservative funds would yield significantly higher returns, while infusing new capital into Wall Street for investment in new business & jobs, further increasing the value of the invested securities, providing a comfortable retirement, higher tax revenues, and pressure on government to keep the private economy strong. Rather than a bankrupt system draining our economy, we have a vibrant alternative that is secure, & benefits everyone.

    This Reaganesque approach would win over huge numbers of Independents in Democrats.

    If the Republicans added a concrete Platform Plank that “No Republican Senator shall serve more than 2 terms, no Republican Congressman shall serve more than 4 terms”, they will sweep every election

    • From: JGUY   On: April 3, 2014

      I am always amazed by answers that seek to “turn back time.”
      Reagan, while great, did not live in the day of the “rise of the
      machine”. Today, technology that is pervasive limits the
      individual and prefers the internet computer driven drone
      that replaces the individual. You can emulate Reagan,
      Washington, Lincoln or Anyone…..but unless the surrounding
      elements are the sames as their TIME… the outcome is
      different…..you cannot turn back time.

  7. From: lms   On: January 25, 2014

    Bernard, you make some good points. We need someone who empowers people themselves instead of relying on the government for everything. People are hungry for that sort of message, to be inspired. Maybe this need explains the popularity of movies like Hunger Games and Catching Fire.

  8. From: joyce brown   On: January 25, 2014

    Scott Walker, seriously? The man isn’t even a college graduate, has the GOP actually fallen that far?

    • From: lms   On: January 25, 2014

      Joyce – that’s a very elitist comment. Reagan only had a bachelors degree (in economics) but he was more successful than many people with advanced graduate and doctoral degrees. A degree only demonstrates that you are good at being a student, not necessarily in the work force. Rush Limbaugh doesn’t have a college degree either.

  9. From: joyce brown   On: January 26, 2014

    And is rush limbaugh contemplating running for president? I’m sorry if you believe it sounds elitist but I think leader of the most powerful country in the world needs to be a college graduate, although a college dropout would fit in with the majority of the GOP’s constituents.

    • From: lms   On: January 27, 2014

      Yes, and Obama has done wonderfully well as president, hasn’t he, with his background as a professor! Advanced degrees don’t mean anything, as I said before, if you can’t actually apply the knowledge to the working world.

  10. From: Duncan Frissell   On: March 4, 2014

    Alan was a seminar caller. He shouldn’t have been on so long. I assume although he calls himself a conservative, he’s a faithful Democrat. You should be tougher on callers like that. Ask them what the highest income tax rate fed + state should be. Ask him where Christ called on the Roman government to help the poor. Ask him what percentage of the economy should the governments of the the US control? Ask him if the Feds should design washers and dryers. Ask him if it should be legal to sell a $3000 new car?

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