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“True Conservatives Win Every Time” Is (Alas) Only a Fantasy

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A shorter version of this column appeared first in the WALL STREET JOURNAL

Against all logic, some prominent potentates of the conservative movement promote the absurd proposition that right wing candidates who fail with GOP voters in Republican presidential primaries would magically succeed with Independents and Democrats on November ballots. This assumption enables true believers to retain their naïve faith in the endlessly repeated claim that “true conservatives” who can’t mobilize their own base to win nominations will somehow triumph in general elections by drawing massive support from moderates and liberals.

Consider Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, widely acclaimed as one of the ascendant stars in the new GOP generation. “You know, if you look at the last 40 years, a consistent pattern emerges,” Senator Cruz observed in a July interview with ABC-TV. “Any time Republicans nominate a candidate for president who runs as a strong conservative, we win. And when we nominate a moderate who doesn’t run as a conservative, we lose.”

The chief problem with this simplistic formulation concerns its total detachment from the historical record.

For instance, how could any enumeration of “moderate” GOP nominees ignore George H. W. Bush in 1988, who sought the presidency by promising to change the tone of the Reagan era and to deliver a “kinder, gentler” America? Despite the opposition of most conservatives (who passionately preferred Jack Kemp, Pat Robertson or even Bob Dole in the primaries), Bush crushed Michael Dukakis in the general election and swept 40 states and 426 electoral votes – the last Republican candidate to win the presidency decisively.

Though his son gained the White House twice with narrower margins, he also did so by emphasizing moderate rather than his conservative credentials. George W. ran as a “compassionate conservative” who had worked amicably with Democrats as Texas governor, favored increases in federal education spending, a Medicare benefit for prescription drugs, sweeping immigration reform that included a path to citizenship, and a new style of Washington leadership as “a uniter, not a divider.”

But the most striking rebuttal to the oft-repeated conservative claim that moderates always lose involves Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign some 41 years ago. The president’s first term featured wage/price controls, imposition of affirmative action, strongly intensified environmental regulations and compromise agreements with communist thug regimes in China, Russia and North Vietnam. One conscientious conservative Congressman (John Ashbrook of Ohio) challenged Nixon in GOP primaries with the slogan “No Left Turns,” and another right-wing House Republican (John Schmitz of California) conducted an independent campaign in the fall. The result: the reigning RINO captured 49 states (omitting only Massachusetts) and earned a popular vote victory margin of more than 23 points.

Meanwhile, it’s not irrelevant to note that Nixon’s mentor Dwight Eisenhower, the most reviled (by the right) of all Eastern Establishment “squish” Republicans, won two landslide victories without ever attempting to escape designation as a centrist.

But if the cherished claim that GOP moderates invariably lose counts as ridiculously wrong, what about the other half of the formulation insisting that “strong conservatives” always win?

In a sense, that’s impossible to analyze since “strong conservatives” (at least by today’s Tea Party standards) so rarely win the party’s nomination. Other than Reagan himself (whose gubernatorial record of compromise on taxes, endorsement of legalized abortion, and support for immigrants would have troubled today’s right), the only unequivocal conservative to win the GOP nomination since Calvin Coolidge in 1924 has been Barry Goldwater – who carried only six states (and a pathetic 52 electoral votes) in a 1964  wipeout of historic proportions.

The mantra that “real conservatism wins every time” demonstrates not only historical illiteracy but willful blindness to recent political history. In crucial statewide races in 2010 and 2012, stalwart, uncompromising conservatives like Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Ken Buck in Colorado, Joe Miller in Alaska, Sharon Angle in Nevada, Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Todd Akin in Missouri won GOP nominations but lost badly in highly-winnable Senate contests.

Their experience illustrates the irrational thinking behind the notion that ardent conservatives always make the best candidates, if only Republicans would prove smart enough to nominate them. Since the dramatic procedural reforms of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, no candidate for president in either party has ever been selected by fat-cat bosses in a smoke-filled room; every presidential nominee has competed successfully in hotly contested primaries and caucuses that determine the party’s candidate long before the national conventions. That means that mainstream GOP candidates like Romney and McCain haven’t been imposed by some mythical party establishment; McCain in particular has always been loathed by the most prominent GOP grandees and attracted far less of their money and endorsements than 2008 rivals like Giuliani and Romney.

Candidates win nominations because they manage to mobilize more grass roots support in key primaries than their rivals. In other words, when outspoken 2012 conservatives like Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain and Rick Perry, fail to win enough backing to prevail with the Republican base, how does it make sense to expect them to do better with independents or moderates? If it’s a question of personal appeal, why should their fervent partisanship make them more appealing to non-Republicans? And if it’s a matter of ideology, why would we reasonably expect such candidates to perform better with voters who don’t share their conservative outlook than they would with voters who do?

This leaves one last argument to support the contention that strident right wingers make the strongest Republican contenders: the claim that Romney and McCain failed to beat Obama because their non-ideological campaigns led millions of disillusioned conservatives to stay home. Talk radio in particular trumpeted the story that Romney lost because “three million missing conservatives” failed to show up to cast votes, handing a narrow victory to Barack Obama.

The chief problem for this theory involves data from electoral tabulations, which show that Romney actually drew more conservative voters to the polls than any of his Republican predecessors. In exit polling, a record 35 percent of all voters described themselves as “conservative,” compared to only 28 percent who identified that way in Reagan’s first landslide of 1980. Applying these percentages to the overall electorate, the Reagan-Carter race mobilized 24 million conservative voters, the Bush-Kerry race drew 42 million in 2004 and Romney vs. Obama easily topped them both with 45 million.

Reagan and Mr. Bush didn’t win because they drew more conservatives. They won because they performed well with independents and moderates. Reagan beat Jimmy Carter among independents by 25 points, while Mr. McCain lost that group by eight points. The Gipper prevailed among moderates by six points, while Mr. Romney lost them by 15.

These numbers show why moderate, independent candidates aren’t automatic winners any more than conservative, partisan Republican candidates are sure to prevail. John McCain has made a career-long fetish of cultivating his maverick, independent reputation but he performed far worse among independent voters than did the highly partisan Reagan. Mitt Romney won the Massachusetts governorship as a moderate, and adopted a centrist tone in his second presidential campaign, but did 21 points worse among voters who called themselves “moderate” than did the unapologetic right-winger, Reagan.

American voters, in other words, vote for talented politicians with winning personalities and display no long-standing ideological pattern to their voting. They embrace charismatic and politically skilled candidates whether they portray themselves as conservative (Reagan), “compassionate conservative” (Bush), moderate (Ike), neo-liberal (Clinton), or ardently progressive (Obama). This doesn’t mean that a supremely gifted, powerfully persuasive conservative (like Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal or Chris Christie) couldn’t win the presidency, or that a bumbling, inauthentic moderate could.  It does suggest that the American people don’t award either certain victory or inevitable defeat based on ideology, despite cherished conservative legends to the contrary. Voters won’t automatically prefer conservatives over moderates but they do reliably choose likeable, live-wire candidates who look like winners over stiff, dour office-seekers of any ideology who seem like they’re ready and eager to lose.

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  1. Frank Henderson  •  Aug 9, 2013 at 6:41 pm

    The fact is most Americans are neither right nor left but in the middle. The guy in the middle, that truly wants to help and work with either party to move forward (or at least project the image) will win. America isn’t about left or right but a balance of both. Simplistic, I guess, but a person that can realize there is some good to what the left is doing and balancing it with the good the right is doing should be the real winner.

  2. Johnny Ringo  •  Aug 9, 2013 at 10:25 pm

    Bottom line is that the economic, moral, social and political culture our once wonderful and proud country has shifted in a direction that appears irreversible. the leftist, statist, socialist Dems are “progressively” taking us to hell in a handbasket. When you have as many takers as workers, as many freeloaders as producers, and more naive, gullible, ignorant voters than those who truly uunderstand and support the constitution and principles of self reliance, then the appeal of a perpetual Santa Claus passing out gifts, goodies, EBT cards, free housing, etc. is too much to overcome. sad, sad. I’ve never been more concerned for my state and country. I am seriously concerned about my kids and grandkids.

  3. Jared Townsend  •  Aug 10, 2013 at 1:06 am

    Medved, how can you get it so right but still completely miss the mark at the same time? Your acnalyis was spot on. You point out many painfully obvious truths realting to the electorate and their propensity to support one type of candidate over the other. And about the 2012, you have it right yet again. Every time I hear people say, we lost because Romney wasn’t conservative enough I see red. How historically and factually inaccurate can this be? I mean, in 2008 he was the candidate who was “too conservative”. The fact is, Romney had the conservative vote. But what you fail to point out is that he had the independent vote as well leading up to the election… at least this is what the polls showed. Yet by Nov 6th, something had changed. Well, there were a variety of factors that lead to his inability to capture the swing vote where it mattered the most, in swing states. You can look at polling data leading up to and immediately after Hurricane Sandy to get an idea. The tragedy gave Obama a chance to appeal to independents by suggesting he was out there getting things done (thanks Gov. Christie), when of course we know now nothing could have been further from the truth. You add this to the IRS’s extortionist involvement in the election which prevented grass roots efforts from mobilizing their base on election day in key swing states (the complete opposite of what the Obama camp was able to accomplish) and perhaps throw in a few mistakes from the Romney campaign and of course the monumentous historical precedence against a Rep defeating a Democratic incumbent and you get the perfect storm. By all accounts, the election was Romney’s lose in the days leading up to the election. Well, in the months following the election we all found out the hard way that the 2012 election was actually America’s to lose, and lose we did. I say all this of course to show a factual contrast to your irresponsible and completely erroneous, deceitful and underhanded characterization of Romney as a “bumbling, inauthentic moderate” and “dour office-seeker… ready and eager to lose”. Here’s one Romney supporter who saw him as anything but the false characterization you gave. To me, this man was something every American could aspire to. He represented all that was good about this great nation. And beyond that, I felt he was the one candidate who was the LEAST likely to embarrass himself with poorly thought out gaffes and nonsensical one-liners. Unfortunately, the crop of 2016 hopefuls to date doesn’t give me much comfort in that arena. In fact, based on the what I’ve seen thus far comparing the talk of government shut down coming from his counterparts and the calm collected strategic advice still coming from Romney, I’ve got to say, I don’t think we could do better than him in 2016.

    http://www.facebook.com/Redemption2016

  4. Jared Townsend  •  Aug 10, 2013 at 1:10 am

    Medved, how can you get it so right but still completely miss the mark at the same time? Your analysis was spot on. You point out many painfully obvious truths relating to the electorate and their propensity to support one type of candidate over the other. And about the 2012 election, you have it right yet again. Every time I hear people say, we lost because Romney wasn’t conservative enough I see red. How historically and factually inaccurate can this be? I mean, in 2008 he was the candidate who was “too conservative”. The fact is Romney HAD the conservative vote. But what you fail to point out is that he had the independent vote as well leading up to the election… at least this is what the polls showed. Yet by Nov 6th, something had changed.
    Well, there were a variety of factors that lead to his inability to capture the swing vote where it mattered most, in swing states. You can look at polling data leading up to and immediately after Hurricane Sandy to get an idea. The tragedy gave Obama a chance to appeal to independents by suggesting he was out there getting things done (thanks Gov. Christie), when of course we now know nothing could have been further from the truth. You add this to the IRS’s extortionist involvement in the election which prevented grass roots efforts from mobilizing their base on election day in key swing states (the complete opposite of what the Obama camp was able to accomplish) and perhaps throw in a few mistakes from the Romney campaign and of course the monumentous historical precedence against a Republican defeating a Democratic incumbent and you get the perfect storm.
    By all accounts, the election was Romney’s lose in the days leading up to the election. Well, in the months following the election we all found out the hard way that the 2012 election was actually America’s to lose, and lose we did. I say all this of course to show a factual contrast to your irresponsible and completely erroneous, deceitful and underhanded characterization of Romney as a “bumbling, inauthentic moderate” and “dour office-seeker… ready and eager to lose”. Here’s one Romney supporter who saw him as anything but. To me, this man was something every American could aspire to. He represented all that was good about this great nation. And beyond that, I felt he was the one candidate who was the LEAST likely to embarrass himself with poorly thought out gaffes and nonsensical one-liners. Unfortunately, the crop of 2016 hopefuls to date doesn’t give me much comfort in that arena. In fact, based on the what I’ve seen thus far comparing the talk of government shut down coming from his counterparts and the calm collected strategic advice still coming from Romney, I’ve got to say, I don’t think we could do better than him in 2016 either.

    http://www.facebook.com/Redemption2016

  5. Bernard Wolff  •  Aug 11, 2013 at 9:53 am

    Michael, as a 71 year old who first voted in 1960 (18 year olds had the right to vote in Georgia), I disagree with each example given above.

    Nixon’s first election was against a weak opponent on the heels of LBJ’s dismal, destructive term. Nixon’s reelection occurred because he had another weak opponent, & the Democratic Party was in chaos. Moreover, Nixon promised an ‘Honorable” solution to Vietnam, and would have achieved it had not the Democrats and the media betrayed the South Vietnamese after they had won their victory during the North Vietnamese “Spring Offensive” in 1972.

    By the way, you forgot to mention Ronald Reagan, who won on an unapologetic platform of Conservatism. Unlike Obama, and his predecessor Democrats that use undefined platitudes, Reagan clearly described Conservative principles as the tools to saving the country from the morass caused by decades of liberalism & “moderation”.

    George HW Bush rode on Ronald Reagan’s coattails, facing a weak opponent. During his Presidency, he steered the Republican Party away from the course Reagan set, & back toward the Gerald Ford “moderation” endemic among ossified Republican elites. You fail to mention the anger this caused among Conservatives and INDEPENDENTS that flocked to Ross Perot in disgust, leading to Bill Clinton’s election with a minority of the popular vote. Had Perot.

    An encore occurred when Bob Dole, an old line Republican “moderate” with decades of Washington residency, carried the Republican banner in 1992, didn’t it? Disgusted Conservatives & Independents again gave Bill Clinton the victory with a minority of the vote. Again, the Republicans would have won had Perot not entered the race in protest.

    George W Bush offered “compassionate” conservatism & barely won against Al Gore. He likely would have lost in 2004 had it not been for the Swift Boat Sailors & POWs for Truth (of which I was an active member). You’ll recall that Bush won by about 2.5 million votes, approximately the same number as those who served in COMBAT in Viet Nam.

    Romney lost for 2 reasons not relative to conservatism: Democrat cronies in the FEC and IRS shut down Romney’s “get out the vote” effort, and the media continued its corrupt, incompetent, decadent ways by actively promoting Obama & neglecting their sacred duty to be an unbiased gadfly toward anyone seeking a position of authority in the public or private sector.

    Similar to the election of 2004 in which the Democratic candidate’s past was ignored or, when exposed by those who served with him, the media suppressed questionable information about Obama & actively promoted his campaign. They still do.

    Communists such as Mao zhe Dong used a phrase “Two steps forward, one step back” as a means of success. Thanks to moderates in the Republican Party, those that seek to impose a pervasive, authoritarian central government upon America are steadily succeeding.

    So what do we do? Some suggestions that I hope you’ll consider & comment upon:

    1. The Republican Party should add a “concrete” plank that no Republican shall serve more than 4 terms in the House of Representatives, or 2 terms in the Senate (go back a year or so & listen to the conversation you had on your program with Brent Bozell about “how long does it take for Washington to corrupt someone?). This will bring about a major house cleaning of corrupted “inside the Beltway” Republicans, and replace them with those who are oriented toward those whom they serve, that the Washington scene.

    2. The Republican Party should actively confront the media when appropriate, not for attacking Republicans, but for not attacking & carrying water for “authoritarians”. Make the contest fair. Hold them to a higher standard.

    thanks,

  6. JGUY  •  Aug 12, 2013 at 2:07 am

    Michael, greatly enjoyed this correct column. To run a teaparty conservative in 16
    would be a gift to the liberal Hillary wing of the Democratic party. The dems will run
    strong with their main argument being the strong economy…sit back and watch.

    Bernard….your first suggestion would be great for the Democrats since they would
    control seniority in all of the various committees since all of the Republicans would
    commit political suicide at a given moment….Where is the widom? Your second suggestion
    is marvelous IF the media did not control access to the airwaves on which they reside.

  7. htales  •  Aug 12, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    Mr. Medved might be right. The only problem is I don’t consider a RINO winning to be a victory. Both Obama and Romney were completely unacceptable to me. And I am not a Ron Paul supporter, my candidate was Bachmann. So I will continue to vote hardcore Conservative and no compromise whatsoever, if I can’t find someone to support I will write someone in. I do think though that we are actually worse off with RINOs then Democrats. Perfect case in point: In California in 2003 Mr. Medved was staunchly behind Arnold Schwarzenegger and dissed Conservative Tom McClintock. I say we would have been better off with three years of a termed-out Davis and a wide-open election than seven years of Arnold whose Big Government policies helped to leave us with 12.5% unemployment, highest in the Country. So I will continue to oppose Mr. Medved’s prescription for empty, pyrrhic victories.

  8. Susie Fosaaen  •  Aug 13, 2013 at 5:02 am

    There is so much in Bernard’s posting that is questionable logic, I’m not sure where to begin. “Disgusted Conservatives & Independents again gave Bill Clinton the victory with a minority of the vote. Again, the Republicans would have won had Perot not entered the race in protest.”
    1 – where does winning a majority of the vote fit in this discussion? Since only FDR, LBJ, Carter and Obama have won with a majority/over 50% of the total vote since 1940, and Gore is the only candidate to lose despite winning the popular vote, what is the relevance of the Clinton comment? Clinton won by more than 5 percentage points, while 5 predecessors won by less than a 5% margin (Truman, 4.9%; JFK, .2%; Nixon ’68, 1%; Carter 2%; GW Bush, -.5% &2.5%).
    2 – So Republicans would have won if Perot had not entered the race? So what? If Nader hadn’t entered the race in 2000, the presumption is that Gore would have easily won Florida and the Supreme Court would not have decided the election. As they say – Buck up and get over it. That’s ancient history.
    Since there is too much more questionable logic in his posting, I will finish by asking this: since you are proud of your anti Kerry work regarding Swift Boat, exactly where were you in supporting McCain, a Vietnam era POW? Did you and your Swift Boat cronies work as hard to help his campaign? Or can you only work on ‘anti’ campaigns rather than ‘pro’ campaigns?

    • TasmanianJedi  •  Aug 14, 2013 at 2:06 pm

      Dear Susie, I would show more respect for an elder like Bernard 🙂

      Why does helping the Swift Boaters obligate him to help McCain later on? He might have been too old. Besides, he probably feels like a lot of us, that McCain was the wrong candidate for being too moderate. And next to W, he certainly was that.

      Thanx & peace 🙂

    • Bernard Wolff  •  Aug 19, 2013 at 5:31 pm

      Susie Fosaaen, let’s stay on the topic about promoting conservative candidates vs Moderates.

      Clinton DID win because of Perot in 1992: Perot got 18.8% of those who otherwise would have voted for a better successor to Reagan than was Geo HW Bush, and in 1996 poor Bob Dole caused 8.4% of voters to choose Perot, in each case “Moderates” lost vs Conservatives.

      In my mind, the biggest shortcoming of modern conservative politicians is focusing on issues that have little bearing on the challenges we now face: Abortion & gay rights. These have no bearing on economic policy, defense, international policy, or other duties of the Executive or Legislative Branches. They should remain where they belong: between the individual and their God. Instead, the focus needs to be on policies that are threatening our Country.

      Re Swift Boat Vets & POWs for Truth, we were a diverse group of combat veterans that responded to J Kerry’s taking credit for acts of bravery of others, as described in TOUR OF DUTY by the distinguished historical author, Douglas Brinkley; and his actual behavior while serving in our elite group before he was asked to leave. We did NOT promote G.W. Bush or any other candidate. Our sole objective was to tell the truth about J Kerry’s actions during his brief tour in Swift Boats — important information ignored or sequestered by the media — so voters would take this into account when casting their vote.

      BTW, at the outset, each of us had to confirm that (1) we were not working in a national political campaign, (2) we would not divulge our political positions on issues, and (3) we were willing to accept “the worst experience you’ll every encounter” as a result of our activities. We conducted ourselves with businesslike dignity. Bush, Cheney, Karl Rove, John McCain all denounced or distanced themselves from our efforts.

      After the election, we disbanded, gave all residual donations to widows or wives of servicemen killed or disabled in combat or returning disabled combat veterans, and returned to our lives as ordinary Americans.

  9. William Dayton  •  Aug 13, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    Mr. Medved, although your analysis of past Presidential Elections may be accurate, we have entered a new era, where Conservatives like me will not support the likes of John McCain, the Strategy of a Karl Rove, a Mitt Romney who will not stand up against the Liberal Media, a Lindsey Graham, whom I find to be despicable and very arrogant. The Democrats are doing their best to turn America into a One Party System, much like what we have here in California.
    They will succeed if the Republican Party continues on it’s present course. You cannot defeat Democrats if you fundamentally agree with their agenda, yet then offer a slightly more fiscally
    responsible version of their plan ! Federal Spending is the biggest Problem we have and the second biggest problem is crating jobs ! Open up Federal Lands for drilling oil and gas to create wealth and jobs and cut Federal spending, and a Conservative Republican can win !!

  10. TasmanianJedi  •  Aug 14, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    Ted Cruz is right.

    I love that Michael Medved is a religious, observant Jew. I believe that is why he can be reasoned with, so I hope he comes around on this one. Hey, if a caller can challenge his abhorrence for Ron Paul as our nominee, and get Michael to admit that yes, he would proudly support Paul if he was the GOP’s candidate, anything’s possible 🙂

    Let’s take away all the subjective reasons our beloved radio host has for naming this guy moderate or that one conservative, and boil it down to the most basic of facts.

    Losers over the past 40 years:
    Ford
    Dole
    McCain
    Romney

    Winners:
    Nixon
    Reagan
    Bush I
    Bush II

    If you had to name one of those groups conservative, and one moderate, which would they be?

    It’s obvious. Cruz’s point is unassailable.

    And now for something completely different: Please demand (politely, from any leader you have influence with, whether Medved, CPAC, Heritage, etc.) a social conservative for 2016. It’s time to have a candidate who’s conservative on 100% of the issues. Instead of making us, the dependable base they can’t win without (hello, “values voters”????), go along with “their” candidate because we agree with 70% of their issues (fiscal/military conservatism), they need to suck it up for once and go along with us. Fair enough? What do we have to lose, except one more election? The GOP is already good at that doing things their way.

    Thanks for reading. Now go do something nice for Jesus (i.e. be Jesus to someone who needs it) today. 🙂

    • Robert Taylor  •  Aug 25, 2013 at 11:51 am

      You also have to include both Bush’s in the loser column as well. Bush 1 lost in 1992 and Bush 2 didn’t win in 2000, he lost the popular vote. It should look like this:

      Losers over the past 40 years:
      Ford
      Bush 1
      Dole
      Bush 2
      McCain
      Romney

      Winners:
      Nixon
      Reagan
      Bush I
      Bush II

  11. Rick  •  Aug 17, 2013 at 8:49 am

    Tas, the both groups have only 1 conservative. Romney in the first, Reagan in the 2nd.

    • TasmanianJedi  •  Aug 20, 2013 at 10:44 am

      Thanks Rick. I appreciate your comment but Cruz is still right because the Reagan group also has Bush II who was way more conservative than Romney. He’s never been pro-choice (at least not since becoming governor here in Texas) and he never caved on marriage, either. Romney rewrote Massachusetts marriage licenses before the legislature passed any laws redefining marriage, which is what their supreme court said had to be done first.

  12. Robert Taylor  •  Aug 25, 2013 at 11:47 am

    Obama drew more conservative voters to the polls, not Romney. Romney ran an uninspired campaign that stood for and fought for exactly – nothing. People couldn’t wait to vote against Obama, few voted FOR Romney. These polls showing Romney getting out more Republicans are giving him credit for something he had little to do with. He was everyone’s last choice, after all other options/candidates were exhausted, Romney was the only one left standing. And that’s not something to build a winning campaign around.

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