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.