The GOP’s ‘Strong Conservative’ Electoral Fantasy


Americans vote for talented politicians with winning personalities. Ideological purity isn’t a priority.

Against all logic, some prominent conservatives continue to promote the absurd proposition that right-wing candidates who fail to win over GOP voters in Republican primaries would magically succeed on November ballots. This assumption enables them to retain a naive faith in the claim that “true conservatives” who can’t mobilize their own base to win nominations will somehow triumph in general elections by drawing support from moderates and liberals.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has most recently voiced this idea. “You know, if you look at the last 40 years, a consistent pattern emerges,” Mr. Cruz observed in a July interview with ABC. “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.”

Really? In 1988, George H.W. Bush sought the presidency by promising 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), Mr. 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.

Mr. Bush’s son won the White House twice by running as a “compassionate conservative” who had worked amicably with Democrats as Texas governor. Pledging he’d be a “uniter, not a divider,” George W. Bush favored increases in federal education spending, a Medicare benefit for prescription drugs and immigration reform that included a path to citizenship.

Richard Nixon’s first term featured wage and price controls, the imposition of affirmative action, intensified environmental regulations, and compromise agreements with Communist regimes in China, Russia and North Vietnam. One conscientious conservative congressman, John Ashbrook of Ohio, challenged “Republican in name only” Nixon in the 1972 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 (all but Massachusetts) and earned a popular-vote margin of more than 23 points.

So what about Mr. Cruz’s claim that “strong conservatives” always win?

In a sense, it’s impossible to analyze since “strong conservatives,” at least by today’s tea party standards, so rarely win the party’s presidential nomination. Other than Ronald Reagan—whose gubernatorial record of compromise on taxes, endorsement of legalized abortion and support for immigrants would have troubled today’s right wing—the only unequivocal conservative to win the GOP nomination since Calvin Coolidge in 1924 has been Barry Goldwater, who carried only six states in a 1964 wipeout.

In crucial, statewide races in 2010 and 2012, uncompromising conservatives like Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Ken Buck in Colorado, Joe Miller in Alaska, Sharron Angle in Nevada, Richard Mourdock in Indiana and Todd Akin in Missouri won GOP nominations but lost badly in otherwise highly winnable Senate contests. Their experience illustrates the fallacy that stalwart conservatives always make the best candidates—if only Republican voters would be smart enough to nominate them.

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

This leaves one last argument: the claim that Mitt Romney and John McCain failed to beat Barack Obama because their nonideological campaigns led millions of disillusioned conservatives to stay home. Talk radio in particular trumpeted the story that Mr. Romney lost last year because “three million missing conservatives” failed to cast votes.

Electoral tabulations show that Mr. Romney’s 2012 race had a higher percentage of self-identified “conservative” voters than contests involving any of his GOP predecessors. In 2012 exit polling, a record 35% of all voters described themselves as “conservative,” compared with 28% who identified that way during Reagan’s first landslide in 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.

What these numbers show is that moderate candidates aren’t automatic winners any more than are conservative candidates. John McCain has made a career-long fetish of cultivating his maverick reputation, but he performed far more poorly among independent voters than did the much more partisan Reagan. Mitt Romney won the Massachusetts governorship as a moderate and adopted a centrist tone in his second presidential campaign, but he did 21 points worse among voters who called themselves “moderate” than Reagan did.

Americans vote for talented politicians with winning personalities, and they display no longstanding ideological voting pattern. They embrace charismatic candidates, whether conservative (Reagan), “compassionate conservative” (Bush), moderate (Ike), neo-liberal (Clinton), or progressive (Obama).

This historical record suggests that a gifted, powerfully persuasive conservative—like Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal or Chris Christie—could plausibly win in 2016, just as a dull, inauthentic moderate would probably lose. Recent experience reaffirms the fact that the American people don’t automatically award certain victory or inevitable defeat based on ideological outlook, despite cherished conservative legends to the contrary.

Mr. Medved hosts a daily, nationally syndicated radio show and is the author of “The 5 Big Lies About American Business” (Crown Forum, 2009).

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