A GOP Presidential Candidate Must Seize the Center to Win
What sort of fool or fantasist would ever suggest that “Republicans need a centrist candidate in 2012”?
I certainly reject the notion of a “centrist candidate,” though some angry conservatives have misinterpreted my arguments (and misquoted my words) to accuse me of this fatuous heresy.
In a much-debated op-ed in The Wall Street Journal (“Conservatives, Romney and Electability”), I insisted that “the electoral experience of the last 50 years does nothing to undermine the common-sense notion that most political battles are won by seizing and holding the ideological center. In the last two presidential elections, more than 44 percent of voters described themselves as ‘moderate,’ and no conservative candidate could possibly prevail without coming close to winning half of them (as George W. Bush did in his reelection).”
Please note: I argue that a conservative candidate must earn moderate votes in order to win, not that a centrist nominee is the only formula for victory.
The math here isn’t complicated. Even if the Republican nominee drew every available conservative voter (an obvious impossibility, since exit polls show that even the heroic Reagan got less than three fourths of them in 1980), then he would still need more than a third of self-described moderates to win a popular-vote majority.
Suggesting that conservative candidates need to appeal to the center as well as to the right if they want to win isn’t a matter of opinion; it’s a simple statement of fact. There has never been an election in the history of exit polling where a majority of voters described themselves as conservative. In the Bush victory of 2004 and the McCain defeat of 2008, identical percentages (34 percent) called themselves conservative.
When ideological purists claim that conservative candidates who succeeded in the past (including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush) relied only on the support of their fellow right-wingers, they diminish the real achievement of these formidable campaigners. For instance, the esteemed economist Thomas Sowell wrote a syndicated column (“Lessons of History?”) that took me to task for suggesting that the outcome of every election depends upon uncommitted voters in the center. “But just when did Ronald Reagan, with his two landslide victories, ‘seize the center’?” he demanded.
Actually, the answer to that question is easy: Reagan swept voters who placed themselves in the center of the electorate in both 1980 and 1984. He won “moderates” in his battle to unseat Jimmy Carter (49-43 percent), and did even better against Walter Mondale four years later (54-46 percent).
Nor did this success represent some happy accident, or the magical force of President Reagan’s considerable charisma. The general-election campaign against Carter aimed squarely at the center, beginning with the selection of the moderate, country-club-Republican George H.W. Bush as the vice-presidential nominee (after Reagan tried, but failed, to work out a deal with another moderate—Gerald Ford—to join his ticket).
Every history of the epic 1980 campaign reports the determined GOP effort to locate the party’s nominee within the national mainstream, and to avoid the disastrous Goldwater experience of allowing Democrats to characterize his candidacy as dangerous and extreme. Reagan’s famous line “There you go again” in the televised debate meant to reassure the public and defuse Carter’s suggestion that a Republican victory might endanger Medicare—a program that Reagan had, in fact, energetically opposed in the 1960s. When running for reelection, Reagan ran a gauzy, feel-good “Morning in America” campaign that pointedly avoided ideology and emphasized the administration’s practical achievements, leading to a sweep of 49 states.
As much as all Republicans revere the Gipper’s memory, it’s also important to recall that he was by no means the only modern GOP candidate to win landslides. Richard Nixon’s heterodox approach to the economy (wage and price controls), the environment (he launched the EPA), and foreign policy (recognition of Red China) certainly qualified him as a moderate rather than a doctrinaire conservative, but he swept 49 states in 1972. In fact, Nixon’s share of the popular vote (61 percent) exceeded even Reagan’s in his biggest win (59 percent).
I greatly admire Sowell, but I can’t understand his citation of an utterly fictitious “long string of Republican presidential candidates who seized the center—and lost elections.” In this context he mentions Thomas Dewey, who was beaten by Truman in long-ago 1948, without acknowledging that the famously centrist Eisenhower won a crushing landslide just four years later (442 electoral votes) and then did even better in his 1956 reelection drive (57 percent of the popular vote, 457 electoral votes).
Sowell’s “long string” of losing centrist candidates consists of only two consecutive campaigns in the last 60 years: the failed reelection bid for the “kinder, gentler” first President Bush in 1992 and the dismal effort by an aging Bob Dole to unseat Bill Clinton four years later. It’s noteworthy that Dole, despite his Washington-insider background, attempted to run to the right, not the center, in the general election. He proposed dismantling the Department of Education and cutting capital-gains taxes by half, and selected conservative hero Jack Kemp as his running mate. Both Dole and Bush, however, found themselves badly damaged by the quixotic third-party campaigns of Ross Perot, which drew heavily from voters of the center-right, and helped make Clinton twice victorious without ever winning popular-vote majorities.
This history bears review because it makes the point that selecting the strongest candidate doesn’t always mean selecting the most conservative candidate. Losing GOP campaigns aren’t simply a matter of “’Republican In Name Only’ failures” (in the words of one of the letters to The Wall Street Journal protesting my column), any more than triumphant Republican candidacies involve only robust, unapologetic conservatives.
This year, the party certainly will pick a conservative nominee, because the party has become more than ever unequivocally conservative and because none of the seven presidential contenders counts as authentically “centrist” or “moderate.” All of them take positions on issues that place them well to the right of Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, who both conducted serious campaigns last time.
The conservative stance of the party’s ultimate champion (almost certainly either Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney) won’t doom the ticket to defeat, any more than a more moderate tone by the nominee would assure victory. The outcome of the election will depend on the public’s verdict on Barack Obama—and solid Republican arguments that his unbending, doctrinaire, impractical liberalism has damaged the country and delayed recovery.
But in making that case the GOP must do more than rally conservative true believers, and must make a serious, successful effort to convince the moderate-minded voters who inevitably and invariably decide the outcome of every major election.