As the jockeying for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination begins, a familiar debate will be playing out: Should the party pick somebody ideologically pure, or go with somebody more centrist to win independents?
This analysis of the choice confronting voters is misguided, however. The two possibilities are not mutually exclusive. The reality is that the only way Republicans can win the White House and make a play for independents is if they nominate somebody who is a real conservative.
No, this isn’t about assuming a fantasy world in which independents overwhelmingly support every major conservative policy goal. Nor is it about crafting a strategy geared toward firing up the base of the party.
It’s true that typically, when this argument is made, it’s based on the idea that in any election, the most important element of a winning campaign is to be able to energize supporters around a message. Those are the people who will be donating, knocking on doors, putting up signs, posting on social media, persuading their friends and relatives, and making phone calls on Election Day.
Though this is one strong reason in favor of Republicans running a real conservative, it is not the central reason. Because ultimately, while necessary, generating enthusiasm among the base is not sufficient to win a general election in which turnout is large and the winning candidate needs to gain electoral votes from a geographically diverse cross-section of states.
Before going further, it’s worth clarifying what I mean by “real” conservative, as this is an overly generalized term that can often be deployed to write anybody out of the movement.
What I mean is that the nominee has to be somebody who genuinely shares a conservative view of the world at a philosophical level – one that he or she can clearly articulate to those who aren’t conservatives, defend when under attack, and use as the intellectual framework to respond to any unexpected events that occur during a campaign. Memorizing an answer to a given question does not help you answer the next question. To do that, you need to understand and appreciate the underlying theory that led to the original answer.
In recent presidential election cycles, a common criticism has been that the Republican nomination process has devolved into a “purity contest.” What this misses is that the only reason this spectacle has taken place is that the candidates who were running did not have the inherent trust of conservatives. And when this is the case, candidates make fools of themselves in trying to reassure the right.
For instance, conservatives never trusted Mitt Romney, because, among other reasons, he was a liberal governor who was pro-choice, in favor of gun control, and a champion of government-subsidized universal health coverage.
Because conservatives didn’t trust him, Romney spent his first bid for president, in 2008, eroding his credibility by flip-flopping on a litany of major issues in a failed bid to win over the right.
In 2012, he was able to win the nomination, but because he lacked an actually conservative philosophical mindset, he didn’t know how to make conservative arguments in an appealing manner and as a result he ended up looking foolish.
His clumsy statements, such as declaring that he was “severely conservative” and that his preferred immigration policy would lead to “self deportation,” were rooted in the fact that he was just regurgitating what he thought conservatives wanted to hear rather than explaining views with which he was comfortable. This was also at the heart of his butchering the conservative critique of the culture of dependency with his “47 percent” comments.
It would be overly simplistic to state that candidates such as Romney, Bob Dole, and Sen. John McCain lose because their candidacies discourage conservatives.
The deeper issue is that when the Republican nominee is somebody who conservatives are suspicious of, the nominee has to spend the whole primary trying to convince conservatives that he or she agrees with them, and then the general election constantly reassuring them that he or she isn’t going to abandon the right just because the nomination has been sewn up. This leads to incoherent campaign messaging.
The popular myth is that a winning candidate has to play to the base in the primaries and then move to the center in the general election. But the reality is that winning candidates in both parties have tended to maintain a relatively consistent theme throughout their campaigns.
Over the next 18 months or so, there will be plenty of time to explore which GOP candidate or candidates meet the threshold of being genuinely conservative, but one thing is for sure.
When base voters implicitly trust a candidate, they’re more likely to give that candidate the benefit of the doubt when he or she tries to communicate a message to appeal to the broader electorate, because they assume that deep down that candidate “gets it” and is “one of us.” A candidate who is constantly having to prove something to the base — from the declaration of candidacy to the waning hours of Election Day — is guaranteed to lose.