June 30, 2011


A GOP Dark Horse? (HENRY OLSEN, Summer 2011, National Affairs)

Understanding the dynamics of the contest for the 2012 Republican nomination first requires an examination of the GOP electorate. And a great deal of this analysis is bound up in the question of what it means to be "conservative."

To be conservative once meant possessing a certain disposition or frame of mind. This type of conservative was cautious and suspicious of change — someone who trusted the collected wisdom of institutions and the past over the novelties of individual reasoning and innovative philosophies. It was in this sense that British and Scandinavian parties of the right labeled themselves "Conservative"; it was to overcome this definition that Canada's Conservatives changed their name in the 1940s to the oxymoronic Progressive Conservative Party. In America, this sentiment was well expressed in Russell Kirk's 1953 magnum opus, The Conservative Mind. It may be neatly summed up in the conservative adage that when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.

"Dispositional conservatives" still make up a sizable portion of the Republican Party. Yet they have had to make room for ideological conservatives, who gained prominence in the GOP through the movement that began with Barry Goldwater in the 1960s and matured during Ronald Reagan's presidency in the 1980s. Ideological conservatives are not, by virtue of disposition, necessarily averse to change. On the contrary: In the mold of Reagan, they are forward-looking. They embrace changes and reforms that advance conservative principles, such as the primacy of freedom and the morality of free markets, the protection of traditional moral structures and practices, and the unapologetic use of American power overseas. Under Reagan, conservatism became associated in the public eye with action, experimentation, and change. Its evolving character was best expressed in a line from Reagan's Republican convention acceptance speech in 1980, quoting Thomas Paine: "We have it in our power to begin the world over again."

The distinction between dispositional and ideological conservatives is often subtle; as a result, the breakdown is difficult to capture neatly in public-opinion polls. It is, however, approximated by the distinction made in some polls between Republican voters who identify themselves as "somewhat conservative" and those who identify as "very conservative." And as exit-poll data from the 1996, 2000, and 2008 Republican presidential primaries and caucuses show, these different types of "conservatives" prefer very different types of presidential candidates. Very conservative Republicans favor rhetorically aggressive champions of conservative ideology. Somewhat-conservative Republicans, on the other hand, tend to prefer established candidates — people who, while generally in agreement with ideological conservatives in their positions on the issues, are not as strident when it comes to ideology, rhetoric, or temperament.

It is worth noting that these somewhat-conservative voters make up a majority of Republican primary voters who identify as conservative. Polls taken in late 2010 and early 2011 show that conservatives comprise between 66% and 71% of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents. Most pollsters do not break conservatives into "somewhat" and "very" categories, but a mid-October 2010 Wall Street Journal poll asked if respondents were "very conservative" or "just conservative." At the height of Tea Party fervor within the GOP, "just conservatives" outnumbered "very conservatives," 36% to 34%.

In 2008, somewhat-conservative voters were an even larger share of the GOP electorate. Looking at state-by-state exit polls during the period before John McCain clinched the nomination, "somewhat conservative" voters averaged about 35% of the electorate. Moreover, somewhat conservatives outnumbered very conservatives in all but four Southern states. In many early states this advantage was sizable. In Florida and Michigan, somewhat conservatives outnumbered very conservatives by a nearly 3-2 margin; in New Hampshire, their margin was nearly 2-1. Even in supposedly ultra-conservative South Carolina, somewhat conservatives and very conservatives tied with 34% of the GOP electorate, with moderates and liberals nearly even at 32%. Given their number and distribution throughout key states, these somewhat-conservative voters generally have enormous influence over what kind of presidential candidate the Republican Party tends to nominate.

In fact, it is the dispositional conservatism of these somewhat-conservative voters that accounts for the GOP's tendency to prefer next-in-line candidates over their untested rivals. It explains why, despite the fact that ideological conservatives have in many ways dominated the Republican Party since the ascendance of Reagan, the candidates who have patiently waited their turn — who have also often been those in the dispositional-conservative vein — have generally prevailed.

The history and polling data of three key elections — the 1996, 2000, and 2008 Republican presidential primaries — illustrate this phenomenon. [...]

How should such a moderate appeal be crafted? As a general rule, Republican moderates tend not to emphasize religion or social issues; compared to conservative voters, they are more open to raising taxes and increasing government spending. Yet basing a GOP primary campaign on these principles can be a difficult balancing act: While a campaign that focuses on the differences between moderates and conservatives can excite the former, it is doomed to fail among the latter. And although moderates are an important Republican constituency, they are not large enough to deliver the nomination on their own. Thus even a dark-horse candidate aggressively courting moderates must appeal to somewhat-conservative voters as well if he is to secure the nomination.

The way for a dark horse to appeal to moderates without alienating conservatives is to combine conservative positions on key issues with a problem-solving approach that is principled but not ideological, and to display a calm, confident manner. Polls currently show that jobs, the economy, and the national debt are the issues of greatest concern to voters. A dark-horse conservative with moderate appeal would stress his willingness to tackle these questions in a way that does not preclude the possibility of reaching agreement with Democrats. On spending, for example, he might indicate that traditional Republican sacred cows — such as farm subsidies, defense spending, or corporate welfare — are on the table. In short, he must show he is less interested in abstract ideology than in solving America's problems.

Such a dark horse should also have a background in public service that is consistent with his claims. Somewhat-conservative voters value a proven track record: Since 1968, they have never given their support to someone without significant time in public service in elected or high appointed office. Even when presented with two such candidates, somewhat-conservative voters prefer the person who has exhibited a capacity for public-sector leadership for a longer period of time. Mitt Romney, for example, had served for four years as governor; he had devoted two very successful decades to his career in business; and he struck no one as reckless. Nevertheless, he consistently lost somewhat-conservative voters to John McCain, who had spent 26 years in Washington and was a military hero.

A seasoned candidate who stands for conservative principles of individual liberty and free markets, while remaining focused on solving practical problems rather than scoring rhetorical points, will signal to moderates that he is a different kind of conservative. An even temperament coupled with a firm, serious message will also communicate that he is someone who can get the job done — a quality that moderate and somewhat-conservative voters prize.

At the same time, such a candidate would need to be sufficiently conservative on social issues — though not defined by those issues. Contrary to stereotype, moderate Republicans vote for pro-life and pro-family candidates all the time; if they did not, neither John McCain nor Bob Dole could have been nominated. What Republican moderates want, however, is someone who is not obsessed with these issues. Rightly or not, Republican moderates are more concerned about a candidate's stance on other matters — the economy, national security, education — than they are about his views on the state of our culture. In order for a dark horse to win, then, he will have to successfully manage this delicate balance between the moderates' temperamental preferences and conservatives' substantive demands.

It's a blueprint for Tim Pawlenty.

Posted by at June 30, 2011 3:24 PM

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