Friday, July 8, 2011
Why Republicans Don't Need to Nominate a Moderate to Win
Independents. That vaunted group that the politicos obsess over. Those discerning people who carefully weigh the issues and the candidates before descending from the mountain top to let know the "answer."
As readers of The Naked Dollar know, we think that's a total pant load. Most independents are such because they don't follow matters very closely and they never, ever want to be in a position where they have to defend their view on anything. If you are a Republican or Democrat, someone at a dinner party might say, "How can you defend tax cuts for the rich?" or "Do you really think the U.S. should cede authority to supra-national organizations?"
Rut-roh. Suddenly you have to defend positions you don't really have your arms around. Can't we talk about the Casey Anthony trial? Better to be bland, so know one exposes the fact you haven't read a paper in...how long has it been?
I wrote about this more expansively in this piece:
Elections and the Gravity of the Cocktail Party Middle
It is received wisdom that to win back the White House, Republicans must nominate someone who will appeal to "the middle," i.e. independents. Never mind that Reagan won by large margins twice. Never mind that Ford, Dole, Bush the Elder, and McCain - all moderates - all lost.
Bush the Elder won the first time running as a conservative, the heir to Reagan's mantle. When it turned out he was center-left, he lost.
Bush the Younger won twice running as a conservative (albeit a more marginal one than Reagan).
40% of Americans consistently identify themselves as conservatives versus 20% for liberals. It should be no surprise that conservatives win.
But back to the role of independents. About forty percent of the electorate does not affiliate with a party. Surely, this is the battleground, no?
No. An excellent new piece by Alan Abramowitz (here) explodes this myth. It turns out the vast majority of independents are closet partisans. In fact, according to the National American Election Study, in 2008 fully 87% voted for the party towards which they were clear leaners based on their views on various issues. This means that only 13% of independents were truly up for grabs.
Also, independents don't vote as often as party-affiliated voters. In 2008, despite being 40% of the electorate, they represented only 33% of the people who actually showed up on election day. This is consistent with The Naked Dollar's view that independents are the least engaged slice of the electorate. Some group to fight over!
(Note: as always, there are exceptions to rules. There are intelligent, engaged independents out there. If you are one of them, don't take it out on this blog. But you are not legion.)
Abramowitz also points out that presidential elections don't always go the way of independents, either. In fact, if you examine the last three elections that were decided by less than 5 points, none of the winners were supported by a majority of independents. Gerald Ford, George Bush (2000), and John Kerry all carried independents and all lost the popular vote.
So, what's the key to winning a presidential election if it's not winning over independents? Simple, you have to energize your base. In 2008, Barack Obama was highly successful at this while Republicans were dispirited and exhausted. In 2004, Bush was successful in turning out the base, especially in key states like Ohio. Over and over, it's the party with the more motivated base that wins. The important thing to remember is that only about half of eligible voters actually vote in presidential elections. You want to make sure it's your half.
So what does this mean for Republicans? It means they don't have to nominate a moderate (i.e. Romney). In fact, they shouldn't, if they want to win. While it's possible that white hot anger over the rampant radicalism and general ineptitude of the Obama administration will be enough to turn out Republicans on election day, it's not a given. The GOP should nominate someone who excites the base. That means that Michelle Bachmann should be taken seriously and Rick Perry should think about throwing his hat in. And it also means Herman Cain can't be written off as a novelty candidate. No one has excited the base as much as Cain thus far.
While the evidence on this is incontrovertible, it does not mean the GOP will embrace it. The Naked Dollar puts this down to timidity; simply, Republicans are frequently afraid to nominate someone they think will get mocked and belittled by the liberal elites in editorial rooms (read: Bachmann).
They should get over it, because the Republican nominee will get crushed by the media irrespective of his or her moderate credentials. Just ask John McCain, the media's best friend, right up until the day he got nominated. The same will be true for Mitt.