Conservatives, Romney, and Electability

Wall Street Journal


Most political battles are won by seizing the center. Anyone who believes otherwise ignores the electoral experience of the last 50 years.

Conservative resistance to Mitt Romney’s nomination increasingly emphasizes electability as much as ideology, concentrating on his perceived weaknesses as a candidate along with an inconsistent approach to the issues. In headlining a typical blog post, Erick Erickson of laments: “Mitt Romney as the Nominee: Conservatism Dies and Barack Obama Wins.

Such projections of doom portray Mr. Romney as the dreary second coming of John McCain—a hapless moderate foisted on the disillusioned rank and file by the GOP’s country-club establishment, with no real chance to rally the conservative base or draw clear distinctions with Barack Obama.

This analysis, endlessly recycled on the right, relies on groundless assumptions about recent political history. Three myths in particular demand rebuttal and rejection as a prerequisite to GOP success in 2012 and beyond:

1) Many analysts cited by the New York Times, Washington Times and other prominent media sources continue to blame the Republican defeat in 2008 on the millions of conservative true believers who allegedly stayed home rather than vote for the notorious “RINO” (Republican In Name Only) John McCain. In fact, the exit polls showed that the 34% of all voters who described themselves as “conservative” in 2008 precisely matched the portion of the electorate that saw itself as conservative for George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004. Because of the much larger overall turnout in 2008, this meant that far more self-identified conservatives (44,627,000) showed up at the polls for the McCain-Obama battle than in the prior duel between Mr. Bush and John Kerry (41,571,000).

Mr. McCain lost because he performed more feebly than Mr. Bush among moderates (winning only 39%, down from 45%) and particularly among Hispanics (down to 31% from 44%), according to the exit polls—and not because right-wingers refused to vote or capriciously abandoned the Republican cause. Election Day 2008 saw the biggest turnout of self-described conservatives in American history, and Mr. McCain drew an even larger portion of those voters (78%) than did Ronald Reagan (73%) in his landslide over Jimmy Carter in 1980.


2) According to another prevailing myth, frequently promoted on talk radio and in right-wing blogs, Republican elites disregarded the obvious public preference for more unequivocally conservative candidates and forced the nomination of the unpopular , Washington-tainted insider, John Mr. McCain, who proceeded to run a disastrous campaign that dragged down the GOP at every level.

None of this bears the slightest connection to reality. In the run-up to the nomination, the party establishment preferred anyone but Mr. McCain (with Bush loyalists still smarting from his “maverick” challenge to their crown prince in 2000). The establishment split its support among Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani.

By January 2008, Mr. McCain had been all but cut off by major GOP contributors. With his campaign broke, he finished a miserable fourth in Iowa, before his stunning come-from-behind victory in New Hampshire and subsequent sweep to victory in 30 of the remaining primaries and caucuses.

Moreover, in the general election Mr. McCain ran ahead of the Republican ticket in every region of the country. He drew 7,750,000 more votes than did GOP candidates for the House of Representatives, winning 45.7% compared to 42.5% for his GOP running mates. Mr. McCain captured 49 congressional districts where the Republican candidates who ran alongside him lost. If GOP nominees had performed as well as Mr. McCain in those districts, the Republicans would have won a House majority of 227. and John Boehner would have become speaker two years earlier.

Contested statewide races for governor and U.S. Senate seats told a similar story, with Mr. McCain running ahead of the Republican ticket in 61% (28 of 46). In most of the few cases where statewide candidates outperformed Mr. McCain, the GOP ran veteran office holders (Lamar Alexander in Tennessee, Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, Susan Collins in Maine, Jon Huntsman in Utah, Jim Douglas in Vermont) with even more pragmatic, centrist reputations than Mr. McCain. Across the country, his performance justified the main practical rationale for his nomination as he won literally millions of votes that other more stridently conservative candidates failed to get.

3) Rush Limbaugh’s favorite slogan, “Conservatism wins every time,” is more a statement of wishful thinking than an accurate summary of electoral experience. It’s true that Ronald Reagan’s inspiring, comprehensive conservatism brought two sweeping victories (in 1980 and ’84). But the same supremely gifted candidate lost two prior runs for the presidency (in 1968 and 1976) to two charismatically challenged, moderate rivals, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

Barry Goldwater electrified Republicans with his delineation of “The Conscience of a Conservative,” but he lost 44 states to the unspeakable Lyndon Johnson in 1964. More recently, tea party-affiliated candidates won several high-profile primary victories in 2010 and went on to ignominious defeats in easily winnable Senate races in Delaware, Nevada, Colorado and Alaska.

The big Senate gains for Republicans in 2010 came mostly from establishment figures like John Hoeven in North Dakota or Dan Coats in Indiana, along with unapologetic moderates like Mark Kirk in Illinois. The two most celebrated tea party victors in Senate races, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Mike Lee of Utah, actually won lower vote percentages in their states than Mr. McCain did two years earlier.

In short, 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% 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 re-election).

The notion that ideologically pure conservative candidates can win by disregarding centrists and magically producing previously undiscovered legions of true-believer voters remains a fantasy. It is not a strategy. At the moment, it is easy to imagine Mitt Romney appealing to many citizens who would never consider Rick Perry or Herman Cain. It is much harder (if not impossible) to describe the sort of voter—Republican, Democrat or independent—who would refuse to support Mr. Romney (over Barack Obama!) but would somehow eagerly back Messrs. Perry, Cain or Gingrich, let alone Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum or Ron Paul.

Conservatives, as well as their moderate and progressive neighbors, may have plenty of reasons to oppose Mitt Romney in favor of some rival candidate. Electability can’t reasonably count as one of them.


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