January 24, 2012

The Myth of "Moderates" Can't Win & Who is the Most "Electable"?

I like Rush Limbaugh. He's a great entertainer.

What he's not good at is political science.

I keep hearing from Rush an argument that goes something like this: The Republican establishment keeps shoving moderates down our throats, but whenever we run a moderate they lose.

His examples seem to be confined to Bob Dole and John McCain.

Since McCain is our most recent example, let me speak to that one.

John McCain did not lose because he was a moderate. John McCain lost because he was a Republican.

Whoever the Republicans nominated in 2008 was doomed to fail. It had little to do with them personally. It have everything to do with the collapse of the housing market, the collapse of the financial markets, and the beginning of the-worst-recession-since-the-great-depression (©DNC, all rights reserved).

Also, because the-worst-president-who-ever-lived-and-who-also-ate-children-for-breakfast (© DNC, all rights reserved) had just been term limited out. You know his name, it always ended with a hyphen then a Hitler.

I'm sorry, McCain's losing to Obama had little to do with McCain or Obama.

Little is not all. But macro forces outside of the individual personality or policy preferences was 90% of the story.

So, when Rush or other conservative activists blame the 2008 loss on the fact that McCain was a moderate, they're just plain wrong.

The importance of this is because the analogy is then applied by Rush to say that if we nominate an alleged moderate like Romney then we doomed to repeat 2008 and the Republicans will lose again.

That is complete and utter hogwash. Whoever we nominate in the coming months is very likely to beat Obama. And in 2012 it will have little to do with the candidates themselves, and everything to do with macro forces such as the economy.

We're left in this race with three possible alternatives. None of these men are perfectly conservative, but none of them can be because there is no such a thing as a perfect conservative. The perfect conservative doesn't exist. Ronald Reagan was not a perfect conservative. Not even close. It's the problem of memory: it's selective. We tend to remember what we want, and forget what we don't.

None of these guys is perfect, but no one is. It's why I've always hated the idea of voting for the guy I disliked the least. The underlying assumption being that there is someone so perfect out there, if only he wold step forward.

That's not what politics is. Hell, that's not even what human nature is. We're imperfect. If we weren't, we'd be God.

Which brings us the the Mitt vs. Newt vs. Santorum conundrum.

Who is the most electable? Rush, and a lot of activists on the right seem convinced that whoever is the most conservative is the most electable. So, it's Santorum ... or maybe Newt, depending on your definition of "conservative".

The establishment, and many in the middle in the party think that whoever is the most moderate sounding is the most electable. Clearly, they prefer Romney.

Another faction think that whoever takes it to Obama & the Left in the most direct manner will win. They prefer Newt because he is the most articulate at attacking Obama and the Left. Also, he's clearly the best debater.

Unfortunately, all of them are wrong. Decades of public opinion research tell us that candidate's positions on public policy rarely has anything to do with the outcome of an election.

Conservatives will end up voting for the Republican candidate, whoever he is. Liberals will end up voting for the Democratic candidate, whoever he is. And the so-called moderates will end up voting based on a number of factors, none of which are related to the issues at all.

They will vote on the economy, first and foremost. Not based on their personal checkbooks, but based on what we call a "sociotropic" analysis of the economy. That is, based upon their perception of where the economy is or where it is heading.

And given that economies are cyclical, much of what passes for electoral politics is simply luck.

Another big factor in how the squishy moderates and independents vote are "personal attributes". Things like is the candidate "trustworthy" or is he a good "leader".

Neither of these things have anything to do with their positions on the policies.

In 1980 we were told that Reagan couldn't be elected because he was too conservative. But he won anyway. But he didn't win, as Rush and some think, because he was conservative.

He won because the economy was in the tank. Whoever we nominated in 1980 was likely to beat Carter.

He didn't beat Carter because he was articulate in the debates, either. If you believe this, you didn't see the debates. Reagan was not the best debater.

But, this didn't mean that the debates were meaningless. They had an affect, but it had nothing to do with Reagan's debating skills -- which were mediocre, at best.

What people learned in the debates was the Reagan wasn't the crazy person that Carter and the Democrats painted him to be.

What they learned was that he was a viable alternative to Jimmy Carter.

Reagan didn't win in 1980 because he was a conservative, Reagan won because he wasn't Jimmy Carter.

The 2012 elections will be most analogous to the elections of 1980. Whoever we nominate is likely to beat Obama, not because what they believe in or what policies they prefer, but because they are a viable alternative to him.

When thinking of the electability question then, it is simply wrong to think of the candidate's positions on policy questions.

What's more important are the personal attributes of the candidate.

Can an independent who voted for Obama in 2008 see himself voting for a viable alternative in 2012?

Let's face it, no matter how much I disdain Romney's moderate stance on a number of issues or Gingrich's ego I'm not the average voter. The average voter hasn't read Barber's The Presidential Character and no longer seems to worry about things like executive vs. legislative leadership abilities.

The average voter worries more about hair style. And about a candidates voice.

No, seriously. My wife, who I consider more of a typical voter than myself, tells me that she can't vote for Sarah Palin because of ... her accent.

And, to be honest, it's why I didn't support Rick Perry. He sounded too much like George W. Bush, and I think the nation still isn't ready for another Texas governor who sounds like, well, a Texan.

Yeah, it's superficial. But what you don't get is that the people who matter in an election -- the independents -- vote on some very superficial things.

That is, when they're not voting on macro issues that are beyond a candidates control.

Look, I think that if Newt gets the nomination that he has a better than even chance of winning. The economy is not likely to improve much in the next eight months, and that's the number one issue that independents will base their votes on.

I'd call it 55-45 in Newt's favor.

Those aren't terrible odds.

The problem with Newt is that he doesn't strike me as Reaganesque in the debates. He strikes me as stylistically the opposite of Reagan. He's not reassuring to moderates.

Maybe he'll get that he has to change that in the general elections, but how many debates will we have between the Republican candidate and Obama? Two? Three, tops?

His debating skills aren't going to matter much for an eventual path to victory. Far more important will be his ability to convince people that he has an even temper, that he is a "leader", and that his personal story is one worth embracing.

And that might be difficult.

The dirty little secret about the American people is that they don't want a fighter in office. No, they want Congress and the President and the Media elites to all just get along.

It's one of the biggest complaints from moderates: why is there so much fighting in Washington?

Yeah, I know it's a stupid question. But it's the kind of question independents ask all the time.

Which is why yet another reason I'm less sure about supporting Gingrich now than I was a few months ago.

I originally supported him because he was a fighter. I, like many of you, wanted a fighter.

But I forgot that I'm not emblematic of the American people. The American people don't want a fighter.

At least, they don't want one who seems like a fighter. They want a passive aggressive fighter. One who won't raise his voice too loudly, and when he attacks he will do so obliquely. Not raise too much of a ruckus, if you know what I mean.

Which is why I think that Romney has a better chance of beating Obama than Newt.

It has nothing to do with his moderation. It has everything to do with stupid things like his hair. And his temperament.

If Romney is our guy, then I call it more like 60-40.

He seems Presidential. And that's enough for most independents. They just want an alternative to Obama. Someone who doesn't seem too weird, to be an extremist, and who will return our country to normalcy.

It has nothing to do with his alleged moderation. It has everything to do with personality.

Yeah, that's stupid. Welcome to America.

By Rusty Shackleford, Ph.D. at 01:40 PM | Comments |