Historic victories in the 2010 midterm elections have raised the Republican Party’s hopes of defeating Barack Obama in 2012. As a result, all eyes are now focused on the contest to determine whom Republicans will choose to represent them in an election that marks, by their own account, a “turning point” for the future of the nation.
Despite this election’s high stakes, however, the question of which candidate will bear the GOP’s standard remains shadowed in great uncertainty, owing mostly to the lack of an obvious frontrunner. This is unusual for Republicans: Generally, the GOP nominates the candidate who is “next in line” — a person who, having failed to obtain the nomination in a previous campaign, has since established himself as a serious leader within the party. In 2012, the race is likely to include “next-in-line” candidates — but each has flaws that cast doubt on his ability to win both the primary and general elections.
Further complicating the upcoming presidential race is the unpredictable influence of the Tea Party. It should be noted that this popular movement rebelled not only against the Obama agenda but also against the Republican establishment, which it has accused of straying from conservative principles. That backlash produced dramatic results during the 2010 GOP primaries, sweeping away several “establishment” Republicans — including incumbents — in favor of less orthodox candidates who could claim the Tea Party’s blessing.
Given these unusual circumstances heading into 2012, what kind of nominee should we expect? And what kind of nominee should Republicans want? A party statesman who has patiently waited his turn? An unconventional populist who makes up for his lack of establishment credibility with fervent grassroots support? Or a relative newcomer whose background and beliefs allow him to straddle the divide between the GOP’s moderate and conservative wings? An examination of the data suggests that the eventual nominee will defy all of today’s conventional wisdom about the 2012 contest.
CONSERVATIVE BY DEGREE
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.
NEXT IN LINE
The history and polling data of three key elections — the 1996, 2000, and 2008 Republican presidential primaries — illustrate this phenomenon.
In 1996, the early frontrunner was Senate majority leader and former vice-presidential nominee Robert Dole. He was challenged by Texas senator Phil Gramm, businessman Steve Forbes, commentator Patrick Buchanan, former ambassador Alan Keyes, and former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander. In the early races, the outcomes were generally determined by how Republican voters viewed the “Gingrich Revolution” that had been launched two years earlier: Those who thought it was moving too slowly backed Buchanan, Gramm, or Forbes; those who thought it was moving too quickly favored Alexander; and those who thought it was about right backed Dole.
In Iowa, it was Dole’s vision that prevailed; Gramm, having placed fifth in the caucuses, dropped out before New Hampshire. Buchanan won that contest narrowly over Dole; Alexander’s third-place finish prompted him to drop out. Forbes carried on (even winning in Delaware and Arizona), but after New Hampshire it was effectively a two-man contest. Once the race had narrowed to Buchanan versus Dole, the overriding question was whether Republicans wanted Pat Buchanan — and his fiery rhetoric and emphasis on traditional cultural mores and populist economics — to define the GOP. In South Carolina, they declared their preference: Dole’s large victory sealed Buchanan’s fate, and though the former Nixon and Reagan staffer soldiered on, he never came close to Dole again.
In 2000, Texas governor George W. Bush was the frontrunner. He was challenged by Arizona senator John McCain, Forbes, Keyes, and the president of the Family Research Council, Gary Bauer. Much as in 1996, the 2000 race hinged on what Republicans thought about the conservative movement’s priorities. Bush’s platform was a mixture of orthodox movement conservatism — he was pro-life, and advocated tax cuts that included reductions in the top rate — leavened with a focus on helping the poor (chiefly through education reform and support for the charitable efforts of faith-based institutions). McCain, on the other hand, openly challenged conservative orthodoxy: His tax-cut plan did not reduce the rate for the top bracket, and he flaunted his agreement with Democrats on issues such as global warming and campaign-finance reform. Forbes, Keyes, and Bauer all challenged Bush from the right on both economic and cultural issues.
How did these positions play at the polls? McCain did not contest Iowa, leaving Bush to defeat Forbes. The Arizona senator did, however, trounce Bush in New Hampshire — defeating the eventual nominee by nearly 20 points. At that point, both Bauer and Forbes dropped out. With the race effectively narrowed to two men, the contest was dominated by the personalities of the candidates — did the boisterous McCain have a “presidential temperament”? — and their stances on core conservative issues.
For some time, it remained unclear which personality Republicans would choose: Bush came back and beat McCain in South Carolina, but then lost Arizona and Michigan. McCain made big efforts in Virginia and Washington, but lost both states to Bush. On March 7, 11 states held primaries. McCain won four of the five New England races but lost everywhere else. He then dropped out. With a winning combination of personality and ideology, Bush had prevailed.
The 2008 race began with former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani as the presumptive frontrunner, followed closely by McCain. Between the 2000 and 2008 campaigns, McCain had been a careful custodian of his political image, assuming powerful and prominent roles in the Senate, actively campaigning for Bush’s re-election in 2004, and cultivating the support of the national news media. As a result, by the beginning of the 2008 primary season, McCain had transformed himself from the unorthodox challenger into the very embodiment of the Republican “establishment”; his campaign sought to project an air of inevitability.
Despite the celebrity surrounding Giuliani and McCain, the 2008 field was still a crowded one. Former Tennessee senator (and sometime Hollywood actor) Fred Thompson, former Massachusetts governor (and multi-millionaire business executive) Mitt Romney, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, and Texas congressman Ron Paul — the Libertarian Party presidential nominee in 1988 — also entered the primary contests. Conventional wisdom held that Republicans were facing an uphill battle, given the unpopularity of President Bush and the nation’s fatigue with his policies. The congressional elections of 2006 marked what many believed would be the beginning of a Democratic tide. To a large extent, each of the 2008 contenders had to convince Republicans that he was an orthodox conservative — thus sharing many of Bush’s positions — while simultaneously distancing himself from the unpopular incumbent. It was a difficult line to walk, and made for not a few surprises.
The first came in Iowa, where Huckabee — an ordained Southern Baptist minister — rode the support of evangelical Protestants to victory. It was an upset over Romney, who had devoted enormous amounts of time and his own money to the Iowa contest. McCain, for his part, had largely written off Iowa, choosing instead to place his hopes on New Hampshire, where he defeated Romney in his own backyard. In Michigan, however — where Romney’s father had been a popular governor — Romney beat McCain. Thompson, having floundered in all of the early races, placed a distant third behind McCain and Huckabee in the South Carolina contest, after which he formally dropped out. Recognizing that he didn’t stand much of a chance in socially conservative states like Iowa and South Carolina, Giuliani had effectively sat out the early contests, pinning his hopes on Florida. The strategy failed: Giuliani placed third behind McCain and Romney, and eventually dropped out.
On February 5, so-called “Super Tuesday,” Huckabee won four Southern states and narrowly lost Oklahoma and Missouri to McCain. Romney won only his home state of Massachusetts and Mormon-dominated Utah. McCain won nine states in all, prompting Romney to drop out. Huckabee stayed in the race another month, winning Louisiana narrowly but losing every other primary. Given the choice between McCain’s familiarity and Huckabee’s zeal, GOP voters clearly chose the establishment.
Examining the exit polls from these races, a clear pattern emerges. In the early competitive primaries and caucuses in 1996, very conservative voters went for the candidates to Dole’s right — Buchanan, Keyes, and, in Iowa before he dropped out, Gramm. Indeed, Dole lost among very conservative voters to his major challenger, Pat Buchanan, in every primary and caucus from Iowa through South Carolina. And in the 2000 contest, very conservative voters in the New Hampshire primary gave near majority support to three candidates running to Bush’s right — Forbes, Keyes, and Bauer.
In 2008, very conservative voters heavily favored the candidates perceived as being to the right of John McCain. While the nomination was still up for grabs, McCain lost these voters badly in every state to either Romney or Huckabee. This was true even in McCain’s home state of Arizona, where Romney carried very conservatives by 53 points to the senator’s 22. Influencing these elections was Romney’s assiduous courting of prominent opinion-makers in the conservative movement, as well as the overt appeals of pastor Huckabee to evangelical Christians. McCain, meanwhile, had spent years downplaying his 2000 image and adopting a calmer demeanor. In so doing, he became the Republican Party’s established elder statesman. The fact that very conservative voters rejected McCain in favor of Romney and Huckabee — combined with the results of the contests in ’96 and ’00 — points to an important (if unsurprising) conclusion: Very conservative voters support the more ideologically conservative candidate regardless of his prior experience.
Ultimately, however, the preferences of these very conservative voters do not dictate the nominee — because it is the somewhat-conservative bloc that has generally determined the outcome of Republican nomination contests. In the 1996 Iowa caucuses, somewhat-conservative voters were 41% of the electorate; Bob Dole was victorious because he won a plurality of these voters, 30%. Dole then went on to beat Buchanan among somewhat-conservative voters in every competitive primary. And in 2000, it was the support of the larger somewhat-conservative cohort that ultimately delivered the nomination to Bush — who usually carried this group by a 15-point margin (or more) over McCain.
The somewhat-conservative vote was also behind McCain’s 2008 victory. In New Hampshire, it was McCain’s ability to beat Mitt Romney among somewhat-conservative voters, 38 points to 35, that ended up handing a victory to the Arizona senator. In South Carolina, McCain lost among the one-third of GOP primary voters who described themselves as very conservative; among the third of the electorate claiming to be somewhat conservative, however, he edged Huckabee 32-30. That, combined with McCain’s large margin among Republican moderates, ultimately allowed him to win the race.
These same factors contributed to McCain’s victories in every other state during the multi-candidate period. Indeed, McCain consistently lost heavily among very conservative voters. Yet he won primaries until Huckabee dropped out by carrying or running roughly even among somewhat-conservative voters, and by running up large margins among moderates and liberals.
In each of these races, somewhat-conservative Republicans provided solid margins to the more established, cautious candidate — especially once the field narrowed down to two men. In 1996 and 2008, Buchanan and Huckabee were clearly the less established and more change-focused candidates; in 2000, McCain was obviously the more unpredictable, change-oriented option. These men thus appealed to very conservative voters, Southern evangelicals, and moderates, respectively. But the nature of their appeals meant that none of these candidates ever really won the trust of the somewhat-conservative voters, whose temperament made them wary of such politicians. This more cautious bloc therefore opted for the more established, less risky candidates — Dole, Bush, and, in 2008, McCain.
Although no exit polls from before 1996 break conservatives down into these sub-categories, a look back at the electoral history suggests that this same phenomenon has influenced every Republican nomination contest since 1968. Richard Nixon, as the previous Republican vice president and a former Republican presidential nominee, was the most nationally prominent and tested candidate in 1968. The same could be said in 1976 of Gerald Ford (the incumbent president), in 1980 of Ronald Reagan (former candidate for the nomination and leader of the conservative movement), in 1988 of George H.W. Bush (former candidate for the GOP nomination and incumbent vice president), and in 2008 of John McCain (former candidate for the nomination). And though 2000 was his first attempt at the GOP presidential nomination, George W. Bush still came across as the more tested and steady candidate: He was the incumbent governor of one of the largest and most politically important states; he had the backing of the Republican establishment; his family, which had produced a senator, a president, and another governor, was a key part of that establishment; and, unlike McCain, he did not campaign as a maverick. It thus appears that somewhat-conservative voters flock to safe, solid candidates much as foreign investors flock to the safety of Treasury bonds in times of financial uncertainty.
This analysis suggests that, if the next-in-line pattern is truly the result of somewhat-conservative voters’ preference for stable personalities and experienced candidates, a successful Republican nominee need not literally be the next in line. All he has to do is present himself as the more prudent and reliable of the last two candidates remaining.
In 2012, this could have major implications for a wide-open field. While it is likely that a next-in-line candidate will campaign as the stable, dispositional conservative, he might fail to make it out of the early primaries. In that event, an enormous opportunity would present itself to a relative newcomer who, without having established himself as the heir apparent within the Republican Party, could still convincingly pass himself off to somewhat-conservative voters as the measured establishment figure they seek.
Before such a candidate can reach that moment of opportunity, however, he must first distinguish himself in a crowded pack. For the 2012 contenders, it would be worth looking at the precedents offered by each of the last five open races — 1980, 1988, 1996, 2000, and 2008 — in which a dark-horse candidate emerged during the first few contests to pose a serious challenge to the eventual nominee.
In each of these campaigns, a previously overlooked candidate rose to prominence by appealing to a large constituency that had been neglected by the frontrunner. In 1980, for instance, Illinois congressman John Anderson gained surprising levels of support with his overtures to liberal Republicans and moderates. He earned endorsements from prominent left-leaning intellectuals, proposed a gasoline tax, and publicly recanted his initial support of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution — steps that placed him in stark contrast with the two leading conservative candidates, Reagan and George H.W. Bush. In 1996 and 2000, Lamar Alexander and John McCain, respectively, borrowed from Anderson’s playbook and courted their party’s moderate wing.
Other dark-horse candidates have mounted serious challenges from the right. In 1988, when Vice President George H.W. Bush was campaigning as a more moderate version of Reagan, televangelist Pat Robertson managed to push Bush into third place in the Iowa caucuses by appealing to evangelical Christians. In 2008, Mike Huckabee did even better, winning Iowa and other states’ primaries and caucuses with the same appeal. And during the 1996 primary contest, Pat Buchanan — running against Dole’s status as a Washington insider, and playing himself up as a champion of American values — drew support from social conservatives of all religious backgrounds.
In each race, the established frontrunners were focused on winning the GOP’s traditional constituencies: the business community and movement conservatives. But each of these other groups — evangelicals, social conservatives, moderates, and so forth — generally comprises between one-quarter and one-third of the Republican electorate, albeit with some overlap. By ignoring them, the leading candidates gave the dark horses their key opportunities.
Yet just as these candidates serve as models, they also offer cautionary tales to would-be dark horses in 2012. After all, targeting just one segment of the electorate necessarily limits a candidate’s appeal. In order to represent the entire Republican Party in a general election, a nominee must have garnered the support of several distinct constituencies within the GOP. Anderson in 1980 and McCain in 2000 learned this the hard way: They delighted in skewering articles of conservative faith on taxes and social issues, only to discover that their approach turned off more Republicans than it attracted. Campaigning principally on their religious backgrounds, pastors Robertson and Huckabee, too, found their appeal limited to their core constituency. And Buchanan realized that a fiery cultural message can attract millions of followers, only to repel millions more.
Moreover, if a dark-horse candidate comes across as too zealous a champion of just one constituency, a smart frontrunner can exploit the perception to secure his advantage. In 1980, for instance, Reagan attracted somewhat-conservative voters in part because they wanted to stop the too-liberal Anderson. And Dole in 1996, Bush in 2000, and McCain in 2008 were put over the top by voters who wanted the Republican nominee to be anyone but Buchanan, McCain, or Huckabee, respectively.
The experience of these candidates should indicate to a potential 2012 dark-horse candidate how he might avoid his predecessors’ mistakes. Such a candidate would need to appeal to some underserved constituency in a way that clearly signals he wants their support. At the same time, his appeal cannot be so narrowly tailored that it prevents his gaining traction among other parts of the Republican electorate.
In 2012, which GOP constituency is capable of propelling a surprise candidate to victory? At first glance, the obvious answer would seem to be the Tea Party. The limited data that so far exist, however, would suggest otherwise. To begin, the breadth of Tea Party support among Republicans is smaller than commonly believed. The percentage of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents who say they are Tea Party backers varies from the 56% reported in an April NBC/Wall Street Journalpoll to the slightly less than half found in an April Pew poll — a fairly tepid level of enthusiasm. It also appears that these numbers are on the decline: An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in October 2010 had put Republican support for the Tea Party higher, at 64%.
The depth of Tea Party support, too, is less than previously thought. The April NBC/Wall Street Journal poll also asked Republican Tea Party supporters whether it was more accurate to describe them as Republicans or Tea Partiers. Only slightly more than half of Republicans who supported the Tea Party — or about 30% of the entire Republican electorate — said they identified themselves principally as Tea Partiers. The other half said they were better described as Republicans. The Tea Party is certainly vocal and will remain a powerful force within Republican politics through 2012; it does not, however, represent anything close to a majority of Republicans, and so will not be the sole arbiter of who becomes the GOP’s nominee.
Indeed, a would-be dark horse candidate who devotes too much of his message to pet Tea Party themes risks alienating the 2012 GOP contest’s truly underserved constituency: Republican moderates. Because of its role in the 2010 Republican resurgence, an enormous amount of attention is being paid to the Tea Party. And some of the most prominent candidates of this cycle have abandoned past moderate stands in order to “check the boxes” of conservative orthodoxy leading up to 2012. As a result, the GOP’s moderate bloc has been largely overlooked.
But moderates are an important part of the Republican voting bloc — and they may be especially crucial in 2012. Polls show that moderates comprise between 30% and 35% of the expected Republican electorate. And in 2008, in states with early primaries — such as New Hampshire, Michigan, and Florida — moderates’ share of the electorate was between 39% and 45%. This cohort is likely to remain large despite the rise of the Tea Party, because most states either permit registered independents to vote in party primaries or do not have party registration at all. As a result, many primary elections are left open to all voters. Since President Obama will almost certainly run unopposed, independents in 2012 are much likelier to vote in the GOP primary than in the Democratic one. If there is only one candidate tailoring his appeal to moderate Republicans and independents, he is likely to garner a large share of the vote.
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.
THE 2012 OPPORTUNITY
Given these conditions, how might we expect the 2012 Republican primary contest to unfold? Imagine the following scenario: A relative newcomer — a “dark horse” with political skill and credibility — distinguishes himself from the pack, breaking through in the early races with a message that appeals to moderates and locks in their support. Meanwhile, very conservative voters coalesce overwhelmingly around a Tea Party favorite. Somewhat-conservative Republicans divide their votes among the crowd; presumably, if any “next in line” candidates are running, they are included in this group.
But because the somewhat-conservative voters spread out their support, none of their candidates secures enough delegates to compete with the moderates’ and very conservatives’ choices — forcing the preferred “establishment” candidates to withdraw. With the race narrowed to two candidates, somewhat-conservative voters are then presented with a choice. Do they support the more ideological Tea Party candidate beloved of the very conservative Republicans? Or do they back the favorite of the moderates — the candidate who is more steady and practical, and also “conservative enough”?
If the GOP nominates a Tea Party favorite, it will be easy for President Obama to cast the election as a referendum on his opponent’s fitness for the job. This is what Richard Nixon did to George McGovern in 1972, leading to one of the largest landslides in American history; it is the tactic that helped Lyndon Johnson successfully trounce Barry Goldwater. Indeed, writing after the 1964 election, Ronald Reagan noted that Americans voted for Johnson because he had presented himself as “a comfortable conservative”; Reagan added that “human nature resists change and goes over backward to avoid radical change.” A Tea Party favorite would clearly be a “radical change.” And there is no evidence to suggest that a Tea Partier would fare much better against President Obama than candidates boasting more typical Republican-nominee pedigrees.
A race against a dark horse with a traditional conservative’s disposition, however, turns the tables on the Democrats. A Republican with an established background and reserved demeanor would be able to cast Obama as the agent of radical change, pointing to the aggressive (and in many quarters unpopular) agenda of the president’s first term. Polling data suggest that a majority of Americans would be open to replacing Obama — if the alternative does not scare them. And as Democrats learned with Reagan, it is impossible to cast someone as scary if he can respond to shrill attacks with calm and off-the-cuff humor. The Republican dark horse would be borrowing from Reagan’s playbook, and could well meet with similar success.
In 2012, such a scenario is far from implausible. And if past is prologue, somewhat-conservative voters will follow their cautious instincts — supporting the dark-horse candidate.
The broader GOP voting base may also be mindful of the standard Democratic playbook for opposing vocal conservatives. Republicans know that, if they choose a nominee who is too ideological and rhetorically strident, the left will pounce on the opportunity — alleging that the GOP standard-bearer wants to destroy Social Security, throw sick people into the streets, fire all teachers, and so on. Moreover, Republicans will surely remember the 2010 cycle, in which some key congressional takeover opportunities were lost when Tea Party-favored candidates — having defeated “establishment” Republicans in their primaries — were then deemed too extreme by general-election voters. In 2012, Republicans may recall William F. Buckley’s famous counsel to support the most conservative electable candidate. Under these circumstances, if a dark horse of a dispositionally conservative temperament should emerge, he will go on to win increasingly decisive victories until he is the last man standing.
This result would surely disappoint many Tea Partiers, but it need not be a betrayal of conservative principle. Indeed, Ronald Reagan is the perfect example of how a man of movement-conservative ideas and traditional-conservative temperament is well placed to advance the interests of both sets of conservatives.
Over the past two years, liberals have enjoyed portraying the GOP as captive to “extremist” Tea Party masters. They are also trying hard to create the sense that resistance to Obama will be futile — thereby discouraging serious and accomplished Republicans from seeking to deny him a second term. But there is nothing about the current makeup of the Republican Party, or the current state of its nomination process, that prevents the emergence of an electable conservative — a person who motivates the GOP base, and can still run as a mature, credible alternative to President Obama. All it takes is a smart Republican who can read the tea leaves of past elections, see his moment of opportunity in 2012, and muster the boldness to seize it.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.