Senator Ted Cruz is a bright man with a bright idea: Conservatives have no power because their leaders have no principles. Rediscover the latter, he says, and we will recover the former. Would that it were so.
Start with Cruz’s retelling of Republican presidential history. He claims that beginning with Richard Nixon, every Republican nominee who was elected ran as a “strong conservative,” while every loser ran as a moderate. Cruz was born in December 1970 and clearly has hazy memories at best of the 1968 and 1972 races, the latter of which saw National Review endorse John Ashbrook, a conservative congressman from Ohio, in the GOP primaries rather than Nixon. Be that as it may, this is an all-too-simple formulation that overlooks the way politically successful conservatives have always tempered parts of the conservative agenda precisely to gain a principled majority.
Ronald Reagan, whom Cruz frequently invokes in support of his argument, happens to be the best example of this approach. In 1964, the Gipper opposed the creation of Medicare, but in 1980 he frequently said he would not try to eliminate or even reform the program. Reagan recognized that it was better to focus on the things he could change than on those he couldn’t. He understood that principle and prudence are tightly intertwined.
It’s possible that the country has moved to the right since Reagan’s day, making a more consistent conservatism politically possible. That indeed is the unstated assumption of Cruz’s idea: that an unwavering conservative majority already exists if only we find the courage to mobilize it. Again, would that it were so. All the available data show that this is not true.
The number of self-described conservatives has remained relatively constant for more than 40 years: Depending on the poll and the year, it has fluctuated between 33 and 40 percent. The number of self-described Republicans has moved more significantly, but it has never risen above 33 percent for more than a year. Unlike victory in Texas, victory nationwide requires the GOP nominee to attract significant numbers of self-described moderate independents.
These data do not significantly change when GOP-leaning independents are added to the mix. Republican support has never reached 50 percent in any year, and the GOP has almost always lagged behind the Democrats since well before 1980. Indeed, the best GOP showing vis-à-vis the Democrats since the halcyon days of the Gingrich Revolution came in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when the GOP ran slightly ahead of the Democrats. Democratic-party preference including leaners exceeded Republican preference even in the GOP-wave year of 2010.
Poll data also refute the notion that there are large groups of moderates who really are consistent conservatives. A recent Pew Research poll found that a plurality of people who held mostly liberal views called themselves moderates, and nearly a third of those who held consistently liberal views thought they were moderate. By comparison, only 13 percent of people with consistently conservative views called themselves moderates. Indeed, exit polls show that a majority of moderates have not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984, and that moderates have been more Democratic than the country as a whole since 1980.
Cruz never confronts such numbers directly. He did, though, tell the Claremont Institute earlier this year that “over 2 million voters who traditionally vote Republican stayed home” in 2012. He then lists Obama’s victory margins in the seven closest states, noting that they total 727,000 votes and that “less than a million votes would have produced 84 electoral votes, more than enough to win.” Cruz’s implication is clear: These voters stayed home because Romney wasn’t conservative enough, and if they do vote, a real conservative will win.
This is, at best, a distortion of the facts. Turnout was down in 2012, but not in six of the seven swing states Cruz cites. Of those seven, only Ohio cast fewer votes in 2012, and the difference (128,000) was smaller than Obama’s margin in the state. Moreover, in three of the swing states Cruz cites, voters actually cast more ballots in 2012 than in 2008, and there is no evidence that, in these states, there was a GOP-specific fall in turnout that was counterbalanced by a rise in turnout among Democratic voters. If we instead measure the decline in the percentage of all eligible voters who turned out, we find that in two other swing states, the difference was too small to account for Obama’s victory. Only in Ohio and Florida was turnout, measured as a percentage of all eligible voters, down by enough that, theoretically, the drop accounted for Obama’s win there; and these two states would not have provided enough Electoral College votes to defeat Obama had they supported Romney instead. Even that is a stretch: Eighty percent of Ohio’s missing vote would have had to go to Romney for him to win there.
And of the conservatives and Republicans who did vote, the vast majority did not abandon Romney. In fact, Romney carried 93 percent of Republicans, which tied for the all-time high since exit polling began in 1972. His 82 percent among conservatives sounds low until you compare it with the percentages other GOP nominees won. Only George W. Bush in 2004 bested that share, with 84 percent, and the only other candidate who even equaled it was Ronald Reagan in his 1984 landslide.
Cruz is fond of contrasting his stance with those of “Washington consultants” who allegedly say that “standing for principle is inconsistent with winning elections.” He says that there are only two approaches available to conservatives, theirs or his. But this is a false dichotomy.
Reagan knew that brazenly drawing a line in the sand for the American people was the worst way to combat the liberal establishment. He explained to the readers of National Review that Goldwater lost in 1964 because Democrats had portrayed conservatives as advocating “a radical departure from the status quo.” “Time now for the soft sell,” he said, “to prove our radicalism was an optical illusion.”
Reagan also knew that ideological purity is the enemy of principled victory. In 1967, speaking to a conservative grassroots group, then-governor Reagan set out his vision for the GOP:
We cannot offer [to individualists] a narrow sectarian party in which all must swear allegiance to prescribed commandments. Such a party can be highly disciplined, but it does not win elections. This kind of party soon disappears in a blaze of glorious defeat, and it never puts into practice its basic tenets, no matter how noble they may be.
Reagan knew that victory can come only by assembling a coalition of people, not all of whom will agree on every topic.
The Texas senator is fond of quoting William Barrett Travis’s famous letter from the Alamo. It ends with the stirring words “Victory or death!” The Alamo defenders did die, and needlessly, as their position was neither strategic nor defensible.
Fortunately for Texas, there was another, more sagacious leader, Sam Houston. Houston knew that victory was better than death. He gathered troops to his banner and kept them from seeking immediate revenge for the massacre at the Alamo. Patiently, he waited for the right moment to strike. Six weeks after the Alamo fell, he found that moment, surprising the Mexican army at San Jacinto so completely that the battle was over in 18 minutes. The inscription on the San Jacinto monument describes both the battle and its consequence elegantly: “The slaughter was appalling, victory complete, and Texas free!”
Conservatives who love liberty more than political death ought to forget the Alamo. Far better to follow the words and deeds of prudent men of principle like Reagan and Houston, who knew what it took to win.
– Mr. Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. This article originally appeared in the October 20, 2014 issue of National Review.