As Republicans start to jockey for position in next year’s primaries, there’s one lesson they need to learn in order to win. It seems to be the hardest lesson of all. Moderate Republicans don’t win presidential elections.
There’s this notion that the nation has moved to the left therefore the Republicans must moderate their positions if they’re going to win. Mitt Romney recently said the Republicans need to swallow hard and pass amnesty. He either believes that’s the only way Republicans can win or he believes that’s the proper course of action for the country. Either way, he’s wrong.
Folks like me point to the last time the Republicans won by a landslide. That was 1980 and 1984 with Ronald Reagan. Reagan won 44 states in 1980 to Carter’s 6 and flogged him in the electoral vote 489-49. But here’s the interesting part. The Republican Party was far more liberal then than it is now. And this is the strategy behind another conservative victory in 2016.
In 1980, the major GOP candidates were George H. W. Bush, John Anderson (who went on to run as a third-party independent), Texas Gov. John Connally, Tennessee Senator Howard Baker, and Kansas Senator Bob Dole. Everyone with the exception of Reagan was a moderate. Remember, this was the era of Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller and Gerald Ford. Moderates were the mainstays of the party. Reagan was regarded as a right-wing crazy by the party establishment. That’s why the GOP primary was filled with moderates. That’s where the Republican Party was at the time.
What happened was the moderates all fought for the moderate Republicans and Reagan took all the conservatives. The mainstream media had no idea there were enough conservatives to take Reagan to victory but, at the end of the process, Reagan had 60 percent of the vote. His closest rival was Bush with 24 percent. Once Reagan won in a landslide over Jimmy Carter it became cool to be conservative. Truth is, this country has been center-right for a long time. The media either tries to convince us it isn’t or they just can’t see it based on their own circle of friends.
Flash forward to 2008. Vying for the nomination against John McCain were Fred Thompson, Alan Keyes, Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani, and Duncan Hunter. With the exception of Romney and Giuliani, all of these candidates were to the right of McCain. Even Romney positioned himself as a conservative. The end result was a much more conservative field of candidates than in 1980 but the conservative candidates split the conservative vote and gave McCain the nomination.
Here’s an interesting fact to ponder. Up until Super Tuesday, when most of McCain’s competition dropped out and gave him the nomination, he only had 32 percent of the Republican vote in the primaries. Astonishing, isn’t it? Sixty-eight percent of Republicans preferred another candidate, primarily a more conservative one.
That’s how moderates get nominated these days. In 2016, the conservatives better wise up. There will be Jeb Bush and probably Mitt Romney. There may be Lindsey Graham and possibly Chris Christie. But the rest of the potential field is decidedly conservative, just like the rest of the country. Names like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul and Ben Carson and Scott Walker. This time the conservative candidates are going to have to decide who has the best chance of winning and get behind that candidate. Maybe they give it to South Carolina, but conservatives beating each other up all the way to the convention has to end.