Republicans all across America like to think of their coalition as the “party of Ronald Reagan,” but have you noticed how frequently the party nominates somebody who opposed Ronald Reagan in 1980?Since Reagan’s last nomination in 1984 the GOP has nominated four men to lead the Republican party into the presidential battle. Three of them were aligned against Reagan in the 1980 presidential nomination and the other was . . . John McCain.
Once again, the GOP appears set to nominate such a candidate. Mitt Romney strikes me as a very capable and competent person, possessing many qualities needed in a good president and most definitely superior to the current one, but he is not a Reagan conservative.
So, here’s the question of the day: why can’t the party of Reagan ever seem to nominate a Reaganite?
My answer: because conservative Republicans are not actually in control of their own party. Though they are its animating force – they give it policy ideas to implement, they turn out regularly to support the party in good times and bad, they advocate the party and its ideology to their friends, neighbors, and relatives – they are not in charge, and have not been since the 1970s (arguably the 1920s, but that’s another story altogether).
The lefty do-gooders who spearheaded the reforms of the 1970s thought that they were saving the parties from the machine hacks, but in fact they threw out the baby with the bathwater. They effectively destroyed the party at the grassroots level, and handed the nominating power over to candidates, strategists, donors, the news media, and ill informed voters who dominate the primaries. The biggest losers in this scheme were the kinds of committed citizens who took the time to participate in local party affairs, and on the GOP side that inevitably meant the conservatives.
This is how I would mock up a modern primary battle, specifically a three-way race.
How does this play out in practice? Well, the center of activity is the electorate, which receives communications about the nomination battle from the media (be it mainstream or to a lesser extent conservative/alternative) as well as the candidates themselves. Now, candidates are better able to communicate with the voters based on how well they have performed in the “invisible primary,” the behind-the-scenes competition to lock down high powered donors, the top strategists, and the most impressive “letterhead” of endorsers.
Right away we should see a problem: There is no reason why the media or the participants in the “invisible” primary have to be in rhythm with the conservative pulse of the party. And indeed, they are regularly not – hence the establishment/anti-establishment meme of the last two years on the GOP side.
So if there are no mechanisms on that side of the contest to ensure good conservative nominees, what about the voters? Surely, they are quality conservatives who can tell which candidate would make the best leader for the next eight years?
Well, not really.
The next major problem with the process is that it is dominated by primaries, which tend to favor non-ideological, poorly informed voters who make decisions at the last minute and often based on trivialities. Consider, for instance, the ideological spreads of the electorates in the major pre-Super Tuesday contests in 2008.
As you can see, non-ideological moderates were often the most populous group. That is the big difference between the new system and the old system. Under the old system, such moderates typically would not have been paying enough attention or willing to commit sufficient time to participate in local party matters, so they basically did not have a say in the nomination. But now, thanks to the primaries, the only commitment is 10 minutes to half an hour once every four years; so, we get more of these non-ideological, marginal voters participating.
On top of this, there is strong evidence that primary voters are not very well informed. A shocking number make up their minds at virtually the last minute and spend more time focusing on personalities than issues.
Here we get to the core flaw in selecting party nominees via primaries. I have written before that without competition between the political parties, we cannot really count on voters to make good decisions; it is the battle between the Democrats and Republicans that forces the electorate to focus on real problems and the partisan differences on how to solve them. Primaries are intra-party contests and thus do not offer that kind of clarification process. Hence, we have poorly informed voters backing a candidate because they like him or her more.
But wait, it gets worse!
Self-identified conservatives tend to be a majority of most primary electorates, so one would think that, even with the limits of primaries, you’d still get a quality conservative nominee. But that isn’t necessarily the case in a three-way race. That’s the final, huge problem with the primaries. They do not build consensus, which ultimately would require the assent of the conservative side of the GOP. Instead, they create a game similar to the show Survivor – “outwit, outplay, outlast.”
If you are a moderate Republican – e.g. Bob Dole or John McCain – you don’t need to win a majority of the conservative vote. You just need to do well enough among moderate Republicans so that you win more votes than your conservative opponents. Then, you simply wait for the media and the party establishment to pressure your conservative challengers into dropping out.
That is exactly what happened in 2008:
As you can see, during the competitive phase of the nominating battle, John McCain did hardly better than Mitt Romney, who that year was identified as the conservative in the race. But the conservative vote was split early on between Romney and Mike Huckabee, enabling McCain to “win” primaries, thus putting pressure on Romney to drop out, which he did after Super Tuesday. And that was basically that: McCain effectively sows up the nomination with less than 40 percent of the vote!
And this, my dear readers, is why the conservative party never seems able to nominate a conservative candidate. The rules of the nomination game favor candidates who have the insider connections, can garner positive coverage from the media, can appeal to non-ideological and poorly informed voters, and who can win perhaps just a third of the vote in the early rounds. Such candidates are rarely the conservatives. Put another way: conservatives consistently lose because they are not actually in charge of their own party.
This is why, moving forward, conservatives need to spend serious time and effort thinking about how to fix this screwed up process. Yes, it is important to consider the big policy issues – tax reform, health care, industrial policy – but without good rules to produce good nominees who can implement those policies, then it is all for naught.