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Safe + Moderate ≠ Electable

Low-beta isn’t always better.

Jan 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 17 • By LAWRENCE B. LINDSEY
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By contrast, the five high-beta candidates who have taken on incumbents have shaken things up, sometimes in a positive way producing a rare victory over an incumbent, and sometimes in a negative way producing a disastrous landslide. Two obvious disasters were Goldwater in 1964 and McGovern in 1972, and these are the candidates most people think of when they think that high-beta candidates can’t be elected. But Ronald Reagan was the high-beta choice in 1980—and incumbent President Jimmy Carter’s preferred opponent. High-beta candidates can also be “unknowns” who simply capture the imagination or bring in a new class of voter. Carter was one such candidate in 1976, running against his party’s establishment and as a Washington outsider. Bill Clinton in 1992 was one of the highest-beta candidates ever in purely statistical terms; he actually ran third in the polls in the summer of 1992. He was also the first Boomer in a country that had been governed by World War II-era G.I.s for the previous 32 years. And Clinton, like Carter, appealed to a part of the country long ostracized by the Democratic establishment—the South.

Each of these successful high-beta candidates brought in new votes. Clinton’s 45 million was the highest total received by a Democrat until that time, even though he won with just 43 percent of the vote. And of course, Reagan reshaped the political landscape, creating the famous “Reagan Democrat.”

This is not to say that it can’t be different this time—Romney, the obvious low-beta candidate, could win. As they say in markets, “past performance is no guarantee of future results.” But it is certainly not the case that, based on history, he is obviously the most “electable.” Statistically, he may be the least electable. But he may well be the candidate most likely to put in a “respectable” showing. After all, a Santorum or Gingrich might be more like a Goldwater than a Reagan.

The real attractiveness of a low-beta candidate to a party establishment is not the chance that he will win the White House, it is that other incumbents, particularly in Congress, maximize their chances for reelection precisely because things are not shaken up. Incumbents like low-beta candidates above them on the ballot. That is why the Republican establishment in Washington is overwhelmingly supportive of Mitt Romney. He maximizes the chances that Republicans hold the House and take the Senate. And there is an added bonus—if the low-beta “establishment” candidate happens to win, he is beholden to the establishment.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have nothing to disclose. I am not affiliated with any campaign and haven’t even contributed to any of the candidates. But we should realize that the electability argument is a phony one the way it is currently framed. What really should matter is which candidate will actually enact a very ambitious legislative agenda during the first six months of 2013—the historic window of opportunity for legislative accomplishment. For if we do not achieve entitlement reform, tax law changes, and regulatory improvements that lead to faster economic growth and a sharply falling deficit, by late 2013 markets will be treating us the way they are now treating Italy. And since the voters intuitively sense this, nominating the individual most likely to pull off an ambitious legislative agenda in 2013 will probably also mean nominating the most electable candidate in 2012.

Lawrence B. Lindsey’s most recent book is What a President Should Know .  .  . but Most Learn Too Late.

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