Will the Republican Party choose another George W. Bush?
The GOP isn’t necessarily headed for decline. It will likely choose a candidate who appeals to midwestern populists
Is the Republican party heading for doom? Some have argued for example that the House GOP’s hardcore conservatism will hurt them with moderates. Others believe the House GOP’s lack of movement on immigration will severely hurt them among the growing bloc of Latino voters. I have stated for a breadth of reasons that Republicans will be just fine without moving, even if some Republican politicians are outside the mainstream on some issues. But what if I’m wrong?
My guess is Republican primary voters with a big assist from party insiders will solve the problem. There’s a tendency among many to think that Republican primary voters are the driving force behind the Republican party’s move to the right. The academic literature tends to dismiss that view. Moreover, there is a good bit of evidence to suggest that Republican presidential primary voters put one goal above pretty much all others: winning.
During the 2012 election, Republican primary voters were greeted with a host of options. Most would agree that Mitt Romney was among the most moderate of those choices outside Jon Huntsman, who would have beenmore liberal than even the moderate Jerry Ford. Romney had engineered a healthcare plan during his time as governor of Massachusetts that was quite similar to Obamacare. Obamacare, of course, is something that is about as despised in Republican ranks as “The war on Christmas”.
Yet, Romney won the nomination. He did so because he was viewed as the most electable in primary after primary. Consider the key Michigan primary when a Santorum victory could have been devastating to Romney’s hopes. A plurality 32% said that defeating President Obama was the most important issue. Among those voters Romney won 61% of the vote – far higher than his 41% among all voters. Same thing happened the following week in the swing state of Ohio. Then 42% said winning in November was most important and Romney took 52% of these voters versus the 38% he took overall.
How did Republican primary electorate get the message? As demonstrated in The Party Decides (a must read book), presidential nominations are often decided by the party insiders. If the insiders like you as a candidate, then you’re going to receive a lot of support. This has held in pretty much every primary in the modern nominating era.
And 2012 was no different. Seth Masket of the University of Denver notes that Mitt Romney received the bulk of insider endorsements in 2012, while other candidates received few. These endorsers stood by Romney even as he faltered in states like South Carolina. Others like Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum received no support when they fell or said something stupid. Party insiders pretty much trashed Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, at every turn. This sent a strong signal to the primary electorate, which listened.
You don’t have to be an electoral genius to know why Romney was the chosen one. Polls painted him as the most electable conservative of the bunch, and he wasn’t going to melt down as the nominee. Romney, of course, did about as well as the economic fundamentals said he should. This suggests that the insiders had a pretty good idea of what they were doing, even if Romney didn’t win.
I fully expect the same pattern to emerge in 2016. Republican insiders want just like the middle of their party to win. The winning factor becomes especially true once a party has been out of power for a while as illustrated by the fact that the longer a party is out of power the higher possibility a more moderate nominee is chosen. That’s why we’re having all this discussion about whether and if so how the Republican party needs to change to win in a year where the economic conditions don’t overwhelmingly favor them.
You might say that the House GOP is poisoning the well. Past history tends to suggest otherwise. Back in 1998, the House GOP impeached President Bill Clinton in a gamble that ultimately backfired. Most Americans saw the move as extreme, and the Republican party saw its favorability plummet in the aftermath of the 1998 midterm election.
The Republican party decided to go with a Washington outsider in Texas Governor George W Bush. Bush, at the time, was well liked by most Americans. He turned in one of the strongest performances by a candidate relative to the economic fundamentals on record. Along the way, the Republican party’s favorability among the American people rebounded.
Will the Republican party have another George W Bush to turn to? I don’t know. What I do know is that there will be no shortage of choices. There will likely be a candidate who appeals to midwestern populists like Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a Latino (granted not one from the immigration political hotbed of Mexico) who played a key role in getting immigration reform through the senate in Marco Rubio, a moderate Republican like former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a southerner and strong social conservative like Texas governor Rick Perry, a libertarian like Senator Rand Paul, and others.
There, candidates represent the differing views on whether Republicans need to appeal more to Hispanics, whites, moderates or just hang tight. Smart insider Republican minds (yes both parties have handy operators around the country) will take into account all the facts and numbers and render a verdict on who is the best choice for the party to win. This decision will become apparent to the primary electorate. I’m betting that both will likely choose accordingly.