Former Republican Congressman, founding trustee of the Heritage Foundation, and national chairman of the American Conservative Union, Mickey Edwards is the author of Reclaiming Conservatism: How A Great American Political Movement Got Lost- and How It Can Find It Way Back. In the post below Edwards considers the Republican nominees and the voters who may elect them. Read Edwards other OUPblog posts here.
John McCain’s victory in Florida’s Republican presidential primary (or, more accurately, Mitt Romney’s loss and Mike Huckabee’s distant fourth-place finish) illustrate once again – as did Rudy Giuliani’s once dominant lead in earlier national polls – that many outside observers, including most of the nation’s most prominent political reporters, have no clue as to the party’s real electoral base.
Even otherwise astute commentators have bought into the idea that because most Republicans describe themselves as “conservative”, the GOP base is both theocratic and hard-right, a perception fed by preconceptions about what being “conservative” means.
On the day after the Florida election, even as news stories in major newspapers continued to state that the religious right formed the “backbone” of the party’s base, exit polls showed that 72 percent of Florida’s Republican voters did not consider themselves a part of the “white, evangelical, Protestant” subset dubbed the “religious right.” What’s more, while 61 percent identified themselves as “conservative”, most of those (by a margin of 34 percent to 27 percent) considered themselves to be “somewhat” rather than “very” conservative.
Giuliani, whose political views were widely known, nonetheless remained popular with Republican voters until he fell out of the race not because of his positions but because he simply failed to campaign. Depending on a strategy that envisioned a multi-candidate field limping into Florida badly divided, Giuliani found himself watching from the sidelines as the early primaries produced a two-man race between McCain and Romney.
Many observers have also misread Karl Rove’s “play to the base” strategy, which seemed to see a hard-core religious community as the core Republican constituency. But that’s not what Rove was doing at all. Like any campaign strategist, Rove knew that what matters in an election is not which candidate is favored by the greatest number of voters but rather which candidate’s supporters actually turn out to participate in an election and, more importantly, to vote. The religious right was never the party’s dominant force in terms of numbers, but only in commitment and energy: the cardinal rule of electoral politics is that one person who actually goes to the polls is worth hundreds who stay home.
Nor is the “conservative” piece of the Republican electorate that clearly defined; like all other major groupings, Republican voters, including self-identified “conservatives”are diverse. They cannot be easily segregated into “social”, “economic” or “foreign policy” categories, because most have a range of views within each category and priorities that shift according to circumstance. It is difficult, for example, to find many liberal Democrats who are more angered by President Bush’s unilateral decision-making than the Goldwater-Reagan Republicans who have consistently opposed a centralized and expansive federal government.
As the remaining primaries come into focus, and even the Republican nominee has been chosen, pundits will continue to try to analyze likely results by viewing the GOP through their own prisms of preconception. And, again, they are likely to find themselves surprised when real-life Republican voters refuse to put on the costumes the analysts want them to wear.