Moderates, Independents, and even Democrats Prefer More Conservative GOP Presidential Candidates

Despite the narrative that many have tried to develop over the past two decades, the voting data is clear: moderates, independents, and even Democrats prefer to vote for more conservative Republican presidential candidates.

The Roper Center at the University of Connecticut contains a useful database of how various groups voted in presidential elections since 1976. For moderates and independents, it is clear that Ronald Reagan was the only GOP candidate they really liked.

The results are stunning. Reagan -- easily the most conservative anti-establishment GOP candidate over this period -- took nearly twice as much of the independent vote as did his Democratic opponents. There was a residual Reagan carry-over into G.H.W. Bush’s 1988 election, with independents still supporting the GOP based on Reagan’s record, but by 1992 -- after Bush 41’s clear leanings to the center over his first term and his four-year track record of rejecting Reaganesque principled conservatism -- the independents walked away from the Republicans again and haven’t come back.

The same trend is evident among moderates. Reagan is the only GOP candidate to capture more of the moderate vote than the Democrats. Since 1992, the story has been consistent -- weak GOP candidates equal a consistently losing share of the moderate vote, in sharp contrast to the winning share received under Reagan.

More conservative GOP candidates also garner more votes from Democrats.

As the 2016 general election approaches, one thing is for certain. The last ten presidential elections tell a consistent story -- independents, moderates, and Democrats prefer to vote for more conservative, anti-establishment GOP candidates. Thus, by tacking to the right in choosing a nominee, the GOP stands a far better chance of winning the election than if it purposefully nominates a centrist candidate in the hopes of attracting those in the center and center-left regions of the political spectrum.

What has become conventional thinking among most pundits and consultants is wrong. The mushy middle establishment approach is an electoral loser for Republicans.

Despite the narrative that many have tried to develop over the past two decades, the voting data is clear: moderates, independents, and even Democrats prefer to vote for more conservative Republican presidential candidates.

The Roper Center at the University of Connecticut contains a useful database of how various groups voted in presidential elections since 1976. For moderates and independents, it is clear that Ronald Reagan was the only GOP candidate they really liked.

The results are stunning. Reagan -- easily the most conservative anti-establishment GOP candidate over this period -- took nearly twice as much of the independent vote as did his Democratic opponents. There was a residual Reagan carry-over into G.H.W. Bush’s 1988 election, with independents still supporting the GOP based on Reagan’s record, but by 1992 -- after Bush 41’s clear leanings to the center over his first term and his four-year track record of rejecting Reaganesque principled conservatism -- the independents walked away from the Republicans again and haven’t come back.

The same trend is evident among moderates. Reagan is the only GOP candidate to capture more of the moderate vote than the Democrats. Since 1992, the story has been consistent -- weak GOP candidates equal a consistently losing share of the moderate vote, in sharp contrast to the winning share received under Reagan.

More conservative GOP candidates also garner more votes from Democrats.

As the 2016 general election approaches, one thing is for certain. The last ten presidential elections tell a consistent story -- independents, moderates, and Democrats prefer to vote for more conservative, anti-establishment GOP candidates. Thus, by tacking to the right in choosing a nominee, the GOP stands a far better chance of winning the election than if it purposefully nominates a centrist candidate in the hopes of attracting those in the center and center-left regions of the political spectrum.

What has become conventional thinking among most pundits and consultants is wrong. The mushy middle establishment approach is an electoral loser for Republicans.