The Road to Hell Is Paved with 'Electable' Candidates

Electability is important.  Less important is what Republican Party intelligentsia deems "electable."  With primary season heating up, in both the race for president and other offices, we would do well to examine what kind of candidate is or isn't electable.

If it were solely up to what we'll generically call the Republican Establishment, electability rankings might go as follows:

1. Incumbents

2. Moderate-to-liberal Republicans with their own campaign money

3. Moderate-to-liberal Republicans without their own campaign money

4. "Anybody?  Really, is there anyone else who will run?  Please."

5. Conservatives

The thinking is that candidates without strong ideological stances will appeal to independent voters -- who tend to be less ideological in their views.

The theory reminds me of when my mother observed that boys, in order to impress girls, tend to do things that impress other boys.  Similarly, politicos and pundits try to impress independents by doing things that other partisans perceive as independent.  But just as running fast, jumping high, and lifting heavy things often fail to impress would-be sweethearts on the second-grade playground, so too is the Establishment's premise often incorrect.

The Establishment's trump card is the 1964 landslide defeat of the very conservative Republican nominee Barry Goldwater.  (Yes, from 48 years ago -- apparently exit polls from William Henry Harrison's failed 1836 campaign aren't available.)  Conservatives usually counter the Goldwater argument with Ronald Reagan, a conservative who won in a landslide.

Those two races were very different.  Goldwater's opponent, Lyndon Johnson, rode into the 1964 election on a wave of sympathy and popularity due to the recent assassination of John F. Kennedy.  It's unlikely that any nominee would have defeated Johnson.  Because of the unprecedented events preceding the Johnson-Goldwater race, it's perhaps the worst race in the modern era from which to draw conclusions.

Reagan, on the other hand, had at least two advantages over Goldwater.  First, the harmful effects of big government were far more apparent in 1980 than in 1964.  Second, Reagan's opponent, unlike Johnson, had no externally created political advantage.

The question Republican primary voters must ask themselves is which previous presidential scenario is most applicable to the 2012 race.  Barring any extraordinary events, president Obama looks far more like a 1980 Jimmy Carter than a 1964 Lyndon Johnson.

"Ah, yes," says the Establishment, "but look at what happened with the winnable 2010 Senate races in Nevada, Colorado, and Delaware."  A closer look is indeed warranted.

Of those three races, only Delaware's Christine O'Donnell failed to win among independent voters, losing by just three percentage points at 48%-45%.  Nevada's Sharron Angle defeated Reid among independents 48%-44%, and Colorado's Joe Buck won independents by an astonishing 16-point margin (53%-37%) [1].

If we factor the 2010 Senate races into the electability argument, we must also mention the candidates in Florida and Wisconsin.  Both Marco Rubio and Ron Johnson won while articulating a stronger conservative message than anyone in the entire U.S. Senate (save perhaps Jim DeMint).  Along the way they each won independent voters by double-digits.

In Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Nevada, and Wisconsin (all states carried by Barack Obama in 2008), all but one conservative/Tea Party candidate won among independent voters.  The only exception being O'Donnell, whose campaign, because of Republican backbiting, a biased media, and her own missteps, had little to do with her political positions and everything to do with "witchcraft" and other peripheral narratives.

The Establishment's electability argument wilts when compared with today's political realities.

Beyond the viability arguments, there is another consideration.  For argument's sake, let's say that (despite the data) the more conservative candidate is less palatable to independent voters and that it would be safer to nominate a moderate or liberal Republican.  With a stagnating economy, entitlement time bombs, new entitlements coming online, and America's Obama-accelerated decline, what if we don't have time to be safe?

To paraphrase an old adage, the road to hell is paved with electable candidates.  If the slow demise of American exceptionalism is our goal, then the establishment position is fine.  If our goal is to indefinitely preserve that exceptional nature, we must take more deliberate action.

This isn't 1964.  Conservatives have a stronger position politically and less time to rescue the country from the mediocrity (or worse) that awaits us if we lose.

Joseph Ashby is a contributor to Jonah Goldberg's latest book, Proud to Be Right: Voices of the Next Conservative Generation. Joseph can be heard Thursday mornings at 7:35am CST on the KHUB Morning Show with Matt Price.



[1] It's interesting to note that Buck, Angle, and O'Donnell all lost 10% or more of the Republican vote.  If Buck would have received a more standard share of Republicans (about 95%), he would have carried the day.  It appears that the problems arising from "party purists" lie on the Establishment side, rather than with conservatives.      

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