The conventional wisdom for presidential politics is run to the base during the primary and to the center in the general election. The theory, in actual practice, has been proven wrong so many times to the detriment of the Republicans that it is secretly being promoted by Democrats. When the GOP falls for it, they lose. My theory is that the closer the two candidates are perceived to be on the political spectrum by the general public, the more likely it is that the Democrat will win.
Let’s briefly examine how it has worked out since 1972.
· In 1972, although Nixon may have governed somewhat as a moderate, the landslide victory was due to McGovern being so readily assessed as a liberal.
· In 1976, Ford ran as a moderate and lost to the moderately perceived “Born Again” Jimmy Carter.
· By 1980, it became obvious that Carter’s conservatism was a fraud and Ronald Reagan, who defines conservatism, won easily.
· in 1984, The Democrats had not learned their lesson and put up another liberal, Walter Mondale.. Another landslide.
· in 1988, George Bush ran on Reagan’s coattails as a conservative and easily beat Michale Dukakis.
· By 1992, however, Bush was now seen as a moderate, after breaking the “no new taxes” pledge and lost to another Southern Democrat, Wm Jefferson Clinton, who said the era of big government was over.
· In 1996, Bob Dole had a fair opportunity to contrast himself with Clinton, but much like McCain, did not and the Democrat won.
· In 2000 it is widely believed that Bush followed the conventional wisdom and narrowly escaped losing to Al Gore, who also tried to play himself as a moderate.
· In 2004, Bush, learning from his father’s loss and seeing the Democrats repeat their earlier mistakes, Bush ran to the right and Kerry, the Northeast Liberal, ran to the left and Bush won somewhat easily.
· 2008 actually demonstrates my theory the most easily. Until Sarah Palin was added to the ticket, McCain failed to really distinguish himself on any issues with Barack Obama and was floundering. After firebrand Palin was added, McCain caught up with Obama. Only after “reining in” Palin and voting with Obama on TARP, did the perception that they weren’t that much different set in, guaranteeing a loss for McCain. I might add here that lots of Republicans knew that Obama was a socialist with ties to radicals such as Revered Wright and Bill Ayers but McCain was afraid to really use it as an issue.
· If the Republicans want to win in 2012, they better not buy the CW and run to the middle (or try to win with a moderate, which has the same effect). Admittedly, I think that the GOP candidate will have a good opportunity to win because everybody now knows Obama is a liberal. Nevertheless, if the contrast is not clear to the public that the Republican will be truly different, he or she could still find themselves in a close race. No way Obama wins in a landslide again, however.
P.S. From the standpoint of the current Big Three, it appears that Sarah Palin best benefits from the theory. Unless she changes, she is and will continue to be considered a conservative. Mitt Romney has a history of trying to run as a liberal, so its quite possible he would run right-center or moderate in the general election if he wins the nomination. Some in the GOP believe Mike Huckabee is a moderate or a liberal, but I doubt if the public sees him that way. Nevertheless, his desire to not make waves and be liked could hurt him badly, especially if it becomes a love-fest. No one has ever accused Huckabee of running to the left, no matter what you think of how he has governed. But, once again, his propensity to put his conservative views in liberal terms must be weighed carefully. It is uncertain if a light amount of populism is good or bad. No one really likes the pandering John Edwards did, especially in 2008. Romney could run to the right and win, but if he runs to the middle he will lose in November.