The Case Against Running Down the Middle

“Before I refuse to take your questions, I have an opening statement” – Ronald Reagan

I’ve seen a good bit of political conversation over the past few weeks/months about the political climate in America, the upcoming election, and the need for both parties to move to the “center.” Some of it is just political banter, like the Economist’s “America’s Missing Middle” piece. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before: political parties are ruled on the fringe, zealots on both sides are ruining politics, each side needs to move to the middle if they want to win. The basis of the argument appears always to be that the distribution of political sentiment follows a standard normal distribution (like a “bell curve”) and the party that captures the mode of the distribution will win.

Other analysis is actually very technical and in depth, like Nate Silver’s “Is Obama Toast? Handicapping the 2012 Elections.” Silver always produces numbers to back up his analysis. In this case, he points to historical election outcomes of elections based on economic trends and candidate centrism.

It’s a good piece, but I don’t necessarily agree with the outcome. I’ll offer a different set of campaign conditions and outcomes, based on the distribution of political self-description in America: 20% Liberal, 40% Moderate, and 40% Conservative. We go back to 1976, the last nine elections. We ask a simple question. Did the Republican candidate run as a conservative, and if they were an incumbent, did they run with a conservative resume in the prior 4 years of being president? My “analysis” will be much more swag than Silver’s, and probably shouldn’t be called analysis at all given the course, conjectural nature of my categorization. However, the outcomes, to my mind, are pretty stark.

See the pattern? Republicans running as conservatives (whether the really were or not) won. Dole, Ford, and McCain, the three “moderates” in the equation got dispatched. Reagan ran as a conservative twice and won handily. Bush 41 ran as a conservative once (“read my lips”) though he probably never was one. The second time around though there was too much history for him to avoid, and he lost. Bush 43 ran as a conservative in 2000 and won the narrowest of victories. In 2004 he may have claimed conservatism but was a far cry from having a resume to support it. Still, he managed a win; largely due to the political genius of Karl Rove who got gay marriage referendums on the ballot in a few crucial states – boosting turnout.

On a side note, a number of commentaries of late has lamented the “radicalization” of the Tea Party and intimated that Reagan would not have won a nomination in this climate. I think this misses badly on two fronts. First, Reagan had a Democratic congress the whole way. Any indication that “his record” was not conservative because of the growth of government is at best heavily biased by compromise with Tip O’Neill. Second, Reagan came along preaching conservatism in the face of rapidly advancing American socialism. He took the country back in the right direction, making serious strides. Given the political climate, it is a remarkable stroke for conservatism.

OK, back to my main point. Can Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama? Forgive me if I have my doubts. Ford, Dole, and McCain didn’t fare very well. Not that I think he’ll get the chance. I actually don’t think Romney will win the nomination. Oh, he’ll probably win New Hampshire, but I actually suspect the Tea Party will have coalesced by the time the Florida primary rolls around January 31, and Romney will be an afterthought. Sure, he may have more than enough money to keep it going through Super Tuesday (March 6), but that will be the last stand. (Yes, I’m fully prepared to eat crow on this.)


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