There is simply no factual evidence for two points of conventional wisdom about recent national elections: that Sarah Palin and her Tea Party supporters represent a triumphant, even dominant force in American politics, and that more centrist, veteran GOP office-holders like John McCain exert little appeal to the electorate.
Regarding Palin’s power as a king (or queen) maker, her 2010 record counts as mixed at best. According to the tally by the Washington Post, she endorsed a total of 64 candidates in the course of the campaign; 32 of them lost either in the primaries or the general election. Moreover, Palin’s victories include many lavishly-funded, front-running incumbents who easily crushed their opponents (like her former running mate John McCain, or Governor Rick Perry in Texas) while many of her riskier, anti-establishment choices (like Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Sharron Angle in Nevada, and Clint Diddier in Washington) worked out badly for the party and undermined GOP hopes of capturing the Senate. Moreover, in her home state of Alaska, Palin’s embarrassing candidate, Joe Miller, won the primary by a narrow margin, then lost decisively in the general election to a write-in campaign for the more moderate Senator Lisa Murkowski.
Overall, Republicans captured six Senate seats previously held by Democrats—in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Five of these six victors (all except Senator-elect Ron Johnson in Wisconsin) are long-time office-holders identified with the Republican establishment, not Tea Party insurgents. Only one of the successful Senate takeovers (the victory of John Boozman in Arkansas) occurred with the support of Sarah Palin.
Her most celebrated victors – Rand Paul in Kentucky and Marco Rubio in Florida – won their contests in states where Republicans already held the Senate seats, so hardly demonstrated a broadening of the Republican base or an extension of the party’s geographic reach.
No one can doubt Sarah Palin’s status as bright, charismatic, and deeply popular among hard-core conservatives but she won her national prominence not through political victories or governing achievements of her own, but through John McCain’s surprise decision to anoint a first-term Alaska governor as his running mate. Her clout as a media sensation can’t be doubted or denied but her impact as an electoral mover or shaker remains unproven.
McCain himself turns up as Exhibit A for another oft-repeated political conclusion with no real basis in recent history. According to many outspoken right-wingers (particularly on talk radio), Republicans of McCain’s “maverick” or “moderate” stripe doom the party whenever they’re nominated.
In this context, the record of the campaign of 2008 provides overwhelming evidence that McCain performed better, not worse, than his fellow Republicans and won far more votes than candidates who positioned themselves clearly to his right.
In voting results for the House of Representatives, Republican candidates (most of them unequivocally conservative) won 42.5% of the overall vote; McCain drew 45.7%. In 49 of the 435 House districts, McCain beat Obama while the Republican candidate lost to the Democrat. McCain regularly ran ahead of his GOP ticket, not behind it.
The same pattern applied in Senate races. Republicans lost Senate seats in six conservative states (Alaska, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota and West Virginia) that McCain carried. In only one state did the GOP Senate nominee prevail while McCain lost—and in Maine, the victorious Susan Collins boasted a voting record more liberal, not more conservative, than McCain’s.
The actual state-by-state results from 2008 show that in a strongly Democratic year, voters actually rewarded rather than punished McCain for his moderate image, since he drew consistently more votes than his more conservative Republican running mates. Averaging all five of the GOP presidential candidates of the last 20 years, McCain’s performance counted as slightly better than the norm. (45.7% compared to 44.6%).
There is, in other words, no evidence that disappointed conservatives deserted McCain and stayed home in disgust. Statistics show that more conservatives voted in 2008 than ever before, with an overall record turnout of 131,257,328 voters, and exactly the same high percentage of self-described conservatives (34%) measured by exit polls as during the Bush victory four years before.
There’s a final, definitive rebuttal to the image of John McCain as an isolated “RINO” (Republican in Name Only) with no appeal to populist voters: in his Senatorial reelection campaign of 2010, he crushed a formidable right-wing challenger nearly two-to-one in the primary and then cruised to an overwhelming victory (59.3%) that made him one of the most conspicuous winners on election night.
No one would suggest that Senator McCain (who turns 75 next August) should take encouragement from his successes to consider another race for the presidency, or that his erstwhile running mate, Sarah Palin, who electrifies much of the GOP base wherever she goes, should give up her prominent political role.
But Republicans who hope to build on recent successes for further triumphs in the future need to reject two utterly false and dangerously misleading conclusions: that “constitutional conservatives” with Tea Party support will win every time (or even most of the time), and that veteran office-holders with more moderate records will lose every important contest. As the nineteenth century humorist Josh Billings sagely observed: “It aint so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so.”