What sort of fool or fantasist would ever suggest that “Republicans need a centrist candidate in 2012?”
I certainly reject the notion of a “centrist candidate” though some angry conservatives have misinterpreted my arguments (and misquoted my words) to accuse me of this fatuous heresy.
In a much-debated Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal (“Conservatives, Romney and Electability,” November 23rd) I insisted that “the electoral experience of the last 50 years does nothing to undermine the common-sense notion that most political battles are won by seizing and holding the ideological center. In the last two presidential elections, more than 44% of voters described themselves as ‘moderate,’ and no conservative candidate could possibly prevail without coming close to winning half of them (as George W. Bush did in his re-election).”
Please note: I argue that a conservative candidate must earn moderate votes in order to win, not that a centrist nominee is the only formula for victory.
The math here isn’t complicated: even if the Republican nominee drew every available conservative voter (an obvious impossibility, since exit polls show that even the heroic Reagan got less than three-fourths of them in 1980) then he would still need more than a third of self-described moderates to win a popular vote majority.
Suggesting that conservative candidates need to appeal to the center as well as to the right if they want to win isn’t a matter of opinion; it’s a simple statement of fact. There has never been an election in the history of exit polling where a majority of voters described themselves as conservative. In the Bush victory of 2004 and the McCain defeat of 2008, identical percentages (34 percent) called themselves conservative.
When ideological purists claim that conservative candidates who succeeded in the past (including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush) relied only on the support of their fellow right-wingers, they diminish the real achievement of these formidable campaigners. For instance, the esteemed economist Thomas Sowell wrote a syndicated column (“Lessons of History?”) that took me to task for suggesting that the outcome of every election depends upon uncommitted voters in the center. “But just when did Ronald Reagan, with his two landslide victories, ‘seize the center’?” demanded Dr. Sowell.
Actually, the answer to that question is easy: Reagan swept voters who placed themselves in the center of the electorate in both 1980 and 1984. He won “moderates” in his battle to unseat Carter (49-43 percent), and did even better against Mondale four years later (54-46 percent).