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How to Win a Presidential Election

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
The mainstream media claims independents, the great unwashed in the middle, decide presidential elections. Conservative orthodoxy claims otherwise. Who is correct?

The answer is they both are to an extent.

Let’s face it, the mainstream media detests grassroots conservatives, therefore it will advance any dogma that seeks to marginalize the base of the Republican Party they absolutely loathe—whether it’s true or not. Since the Republican Party establishment hates us as much as the media does, and doesn’t want you aware of just how much sway you hold over the process, they dutifully play along in dispersing the DNC propagandist talking points. On the other hand, to compensate for this slight, I think conservative orthodoxy has overlooked the importance of reaching independents to win a national election.

This debate is a lot like what’s going on in our evangelical churches nowadays, with some churches focused on evangelism and others focused on discipleship, as if these are mutually exclusive properties when they’re really part of the same process. The first step in the discipleship process is conversion, which requires evangelism. However, the process doesn’t begin and end there, but must continue to mature and grow those converted. Evangelism and discipleship are not competing church missions, but rather complement each other to complete the church’s mission.

This explains why you’ll often see churches out of balance resemble certain stereotypes. Those focused too much on evangelism at the expense of discipleship will often look younger, trendier, and have a more spiritually shallow and transient church population. Mature believers at these churches often feel left behind while the church leadership is always looking for the next wave of new attendees, and then they often bolt for more discipleship-focused churches as a result.

Churches focused on discipleship too much at the expense of evangelism will often look older, corporate, and have consistent attendance by the same families who are growing in their faith but not effective in reaching out to others. Baptisms are too rare at these churches, or too often the baptisms taking place are the children of the families who have been coming all along. You could leave that church and return in six months, and see many of the exact same people there.

Similarly, Republican presidential candidates often make the mistake of playing conservatives in their own base and independents off of one another as if they’re competing with each other. The successful Republican presidential candidate recognizes he needs both of these groups to complement each other in order to form a coalition of voters capable of winning the election. He doesn’t play them off of each other, but rather secures one and then launches an effort to reach the independents without having to defend his rear flank.

This explains why Republican candidates who win over the conservative base in the primary win presidential elections, and Republican candidates that fail to do so don’t. The latter ends up fighting a two-front war all the way to November, triangulating himself against both the Democrat (and the biased media) and his own base. That candidate then becomes embittered by his base’s unwillingness to trust him just because the Democrat is so bad, so he’ll sanctimoniously send his surrogates out to essentially lecture these people to accept a crap sandwich and like it.

By the way, that strategy has never worked.

What has worked is a candidate whose conservative bona fides are tested in the primary and accepted by the majority of conservatives in the grassroots. Once securing the nomination, that candidate is now free to speak to the issues that drive independents to the polls because his rear flank is secure. He’s playing offense in November, and even trying to pick off soft supporters of his opponent.

For further proof this is correct, look no further than the election results themselves. Since 1892, only five incumbent presidents have failed to win re-election, and the only one that didn’t face a divided base was Herbert Hoover.

But Hoover did face the Great Depression.

William Howard Taft faced a third party challenge from fellow Republican Teddy Roosevelt in the general election. Gerald Ford in 1976 (Ronald Reagan), Jimmy Carter in 1980 (Ted Kennedy), and George H.W. Bush in 1992 (Pat Buchanan) each faced credible primary challengers and each lost the general election. Because they never won over their own base, they never were able to focus on reaching independents in the fall campaign.

Presidential candidates cannot win an election fighting a two-front war. That’s especially true for Republican candidates, because they face the onslaught of Democrat P.R. disguised as media coverage as well.

There’s even more data to support this.

I will focus on just one key voting bloc since I’m the most familiar with this group—white born-again Christians. Since the mainstream media’s secular bias makes it beyond ignorant when it comes to covering this group, exit polling going back decades refers to them by several terms such as “evangelicals” and even the “Religious Right.” Not all born-again Christians are evangelicals, and some are evangelicals without even knowing what that term means. Some born-again Christians are Catholics and some are mainline Protestants. But this is a group that a Republican needs to win, and win by a wide margin in order to win the presidency, because on average they represent about 40% of the American electorate in any given presidential election.

For example, take a look at the 2008 election.

John McCain beat Barack Obama by 15 points among born-again Christians, but that was nine points less than the 24-point margin George W. Bush got over John Kerry in 2004, and Bush needed every one of them to pull off a close election. Had Bush’s base deserted him even marginally, Kerry would’ve been elected. A marriage amendment on the ballot in the key swing state of Ohio turned out born-again Christians heavily in that state, thus giving Bush the margin he needed to win the Electoral College. By turning out his base, that helped Bush at least compete with Kerry for independents.

In 2000, Bush beat Al Gore by 15 points among born-again Christians, but got a higher turnout of those voters than McCain got in 2008. That was enough to withstand losing the popular vote to Gore, and losing late-deciding independents who flocked to Gore because of an Election Eve story about Bush’s 1976 drunk driving arrest.

Meanwhile, Obama overcame a 15-point loss among born-again Christians to McCain by massively turning out the Democrat base, including the traditionally sketchy youth vote.

Since born-again Christians were first mobilized as a political force for born-again Christian Jimmy Carter in 1976, only one Republican has won the White House without at least 60% of the white born-again Christian vote. When you consider he did so despite losing the overall popular vote, that further reinforces just how difficult that is to do and how important this voting bloc is to Republican presidential candidates.

That leads to two conclusions.

Conclusion #1: The actual data confirms the GOP base has much more influence in the outcome of presidential general elections than either the Republican Party establishment or the liberal media wants to admit.

Conclusion #2: Since establishment candidates Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney have won three of the last four contested presidential primaries, the conservative grassroots in the GOP base has not done a good enough job of capitalizing on its cache.

Here’s the election-by-election breakdown:


Ford 50%

Carter 50%


Reagan 61%

Carter 34%


Reagan 78%

Mondale 22%


H.W. Bush 81%

Dukakis 18%


H.W. Bush 59%

Clinton 21%

19% of born-again Christian vote went to Ross Perot, and the vast majority of that likely would’ve gone to H.W. Bush had Perot not been in the race.


Dole 49%

Clinton 43%


Bush 57%

Gore 42%


Bush 62%

Kerry 38%


McCain 57%

Obama 42%

So what does this data mean for 2012? That’s the question we’ll answer next week.

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