For the past couple of weeks, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has been getting lots of free advice from all sides about what to do with his “conservative problem.” Democratic operatives have argued that to appease his conservative base, he will have to move to the right. That, they say, will be his death knell in November with independents, whom he has always attracted and needs to win.
On the other hand, a number of talk show hosts and others speaking for the most conservative wing of the party have suggested that McCain must reach out to the “base” in order to have any chance of winning in November. Meanwhile, the media have picked up the drumbeat with cover stories like Newsweek’s “There Will Be Blood: Why the Right Hates John McCain.”
All of this talk represents a fundamental misconception about the makeup of the Republican Party. Yes, it is a center-right, conservative party based on a set of basic values and principles. But more than 10,000 interviews with Republican primary voters done for exit polls on Super Tuesday show that GOP voters are far more complex than the way they are depicted by activist politicos and the media.
When asked to self-describe their political ideology, Republicans were given five choices: liberal, somewhat liberal, moderate, somewhat conservative or conservative. Naturally, the first two barely registered; the breakdown in the Super Tuesday states went this way: 27 percent called themselves moderates; 36 percent somewhat conservative and 28 percent said they were very conservative.
It’s interesting that the largest bloc was the somewhat conservative voters, with very conservative voters and moderates playing an equal role in the party. What that says is that the GOP center of political gravity is actually found among the somewhat conservative.
Looking at what happened, moderates, not surprisingly, supported McCain over Mitt Romney by a 32-point margin, 55 percent to 23 percent. With very conservative voters, Romney beat McCain 45 percent to 19 percent.
But the largest voter segment, somewhat conservative voters, went for McCain over Romney by 41 percent to 34 percent. That’s probably going to come as a big surprise to anyone who has been listening to the political pundit class expound upon McCain’s “problems” with the base.
True, in some states, independents were allowed to vote in the Republican primary, but a look at Florida, the first closed-primary state, shows the numbers are about the same.
Florida Republicans self-identified as 28 percent moderate, 34 percent somewhat conservative and 27 percent very conservative. Again, McCain won moderates over Romney, 43 percent to 21 percent. Romney beat McCain with very conservative voters, 44 percent to 21 percent.
But as with the aggregate totals for Super Tuesday, McCain carried somewhat conservative voters, in this case by 3 points, 35 percent to 32 percent. Again, somewhat conservative voters, this time registered Republicans only, made up the largest bloc of Florida Republican voters.
These results ought to make Republican strategists rethink what has been party conventional wisdom when it comes to creating a winning coalition in 2008. In the 2004 and 2006 elections, the national party leadership opted for a 50 percent-plus-one strategy that relied on a high turnout of the base rather than building and expanding a majority coalition by reaching out to the Big Middle.
It worked, just barely, in 2004. It failed in 2006. In that election, Republicans focused on increasing the base and sacrificed Ronald Reagan’s majority coalition in the process as it lost sight of the need to attract independents to win.
The GOP lost independents by 18 points, a key group that until the 2004 election it had won every year since 1994. Ignoring the middle and embracing a negative attack strategy rather than an idea-based strategy cost the party both the House and Senate. 2006 proved, without a doubt, that all politics isn’t local.
So here we are eight months before another presidential election. Many are clamoring for John McCain to change his ways. Some conservatives want him to embrace the “base strategy” that 2006 proved no longer works.
The fact that their Democratic counterparts are recommending the same move to the right for McCain ought to lead these base-strategy enthusiasts to think twice about the merits of promoting this approach.
The base is very important but, by itself, can’t constitute a winning coalition. Reagan understood better than anyone the need to reach out to independents and like-minded conservative Democrats.
If Reagan had followed the 50 percent-plus-one strategy, he would have missed what ended up becoming a key component of the Republican winning coalition for nearly 20 years, the Reagan Democrat. Ultimately, it was that coalition that flipped the South, giving the GOP a structural advantage on the national political map and victories in five of the last seven presidential elections.
In that context, it’s important also to understand exactly who makes up the “Big Middle” that will be so important this fall. Contrary to what many think, these voters aren’t left- leaning “squishes.” In fact, the middle is composed of groups such as married women with children, Catholics, middle-income earners and independents, all likely to be center-right and all elements of previous Republican majority coalitions.
No question, John McCain has some work to do with very conservative Republicans. But McCain’s track record in the primaries has placed him at the center of gravity within the Republican Party, which is where he needs to be to reassure very conservative voters and re-engage the “Big Middle.”