It’s true that rank-and-file conservatives in the Republican Party are unrepresented or poorly represented by their national leaders on issues such as trade and immigration, and this is because it’s definitely true that the economic interests of a lot of working- and middle-class conservative Republican voters are neglected by the national party. The electoral record also shows that the relative moderate candidate tends to prevail in the presidential nominating contest, and this is happening again as anyone could have seen that it would. As Cost later acknowledges, the relative moderates eke out nomination victories because there are always so many conservative candidates splitting the much larger conservative vote, which is proof that there are often too many conservative candidates in the mix and not that self-styled conservatives don’t control the party.
There is also always a large number of movement conservative activists and pundits more than willing to embrace the relative moderate as a bold conservative leader on the grounds that he is more electable, which is how George W. Bush and Romney acquired their ill-deserved reputations as conservatives in the first place. When a field has seven reasonably competitive conservative or libertarian candidates and arguably just one moderate (counting Romney as the moderate), it’s no wonder that the one moderate comes out ahead, especially when there are more than a few movement conservatives willing to make the case for him.
But neither Cost, nor Larison, get at one of the fundamental reasons there are frequently several relatively conservative candidates: the inability of conservatives to winnow their field. Conservatives aren’t actually over-represented in GOP fields. In this cycle, there were 3 relative moderates (Romney, Pawlenty, and Huntsman), 4 relative conservatives (Perry, Bachmann, Santorum, and Cain) and 2 relative oddballs (Gingrich and Paul). This is a pretty representative sample. But the establishment has skillfully winnowed the “moderate” field down to one contestant, sending Pawlenty packing early, and ignoring Huntsman entirely. Conservatives, however, have jumped for every single conservative and one of the oddballs. Let me suggest 2 ways to explain this phenomenon.
1.) The Effect of the Invisible Primary. This is essentially the race for money and endorsements. Candidates who perform well in the invisble primary tend to have success. So money and endorsements matter, right? Well, yeah, but I think something more complex is going on. Establishment candidates compete in the invisible primary- grassroots candidates don’t. Candidates who compete in the invisible primary, and later stumble, are more likely to be weeded out. Why should be it the case that Tim Pawlenty should drop out immediately after Ames, despite running 4 points ahead of Rick Santorum and 5 points ahead of Herman Cain? Isn’t this a little curious? A little odd? Both Santorum and Cain competed at Ames, and Santorum devoted as much to the straw poll, relative to his resources, as Pawlenty did. Sure, Pawlenty would have had a hard time getting noticed when his money dried up, but Santorum didn’t get noticed until 3 days before the first caucus and had no money at all. And yet it was obvious to an awful lot of people that Pawlenty needed to drop out. The invisible primary seems to function as a winnowing process for establishment candidates and the grassroots has no equivalent.
2.) Viability. Viability does not really matter to the grassroots. This is not an exaggeration. Even now, you can head over to RedState and read a dozen Erick Erickson posts since Christmas which have A.) Called Rick Santorum a pro-life statist and B.) Admitted that Santorum was preferrable to Romney. Presumably, though I don’t follow his every post, Erick Erickson- along with many other grassroots conservatives- is inclined to support Texas Governor Rick Perry. Erick Erickson thinks Perry “can still win” and therefore sees his criticism of Santorum as both a good faith effort to expose someone less than ideal and a way of improving Perry’s odds of winning the nomination. He is, along with many grassroots conservatives, a true believer. The True Believer may have many superior qualities, but strategic thinking is not among them.
Rick Perry has now been at 5% in SC for 4 straight polls. He has not been in double digits in South Carolina in 2 and 1/2 months. The odds of him coming back in the state are objectively quite low and any improvement he makes is bound to come at the expense of Santorum who, the True Believer admits, is preferrable to Romney. An establishment oriented voter would, at this juncture, abandon Perry and Gingrich, go all-in with Santorum, and hope for the best. And indeed, establishment oriented voters have done that all year. There will be no Huntsman surge in NH to mirror the Santorum surge in Iowa. Establishment Republicans, concerned about electability, do not see Huntsman as viable. Therefore Huntsman has been cheerfully ignored. After NH he will have exited the race, while 3 more grassrootsy alternatives continue on fruitlessly. In ’08, the establishment Giuliani, despite leading in national polls by a gazillion points for an age, was all but abandoned after December and led in just one Florida poll after NH. Meanwhile, conservatives seemed entirely unable to choose between Romney, Fred, and Huckabee, even as McCain seemed likely to waltz to the nomination. Establishment candidates are winnowed by the viability test while grassroots candidates are apparently encouraged to stay in forever.
There is no grand establishment conspiracy to consistently foist relatively moderate nominees on the party. The establishment simply does a better job of winnowing out unlikely nominees, thereby allowing one establishment choice to have free roam of the field.