January 6, 2012

The Problem of the True Believer

Daniel Larison criticizes, rightly I think, Jay Cost’s conclusion that conservatives don’t control the Republican Party.  He writes:

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.

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26 Responses to “The Problem of the True Believer”

  1. Liz Says:

    Why do you say Perry is a conservative, and Romney is not? You’d better list your criteria for being conservative.

  2. marK Says:

    You lost me at “But the establishment has skillfully winnowed the “moderate” field down to one contestant…”

    Ah yes, the ever present, all powerful “establishment”. Aren’t you a little old to be believing in the Bogyman?

  3. Massachusetts Conservative Says:

    “The Establishment” is the biggest farce in the history of GOP politics.

    What, do hundreds of American politicians and donors hold daily phone conferences, set up hierarchical structures, and wear masks during meetings to save their identities?

  4. Greg Says:

    The main problem is pure math.. we need to win the majority of the independents to win the general election.

  5. K.G. Says:

    3. I thought the evil GOP Establishment was trying like crazy to get someone to get in to challenge Romney: Ryan, Christie, Jeb, Daniels, Barbour, etc. etc. The Establishment wasn’t tried to winnow candidates, but fill up the slate.

    I think what you have is smart serious people who want to win if they are going to try and unserious, vanity candidates who are in it for attention or to just see what happens.

    Mitt and Pawlenty were serious; the others were vanity with nothing to lose for trying. When Pawlenty saw it was unlikely he was going to catch on, he had the sense to quit bleeding money for naught and quit.

    When others were pressured to run, they looked at Mitt (already hitting the ground running) and what it would take to actually win and said, no thanks. Not this time.

    I don’t think this is a race (at least this one) between Establishment and Conservative, but serious and unserious.

  6. K.G. Says:

    #4: Bingo, Greg. Smart money wants something for their big fat campaign donations: it would be stupid to back an obvious loser. And there just weren’t any good bets on the so-called “conservative” side.

    Next time around there will be several. If Mitt loses, they should start lining up donors and support the next day. People groomed and shepherded Obama for years. Some true believers on the right need to figure this out.

    You can’t leave these things to chance and just keep your fingers crossed. And then throw a big tantrum because you don’t like the frontrunner who did all the hard work.

  7. Matthew E. Miller Says:

    Liz,

    I’m talking about perception, mostly. Romney’s perceived as a moderate, Perry’s perceived as a conservative. Fair or no. Ditto for Pawlenty and Huntsman, though both arguably have more conservative records than Perry, Santorum, or Gingrich. It’s a wacky world- I just live in it.

  8. Massachusetts Conservative Says:

    I want to add one thing I’ve thought for a long time:

    Politicians who are going to lose anyway (and know it) become more Conservative because they have nothing to lose anyway.

    Cain made his 999 plan because he knew he was going to lose. He figured it would be a good way to attract attention and stand up for something bold.

    If Cain went into the process believing he could win, he would have drafted something more mainstream and defensible.

  9. Dave Gaultier Says:

    Hmm. My take is that the Republican electorate is more conservative than its presidential nominees and other candidates for office seem to suggest, but that the general electorate is more liberal than the conservative base would like to admit. If you believe what you read on most conservative blogs, the entire country is constantly in the midst of a big tent revival, the median American voter is a Pentecostal, the real question Americans have is when, not if, we start killing Arab leaders and converting their populations to Christianity, and the populace is yearning for all government programs to be eliminated other than the military and the courts. Oh wait, the courts too.

    But that isn’t the America that exists. If it were, the nation would look and feel like a much different place. That is as much of a caricature of America as is the notion that we all want to move to Vermont and live in communes while we await a workers’ revolution. The difference is that the Left realizes that the country doesn’t see things their way, and so they basically are content to lie their way into office. The Right, perhaps to its credit, hasn’t started playing that game yet.

    So what happens instead is that the Republicans who want to win, from those at the grassroots to those in positions of financial and political power, field “moderate” nominees for public office, and the conservative base, convinced that 70 percent of the nation is aching for Sarah Palin, throws up its hands and foams at the mouth, promising that the conservative majority will rise yet. Honestly, what’s going to have to happen on the Right is a rude awakening as to the true state of American culture and attitudes towards how we allocate resources and consequences. Once the base figures out that the country is full of godless gluttons perfectly happy to feed off the public teat, they will be content to find Clintonesque nominees who can actually win elections while still being conservative, just as the Left has already figured out that we’re a nation of KKKaptalist cryptofascist slaveholders who will only elect a liberal if he believes in “silly” things like American exceptionalism.

  10. Thomas Alan Says:

    And yet it was obvious to an awful lot of people that Pawlenty needed to drop out

    Not to me. Pawlenty dropping out remains one of the big head scratchers of this season. Here’s what I said when I heard about Pawlenty dropping out:

    “I didn’t predict it. I didn’t see many people predicting it in the predictions thread. 3rd place met expectations. Until Perry stepped in, he had the best political resume in the race and a turnaround was reasonably possible. He wanted the job and, aside from Romney, Pawlenty was the biggest lock to running through 2009-2010.

    Really, he shouldn’t be dropping out at this time. Strange things happen in Iowa and people can come from the wilderness to leading the pack very fast (Bachmann, Huckabee, Kerry, etc.) even in the weeks leading up to the caucus. I can only surmise that Pawlenty was feeling embarrassed at his performance (and his squabbles with Bachmann) and wanted to keep whatever political capital he has left to take out Franken in 2014.”

    http://race42012.com/2011/08/14/tim-pawlenty-has-dropped-out/#comment-900169

    I stick by that post. There was no logical reason for Pawlenty to up and quit when he did. Iowa is volatile as can be leading up to the primary. The person who won Ames, ended up dead last amongst those who competed on caucus night. The person who burst Bachmann’s bubble by charging into the race the day previous and jumped into the lead…came 2nd to last.

    He may not have been happy with his campaign at the time, but, doggone, he’d probably have won if it was him getting the last minute post-Newt surge. And he’s a perfectly acceptable (if boring) candidate that could have done well in New Hampshire.

    Pawlenty just panicked and pulled the plug WAY too early.

  11. Matthew E. Miller Says:

    Thomas Alan,

    I agree and agreed then (I can’t find my response in that thread, but I think in the Ames thread I said, several times, that while I expected Pawlenty to drop out, he had nothing to lose hanging around). I’m just talking about the way narratives build up which are, frankly, incoherent. It was OBVIOUS that Pawlenty needed to drop out and yet no one was calling for Santorum and Cain and Huntsman, all of whom were less plausible, to drop out. Because Santorum and Cain weren’t running in the invisible primary and because Huntsman elected to sit out the race until NH.

  12. Joshua Says:

    I don’t agree that T-Paw was perceived as a moderate during this campaign. In the debates I saw him in, he seemed to be running as a conservative and seeking to appeal to the religious right.

  13. Massachusetts Conservative Says:

    TPaw dropped out, rightly, because he had tons of exposure and never caught on.

    He was “meh” to all factions of the party. He campaigned hard in IA and failed. He had money. He had people. He had everything he needed, except charisma and fire.

  14. Matthew E. Miller Says:

    Mass Con,

    And Santorum has charisma and fire? At least Pawlenty wasn’t an inveterate grump. No, if Pawlenty had stayed in, massively scaled back his campaign, and camped out in Iowa, Santorum would never have been heard from, and after Perry, Cain, and Gingrich all flamed out, he would have taken Santorum’s spot in the caucus. Not to say he’d be in a considerably better place than Santorum, though he’s a much better fit for NH, but he’d at least be somewhere. But because he was an “establishment” candidate, running in the “invisible primary” he bought the conventional widsom and dropped out.

  15. Thomas Alan Says:

    13:

    But this is Iowa we’re talking about. During this cycle Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Romney, Paul, and Gingrich led the polls, and Santorum was leading caucus night until the last few votes were counted.

    That’s 7 candidates who, at one point, looked like they were in the driver’s seat to win this state. Some of these candidates were, frankly, jokes. You think that Pawlenty was so terrible that he wouldn’t have gotten his shot had he stayed in?

  16. Massachusetts Conservative Says:

    14

    Santorum doesn’t have charisma and fire, but he’s a perfect fit for SoCons.

  17. Matthew E. Miller Says:

    Under no conceivable rubric is Santorum a more impressive candidate than Pawlenty. He’s more caustically socially conservative, sure, but no more interesting, and less blue-collar, which was a large part of his narrative towards the end. The only thing that can be said for Santorum is that at least he’s running as Santorum while Pawlenty, as an “establishment” candidate, took a whole bunch of inane market-tested silly season positions, which eliminated his greatest asset (authenticity). I imagine though that once the establishment gave up on Pawlenty, and he had to live off the land, he’d have rediscovered his roots.

  18. Massachusetts Conservative Says:

    14

    There is some truth to the idea that he was losing the “invisible primary” and that’s why he dropped out. I’ll give you that.

  19. Massachusetts Conservative Says:

    15

    Pawlenty was NOT terrible, by any stretch. He was my second choice all year, by a long shot over the others. A very good candidate, ON PAPER.

    His problem was his campaigning. He made all the mistakes Romney made in 2008 and he tried too hard to be a big shot. He should have done as MEM suggests in #17.

  20. Matthew E. Miller Says:

    Mass con,

    Both have terrific socially conservative records but Santorum’s a Catholic. Pawlenty’s an ex-Catholic, who discovered a personal relationship with Jesus. That alone would have put him ahead of Santorum on the average evangelical’s depth chart. There’s no way in creation Santorum goes anywhere if Pawlenty stays in after Ames and lives in Iowa. Of course, it’s plausible that neither would have gone anywhere and that the additional so-con would have further fractured the field, leading to an easier win for Romney. But maybe not.

  21. K.G. Says:

    But in the end, if Pawlenty had hung in there, he still would have only been the leading not-Mitt. He still would have had to go up against Mitt and I believe Mitt would have bested him. This way, he endorsed Mitt, probably got his debts paid off and saved himself a lot of futile grief.

    The Mitt Machine has scared off a lot of (sensible) people.

  22. SGS Says:

    Miller – I suppose you believe there is no voter fraud at all. Who is to say our primaries, which mostly are open to independents and democrats, are not hijacked? Yes, we have no proof, but here is the article showing why there is no evidence – basically, we are not giving our election committees tools to discover any.

  23. Massachusetts Conservative Says:

    20

    You’re putting too much thought and analysis into it.

    From my perspective (and others I know), TPaw just came off weak. And the refusal to say ObamneyCare in that debate fatally wounded him the same way the “oops” fatally wounded Perry.

    Santorum has just not had a moment like that, period. That’s why he had a shot at being a frontrunner.

  24. K.G. Says:

    #17 Of course Santorum isn’t as good as Pawlenty. Santorum’s “rise” is based on one thing: The last ABR who hadn’t been up at bat. All his hard work notwithstanding, Santorum’s going nowhere in this election.

    I say Pawlenty, though he finally may have done well in IA, was never going to catch on nationally. He’s a good guy but not a political talent or ruthless fighter. The other ABRs fell away because of their own fatal flaws. Pawlenty probably doesn’t have such flaws, but he would have had to go mano a mano with Romney in the end. It just wasn’t going to happen and he knew it. If he couldn’t win IA by just being Pawlenty, he wasn’t going to do it.

    Mitt will move heaven and earth to get it done; who wants to compete with that?

  25. Teemu Says:

    Tim Pawlenty’s estimated 1.2 million dollar net worth probably made him the poorest candidate in the field. Everybody else has their upper net worth estimate at almost $2 million or over. Tim Pawlenty’s run wasn’t rising his celebrity or pundit status so he wasn’t getting that much out of his run. Jon Huntsman net worth is $16-$71 million, and then there is superPAC funding from billionaire daddy.

    “ignoring Huntsman entirely.”

    Media really tuned their debate entrance requirements so that Jon Huntsman would be let in unlike the couple other 1-2% governors in the race. Jon Huntsman’s campaign is probably one of the worst campaigns ever run by a “serious candidate”. His campaign goes to history as probably one of the weirdest combinations of style, comments and issues.

  26. JS Says:

    Everyone pooh-pooh’s the “republican establishment” because “establishments” inherently breed corruption but what about the “conservative establishment” — those that try to co-opt and control who is and isn’t a conservative (Rush Limbaugh, etc.). I believe a major reason Romney is not seen as conservative this time around (even as opposed to last time) is because he doesn’t come across as angry and mean and the conservative establishment has declared: If you throw conservative red meat you must be a conservative; if you reason about conservative principles you must be an elitist, snob who isn’t in touch with the every day Joe and is part of the “establishment.” His record is conservative; his discourse is moderate. I think this is driving conservatism into the wilderness. The more we embrace reasoned conservatism (not “common sense” conservatism — another low-level, “conservative establishment” phrase) the more we expand our tent.

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