Do GOP Primary Voters Actually Prefer Moderates?

Conventional wisdom holds that they're yearning for someone to Mitt Romney's right. But what if it's the conservatives who are out of step with the party?

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George H.W. Bush. Bob Dole. George W. Bush. John McCain. For all the talk about how Republicans are desperate for a conservative alternative to Mitt Romney -- and the audition process that elevated Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum in turn -- a look back at the men who've won the GOP nomination since Ronald Reagan left office suggests that maybe a majority of Republicans are happy to have a moderate as their nominee. On some issues, the Republican Party has moved to the right over time. Still, Republicans behave at the ballot box as if 1964 and 1980 were exceptional years when the conservative choices, Barry Goldwater and Reagan, won the nomination. More often, the conservative candidates lose, and while the losers are explained away by ticking off their particular flaws, the fact is that the more moderate alternatives have always been flawed too.

This year Mitt Romney won handily in Iowa and New Hampshire. Nate Silver has him leading in South Carolina. This despite the fact that no one would mistake him for a flawless candidate. But if Republican primary voters aren't really as interested in nominating a conservative as is generally thought, what explains the conventional wisdom to the contrary? What mixes us up?

One place to begin is the thesis that most Republicans do want a conservative alternative, but they're splitting their vote among a bunch of different choices. This is perhaps true, but misleading. A social conservative might prefer someone who is more conservative on abortion, like Rick Santorum. But if he drops out, the social con may decide to support Romney because he's turned off by Rick Perry's avowed desire to send troops back into Iraq and Ron Paul's insistence on ending the Fed. He's to Romney's right on abortion, but to Perry's "left" on foreign policy and Paul's left on size of government. The moderate winds up being the best choice, which is to say, the one that most closely reflects his views on the whole spectrum of issues.

The label "conservative" tends to obscure the fact that the religious right, neo-cons, and fiscal conservatives diverge a lot in their attitudes about various matters, and the "most conservative" (here I mean farthest right) voice in each group tends to freak out all of the others. They all say they want a conservative, but confronted with actual choices, they wind up thinking to themselves, but not that kind of conservative, which is basically what Newt Gingrich meant when he stated that he couldn't bring himself to support Paul if he's the nominee.     

There is also the fact that presidential elections are the moment in American politics when conservatives enjoy the fewest advantages. Think about it. In House elections, redistricting and safe seats has made it easier for folks farther right or left than the population as a whole to get elected. Fox News and talk radio cater to and amplify the voices of the niche conservative audience inclined to consume ideological media, not to moderate Republican voters. In contrast, presidential primaries encompass the whole pool of Republican Party voters, and more than usual, even the conservatives among them are concerned about electability. It's no wonder that in some ways the process reveals the GOP to be more moderate than it does when it's mouthpieces are firebrand House members or Rush Limbaugh or National Review.

Perhaps the GOP always has been and always will be inclined to nominate relative moderates, and conservatives only break through if they manage an exceptional mix of principle and charisma, and come along at exactly the right moment. By those metrics and others Goldwater and Reagan were candidates unusually well suited to the primaries in which they triumphed. This year Paul is the only Romney alternative who has managed to excite anyone for an extended period of time. And if that's the choice, more Republicans than not will probably prefer the moderate.

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