The Spectacle Blog

Choosing Conservatives

By on 4.12.12 | 12:20PM

Partly in response to my piece about movement conservatives generally losing the Republican presidential nomination, the Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf lists five reasons why this is the case. I agree with much of what he has to say, but here I'll focus on my disagreements.

Conservatives aren't very good at gauging the conservatism of GOP candidates. I'll agree that cultural cues and liberal-baiting sometimes play too large a role in conservative candidate selection while policy views, issue positions, and record play too small a role. But it's worth noting that most Republican primary voters who said they were looking for a conservative candidate voted against Mitt Romney, even though Romney tried very hard to send the right cues and say the right things. Why? Because Romney didn't have a very conservative record relative to the rest of the Republican field. This continues a trend among conservatives that we've been starting to see at the congressional level.

[I]n 2000 the whole conservative movement rallied enthusiastically behind George W. Bush. Bush is a partial exception to the rule that the candidate preferred by movement conservatives loses the nomination, but only a partial one. Bush worked hard to win over conservative activists and intellectuals starting in 1999, but it was also clear he planned to triangulate against them. (Remember his comment that the Gingrich Congress was balancing the budget on the backs of the poor?) There was a lot of conservative unease with Bush and the race could just have easily been Bush the establishment candidate crushing Steve Forbes the movement candidate. But then John McCain won New Hampshire running to the left of Bush. That rallied conservatives behind Bush in the same way that McCain was able to get conservatives to vote for Romney in 2008.

The field of what Republican voters take to be earnest conservative insurgents is likely to keep swelling with Donald Trumps and Herman Cains and maybe even Stephen Colberts in the future... The simple fact is that the Donald Trumps and Herman Cains fizzled out while the main conservative alternative to Romney was, for all his flaws, a more serious conservative. Even the surviving candidates running behind Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, have long legislative histories that include some real conservative accomplishments. 

Then there's Jon Huntsman. The Huntsman campaign either chose or blundered into the way they introduced their little known candidate to Republican primary voters. It wasn't an image that was likely to win many primaries. Maybe Huntsman's Utah record and platform should have mattered more than his tweets or even his service as an ambassador under Obama. But the tweets and the ambassadorship were a big part of Huntsman's actual message. It is human nature for voters to make an initial judgment about a candidate before even looking into their records.

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