Jay Cost laments the apparently foreordained outcome of the nomination contest:
So, here’s the question of the day: why can’t the party of Reagan ever seem to nominate a Reaganite?
My answer: because conservative Republicans are not actually in control of their own party.
This is a half-truth. 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. There’s no need to fix the nominating system to address this problem: conservatives need to have fewer, more qualified candidates if they want to make “one of them” a nominee. I would note here that the obsession of certain people at The Weekly Standard for the last year has been to call for additional under-qualified candidates, which would have had the effect of splitting up the conservative vote even more.
Something else worth mentioning is that this seems to represent a major change in Cost’s views of the GOP. Let’s remember that Cost described “Mitt Romney’s big problem” in the following way:
In other words, a candidate aligned with the Northeastern, moderate wing of the party has not won a nomination since 1960, and there is no reason to expect that to change, barring some kind of once-in-a-century realignment of the two political parties. Northeastern Republicans are now junior partners in the party coalition. They cannot deliver their own states anymore, as the Democrats dominate them all except New Hampshire and Pennsylvania; meanwhile, conservatives in the Midwest, South, and West can deliver their states, and so they now basically run the show.
I didn’t think this was true then, and I still don’t, but it’s interesting how Cost went from saying that conservatives “run the show” in May 2011 to saying that they aren’t in control of their own party in January 2012. It’s not as if there was a “once-in-a-century realignment” while we weren’t looking, so what accounts for the complete reversal? In short, movement conservatives refuse to take responsibility for helping to legitimize the moderate nominees they sometimes come to resent later.
Cost blames the reforms of the 1970s for sabotaging conservatives in the party:
They effectively destroyed the party at the grassroots level, and handed the nominating power over to candidates, strategists, donors, the news media, and ill informed voters who dominate the primaries. The biggest losers in this scheme were the kinds of committed citizens who took the time to participate in local party affairs, and on the GOP side that inevitably meant the conservatives.
Yes, there you have it: the reforms that created a system that got Reagan the nomination in 1980 and nearly upended a moderate incumbent President in 1976 were bad for conservatives. Cost explains why the GOP doesn’t nominate more Reaganites by pointing to the primary system. In fact, the GOP has become progressively more identified with conservatism, or at least the vast majority of Republicans call themselves conservative. That may not be an all together good thing, since it has involved warping and expanding the definition of what it means to be conservative so much that it has become virtually meaningless, but it’s a bit hard to take seriously the idea that self-identified conservatives have suffered a loss of influence because the process has become more open to the voters.
Cost tries to overstate the importance of the fact that there are large numbers of moderate and liberal Republicans in the early states:
As you can see, non-ideological moderates were often the most populous group.
That’s true only when you split conservatives into the “very” and “somewhat” conservative categories. It may be true that moderates have disproportionately greater influence in the primaries than they have anywhere else, but that ignores the extent to which the earlier winnowing process imposes a remarkable degree of uniformity on most or all of the candidates. The truth is that candidates have to conform themselves to conservatives’ expectations or face defeat, but the presidential nominating process still permits non-ideological partisans to participate, which keeps conservative dominance from being total. As the party has become more ideologically uniform and nominally conservative, what once made someone a moderate Republican thirty years ago would probably qualify him as a liberal today. At the same time, many moderates are relatively more conservative than moderates of an earlier era, and some of them, such as Romney, have adopted the party line in its entirety.
The non-ideological, low-information voters that Cost blames are not responding to the relative moderate candidates because they are closely attuned to the ideological differences among the candidates, but instead tend to opt for the candidates they have heard of most often. As Cost says, many of these voters aren’t making informed decisions when they select their preferred candidate. These voters back an established name, and this time around that name is Romney, and this is largely the fault of the movement conservatives who built up Romney as the conservative alternative to McCain last time.