A talking point when people discuss the 2016 presidential election and the primaries is to talk about the unlikelihood of having Senator Ted Cruz or someone similar to him, who is considered to be an extremist on the Republican side of the political spectrum. Often, the claim that the Republican party will nominate the one who has the best chance of winning, meaning that he is either a pragmatist or a moderate Republican, as opposed to someone who is more ideologically pure.
Let’s take a look. We’re beginning with 1976, as it was the first time a Republican primary was held in every state. This allows us to compare the past and present without having to rely on deals in the backroom filled with cigar smoke and scotch.
The 1976 Republican primary was slightly confusing. President Gerald Ford initially announced that he would not seek re-election (technically, election). But he re-considered and began a campaign to seek the nomination and eventual election. Former Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, began to criticize Gerald Ford in the summer of 1975 and officially announced his candidacy in the fall of 1975. Reagan was considered the favorite of the Conservative section of the Republican party. Reagan and his Conservative allies were critical of Ford on the policy of detente with the Soviet Union, Ford’s refusal of help for South Vietnam, the signing of the Helinski Accords, and giving the Panama Canal back to Panama. The Heritage Foundation would like to remind people that Reagan also criticized Ford for the centralization of the federal government. Ford criticized Reagan for being too extreme. Despite this, there was not a nominee at the time of the Republican Convention. Ford began with a slight lead in the votes but still shy of the number needed to secure the nomination. In order to gain some votes, Reagan pledged to nominate moderate Republican Senator Richard Schweiker as vice-president. The move backfired, as conservative delegates were outraged at Reagan. Senator Jesse Helms who had helped Reagan’s comeback during primary season, was particularly angry. Helms tried to draft James Buckley as the nominee. Many Mississippi delegates also switched allegiances and Ford won the nomination. The Mississippi chairman allegedly switched support because of the nomination of Schweiker.
Conclusion: Reagan was clearly the Conservative choice for the nomination, but in an effort to gain votes, he tried to placate the moderates within the party and it failed. I feel uncomfortable saying that Ford was nominated because he was seen as the more pragmatic or moderate choice.
The 1980 Republican Presidential primary more closely resembles the primaries that we see. Ronald Reagan was considered the heavy favorite, almost as soon as the 1976 Republican presidential primary concluded. Reagan had given a speech at the end that overshadowed Ford’s speech.
Minority Leader Howard Baker was known as the great conciliator in the Senate. There was a story that Democratic Senators would privately support Baker’s quest to run for President. Because of this, Baker would get the dreaded RINO tag, today, if he was in the political eye. Baker lost the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire caucus before withdrawing. A Gallup poll found him to be in 2nd place behind just Ronald Reagan in 1979.
Former Governor John Connally was a Democrat until 1973. Then he switched parties. Connally was friends with President Lyndon Johnson and supported the same candidates up until the 1972 election where Connally supported Nixon, instead of George McGovern. But anyway, Connally was considered a great fundraiser, a fairly strong leader, and a strong orator. Connally would probably be compared to Mitt Romney in 2008. If Reagan had been defeated in 1980, Connally would have likely re-emerged as a potential candidate in 1984. But poor campaigning, as well as a lack of electoral chops, ultimately doomed him.
Senator Bob Dole,who ran for vice-president under Gerald Ford ran in 1976, chose to run in the 1980 presidential election. He received less than 1% of the vote for the New Hampshire primary, and immediately withdrew. Dole, while he was a war hawk and tough on crime, made his first Senate speech on increasing federal aid for the handicapped and disable. He also joined Democratic Senator Jim McGovern in an effort to lower eligibility requirements for federal food stamps, a fairly liberal goal. Dole later pleaded with Gerald Ford to run in 1980 as a stop-Reagan faction.
Congressman Phil Crane was a Conservative member of Congress since 1968. Crane was one of the most Conservative members of the House of Representatives, who had been raised on Barry Goldwater’s campaign for president. Crane was the first chairman of the Republican Study Committee to keep watch of the Republican party in Congress, who was considered to be too moderate. Crane was also the Chairman of the Illinois Citizens for Reagan, trying to help in Reagan’s primary presidential run. He was unsure if Reagan would run again in 1980, and said that if Reagan ran, he would drop out. He stayed in, even after Reagan’s entrance, but dropped out in early March.
Congressman John B. Anderson initially started as one of the more Conservative members of the House but eventually shifted, gradually to the left for social issues. His fiscal conservatism remained, though. He broke with the administration on the Vietnam War and was an outspoken critic of Richard Nixon. Anderson was also allies with Gerald Ford. Anderson was primaried in 1978 but survived the primary by 16% of the vote. He decided to run for President. Actually, John Anderson deserves a much longer post all about him. Anderson had considerable support from Rockefeller Republicans, who were more liberal than Reagan supporters. He was considered much more liberal than many of the Republican nominees. At one point, he stated that cutting taxes, increasing defense spending, and balancing the budget were an impossible combination. Anderson withdrew and eventually ran as an independent garnering 7% of the votes in the general election.
Former CIA director George H.W. Bush supposedly represented the centrist part of the Republican party. He criticized Reagan’s supply-side economic theory as “voodoo economics.” This eventually proved to be successful in the Iowa caucus. He also won a primary where Reagan did not bother to show up. But for the most part, Bush was dead in the water by the end of April. Bush finally withdrew on May 26, 1980. Bush was later named the vice-presidential nominee by Ronald Reagan.
Former Governor Ronald Reagan who was unsuccessful in 1968 and 1976, finally was successful in 1980. Reagan represented the true conservatives. He campaigned hard on the idea of supply-side economics, proposing that tax cuts would increase revenues because people would work harder. Reagan also promised a balanced budget for the first time since 1969. Reagan was the front-runner and after firing his campaign manager finally started to act like it, culminating in a victory.
Conclusion: The conservatives’ Conservative won the nomination.
The 1988 Republican presidential primary started with Vice-President George H.W. Bush as the front-runner but eventually included Senator Bob Dole, Congressman Jack Kemp, Governor Pierre S. du Pont IV, and televangelist Pat Robertson.
Governor Pierre S. du Pont IV was governor of Delaware and announced his intention to run for the presidency in 1986, before anyone else. But he had some radical ideas. He proposed reforming social security by offering private saving options . He also wanted to wean people off of welfare by offering jobs, even entry level jobs in the government. He proposed instituting random drug tests to those who flunked driver’s license tests. He was a novice and bowed out after a next-to-last finish in New Hampshire.
Congressman Jack Kemp had a difficult time convincing people of his ideas if he became president. Kemp had a libertarian philosophy of supporting individual rights, preaching tolerance, supporting women, minorities, blue-collar workers, and organized labor. These ideas clashed with the typical conservative view of ideas and values. To Democrats and those more liberal, his free market philosophies were just a form of anarchy. His fiscal policy was very similar to Ronald Reagan, in that he argued for supply-side economics. He also wanted to freeze government spending. His poor showing on Super Tuesday eventually forced him to withdraw. Kemp could probably be compared to the libertarian wing of the Republican party, that is in vogue today.
Televangelist Pat Robertson announced he would run in 1986 if 3 million people signed up to volunteer for his campaign. Robertson supported a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. He also wanted to eliminate the Department of Energy and the Department of Education. He also wanted to ban pornography. He was a true social conservative. His views are now basically the same as the generic Republicans. With his true social conservative credentials, he managed a 2nd place finish in the Iowa caucus. He withdrew before Super Tuesday.
Senator Bob Dole, who had previously lost as a vice-president in 1976 and lost the Republican nomination in 1980, decided to have another go at it. Dole and Bush did not differ much in their views. Bush drew criticism for his portrayal of Dole. Dole was viewed as an angry person by responding to a question by saying Bush should stop lying about my record. He was also viewed as a micromanager who could not handle a presidential campaign. At this point, Dole would be comparable to Mitt Romney in 2008.
Vice-President George H.W. Bush was the early front-runner for the presidential nomination. Bush was still considered to be the leader of the centrist part of the Republican party, but there was no real conservative to challenge him. Bush finished in third place at the Iowa caucus. During the New Hampshire primary, Bush ran a campaign ad portraying Dole as a taxraiser which helped contribute to Dole’s response. But Bush’s organizational strength really helped as he was able to clinch the nomination once Super Tuesday began. This is likely comparable to John McCain in 2008.
Conclusion: The only “true” Conservative was Robertson who finished 3rd or 4th. But the two front-runners were both Republicans who appealed to the centrist wing of the party.
The 1996 Republican primary did not have any immediate front-runners. The only one who was considered in that breath was Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.
Ambassador Alan Keyes entered the 1996 Republican presidential primary to center the debate around abortion and bring it to the forefront of the political debate. Keyes did not fare well in the primaries and eventually withdrew. He would be comparable to what Ben Carson is trying to do, now.
Governor Lamar Alexander ran for President in 1996. He did not do anything memorable, apparently, and ducked out pretty quickly. He later served as an adviser to the Dole/Kemp campaign.
Journalist Steve Forbes tried to run in 1996. He supported a flat tax of 17% on earned income, while maintaining the first $33,000 would be exempt from the tax. Beside that, he was a traditional Republican. He supports free trade, school vouchers, downsizing the federal government, and the death penalty. He also opposed drug legalization, same sex marriage, gun control, and environmental regulation. But his campaign was doomed by his inability to cultivate a winning campaign style.
Presidential advisor Pat Buchanan challenged George H.W. Bush in 1992 because he thought Bush was leading the country in a liberal direction. Buchanan wanted to challenge the Washington establishment in 1996. He ran to the right of Bob Dole. He opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). But there were questions about Buchanan’s comments about being a possible Holocaust denier and having a key campaign adviser go to a meeting with a white supremacist group. Buchanan denied these allegations saying that the media was trying to smear him. Buchanan is probably most comparable to Newt Gingrich in 2012.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole was the front-runner for the 1996 presidential nomination but did not have the support of many of the party’s higher-ups. George W. Bush, Colin Powell, and Dick Cheney were all approached to run in 1996 but declined to run. Dole was criticized by the left and the right of his party, over the convention platform and his platform, too. Dole was criticized for the inclusion of the Human Life Amendment. He had promised a return to supply side economics, promising a 15% cut across the board to income tax. He is comparable to Mitt Romney in 2012.
Conclusion: There was not a real strong primary challenge in 1996, Bob Dole rose to the top of the pile. The more conservative members were not real strong challengers.
Again, in 200, there was not a real front-runner for the nomination but George W. Bush became the favorite among the Republican leadership. John McCain was a darkhorse but he became quite the challenger to Bush.
Ambassador Alan Keyes: Keyes ran again in 2000, this time on a more Conservative platform than before. He called for the elimination of all federal taxes except tariffs. He also campaigned on a ban of homosexuals in the military. He continued his call for bringing abortion policies to the forefront of the political debate.
Senator John McCain: McCain tried to fight against the political doublespeak and the special interest groups. His campaign focused extensively on campaign finance reform. McCain repeatedly held long town halls and frequent meetings with reporters to show his straight talk campaigning. McCain was repeatedly accused by the Bush campaign as a Manchurain candidate. The Bush campaign also accused supporters of McCain that they were not really Republicans but Democrats pretending to be Republicans. McCain’s independent streak in the Senate finally caught up with him and the straight talk campaign was defeated under a slew of negative ads.
Governor George W. Bush ran as a “compassionate Conservative.” He implied that he was a centrist Republican. He ran on bringing honor and integrity back to the White House. He also ran on cutting taxes, increased military spending, improving education, and aiding minorities. Bush’s campaign was that of a generic Republican. But he was able to effectively paint McCain as a RINO. Bush won the South Carolina primary, the nomination, and the election on the backs of Christian Evangelical voters.
Conclusion: While Bush implied that he was more of a centrist Republican, he effectively showed himself to be the more Conservative option between himself and John McCain.
The early front-runner for the 2008 Republican nomination was Rudy Giuliani but he bowed out fairly early after failing to do well in Iowa. Mike Huckabee won Iowa and seized the early momentum but John McCain finally won the nomination.
Congressman Ron Paul announced his candidacy in March of 2007. Paul had a large following and a large group of supporters but ultimately he was unable to unseat any of his rivals in the primary elections. Paul ran on a campaign of balancing the budget, bringing the troops home, non-interventionist foreign policy, an attempt to be a civil libertarian, and being pro-life. Paul’s supporters claim to be libertarians but it comes from a different brand, overall, than traditional libertarians. ANYWAY, Paul failed to endorse another Republican candidate in 2008.
Governor Mike Huckabee was the most Conservative candidates in the 2008 Republican primary. He was a favorite among Christian evangelicals. He has stood by his comments that we need to take this nation back to Christ. He drew considerable support from the Christian evangelical activist groups. Some media outlets looked through his past speeches and claimed that he was a right-wing Christian. Huckabee won the Iowa caucus but ultimately bowed out of the election because of lack of funds and structural problems with his campaign.
Governor Mitt Romney’s first run as the presidential nomination was a failure. Romney’s biggest liability was that he ran for Senate and was Governor of one of the most liberal states in the union. Late in his gubernatorial tenure, he began to shift his social values to align more with the traditional conservatives’ views. He was derided by social conservatives for lack of core values and opportunism. He also faced suspicion from Christian evangelicals because of his religious faith. Romney was charged as being a flip flopper and came off as phony. Despite his obvious skills as a fundraiser, it was too much to overcome, with a serious challenger.
Senator John McCain attempted to run for President in 2008. McCain had national name recognition. But he faced some criticism for his support of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007. But he mainly got the nomination because of the troubles and inexperience of Huckabee and the phoniness of Romney. McCain’s straight talk and his appeal as an independent thinker showed support from many in the Republican electorate.
Conclusion: McCain was hardly more electable than Romney, but McCain proved to be more Conservative than Romney but less so than Huckabee.
The 2012 Republican primary basically pitted favorite Mitt Romney against the rest of the field. The rest of the field was supposed to step up to become the anti-Romney candidate.
Speaker Newt Gingrich was one of the favorites for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination in 2011. Gingrich had some hiccups early on in the campaign having to fire most of his staff. He appeared back on the upswing and fared well in the South and with evangelical Christians. Gingrich was a favorite at one point but he struggled and began to lag behind Romney. Gingrich, typically, fared well in the debates but his campaign was plagued by gaffes such as his ill-fated moon colony idea. Gingrich lasted well into the primary despite the urging by fellow candidate Rick Santorum. Gingrich announced he was the “last conservative standing.” He eventually withdrew and threw his support behind Romney.
Ron Paul ran in 2012 like he had in 2008. He ran a similar campaign to what he had in 2008. He eventually ran out of money. He refused to endorse any Republican candidate or speak at the Republican National Convention.
Rick Santorum decided to run for President to allow the Conservative voice to be heard and articulated. Santorum initially lagged behind many of those who dropped out and the favorite, Mitt Romney. But as more of the conservative candidates dropped out, Santorum became the only voice for the true conservatives. Santorum was able to hold on as long he could before eventually suspending his campaign.
Mitt Romney’s second run for the Republican nomination was more successful than the first. Always adept at fundraising, Romney was able to compete against lesser opponents. While charges of his flip-flopping re-emerged in 2011, he was able to defend himself against them. He focused primarily on the eventual match-up with Barack Obama, as opposed to criticizing his fellow Republicans. Because of his fundraising ability, he was able to outspend his opponents to the point where he broke them.
Conclusion: I’ve been very critical of the 2012 Republican primary field but Romney was the strongest of the weak candidates. Romney was easily the most electable candidate of the bunch, but not as a question of his moderate ability. He was a talented fundraiser and able to effectively communicate his message. It also helped that Romney seemed to look like a president.
1976: More moderate
1980: More conservative
1988: Senator Bob Dole vs. Vice President George H.W. Bush had Bush as more conservative than Dole.
1996: Weak candidates but Dole was moderate
2000: More conservative between Bush and McCain
2008: This one is tough. Huckabee was more conservative than McCain or Romney but was not as strong as a candidate as either of them.
2012: Weak candidates but Romney was moderate
Overall conclusion: The Republican nominations seem to vary over time but it does not seem that there is a tendency by the party to nominate the most moderate choice. It seems that there is a bias to elect the most electable candidate with a particular bias toward those who have run for the nomination in the past. When there are stronger candidates, the Republican party chooses the most Conservative stronger candidate. But at times when there are weaker candidates, the moderate candidate is allowed to shine and win the nomination.