Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right
Once the general election rolls around next November, the most probable matchup is a center-left candidate (presumably Hillary Clinton) facing off against a center-right candidate (Jeb Bush, perhaps, or John Kasich). This seems to comport with basic political logic—if a candidate is too centrist, the voters at the end of the spectrum may stay home. Too fringy, and the center may be lost to the other party.
In primary season, however, the fringe candidates get their day. Journalists and voters like a horse race, and the much smaller number of voters involved at the primary stage make it possible for a fundamentally weaker candidate to create "momentum." But do these fringe candidates (and their constituencies) actually matter in the long run?
Before answering, it should be noted that labels like "far left," "center," "far right," etc. are somewhat subjective. They are also prone to distortion, as a candidate attempts to make themselves more salable to a constituency ("I'm a true conservative!"), or to undermine their opponent ("She's secretly an ultra-leftist socialist!"). Consequently, in an effort to make the subjective more objective, a group of political scientists led by Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal created a measurement called DW-NOMINATE (Dynamic, Weighted, Nominal Three-Step Estimation) that compares politicians' support for Congressional legislation to that of other members of their party. DW-NOMINATE, which has achieved wide acceptance since being developed in the 1980s, scores presidents and members of Congress on a scale of 1 (ultra-conservative, relative to other members of their party) to -1 (ultra-liberal, relative to other members of their party). The DW-NOMINATE scores, last updated on September 2 of this year, will be used here (though for ease of reading they will be multiplied by 100). The 2016 candidates who have been rated: Rand Paul (97.4), Ted Cruz (94.3), Marco Rubio (57.9), Lindsey Graham (42.2), Bobby Jindal (41.4), Rick Santorum (34.5), John Kasich (31.3), Lincoln Chafee (6.8), Jim Webb (-18.3), Hillary Clinton (-38.1), and Bernie Sanders (-52.3). The remaining candidates are either private citizens with no political experience (Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina) or have only served at the state level (Jeb Bush, George Pataki, Chris Christie, Jim Gilmore, Mike Huckabee, Martin O'Malley).
Turning our attention first to the blue part of the spectrum—paging Bernie Sanders!—aspiring "true liberal" presidential candidates face a number of major obstacles:
- Outside of a few small states in the North and West, the very liberal voters
are primarily found in large cities, where their voices are drowned out by the
much larger number of center-leaning voters.
- The first two nominating contests take place in Iowa and New Hampshire,
where there is some enthusiasm for leftist candidates. However, South Carolina, Nevada,
and then Super Tuesday—which primarily features Southern
states—follow soon thereafter. There are fairly few voters in the South,
even among Southern Democrats, who are avowed liberals.
- Like the candidates at the other end of the spectrum, leftist candidates
tend to say and do impolitic things. If they did not, they would be centrists.
Democratic voters tend to be unforgiving of such mistakes.
- Ultra-liberal voters may dream of an ultra-liberal president, but they are
generally not dogmatic about it to the point of wasting their vote. When push
comes to shove, they will usually hold their nose and vote for the most viable
- While there are some very wealthy liberal actors and artists, there are
relatively few liberal billionaires willing to foot the entire bill for a pet candidate's
campaign. Nor are there millions of grassroots liberals willing to drop $100
or $200 on a political candidate; their "activist" money tends to go to
organizations like Greenpeace or Amnesty International or the ACLU. As such,
money is a problem.
The predictable result of these tendencies is that elections without a Democratic incumbent generally feature at least one "true liberal" who burns brightly in the early stages of the process, but then comes crashing down well before the Democratic National Convention. Consider:
- In 2008, the leftist candidate was Dennis Kucinich (-60.4), who excited
liberals with his pledges to establish a single-payer national healthcare
system, to abolish the death penalty, to pay all students' college tuition, and
to create a new Cabinet position—the "Secretary of Peace." He was quickly
endorsed by prominent progressive individuals and organizations: Tim Robbins,
Susan Sarandon, Gore Vidal, Sean Pean, Willie Nelson, the Progressive Democrats
of America, the United Neighborhood Organization, etc. Strapped for cash, and
lacking any sort of campaign staff, Kucinich was out of the race by the end of
- In 2004, the darling of the left was Howard Dean, who caught the attention
of party activists with a March 2003 speech in which he asked, "What I want to
know is what in the world so many Democrats are doing supporting the President's
unilateral intervention in Iraq?" Beyond his anti-war rhetoric, Dean also
advocated healthcare reform, limits on lobbying, and civil unions for gay
couples. His supporters were so enthusiastic that the nickname "Deaniacs" was
coined to describe them ("Deanie Babies" to their detractors), and he entered
2014 with more cash on hand than any other Democrat. He then finished a
disappointing third in Iowa, embarrassed himself with the "Dean Scream" after a
second-place finish in New Hampshire, and conceded his campaign was at an end in
- In 1992, California Governor Jerry Brown was the early favorite of the left,
with his calls for congressional term limits, campaign finance reform, and the
adoption of a flat income tax. He won several primaries—Maine, Colorado,
Nevada, Vermont, and Connecticut—but then made a major error when he told
the leaders of New York City's Jewish community that he favored Jesse Jackson as
his vice presidential nominee. Brown felt that would curry favor with liberal
Jews, and was apparently unaware that Jackson had a history of anti-semitic
statements and so was profoundly unpopular in the Jewish community. The Governor was
effectively dead in the water by April 7, when he badly lost New York to Bill
Clinton. Brown lingered until June, hoping that his home state would save him,
and then dropped out when it did not.
- In 1984, Democratic warhorse George McGovern (-56.9)—in the twilight
of a long and brilliant political career—decided to take one last shot at
the White House. He reminded voters of his close ties to the Kennedy family, and
put forward a 10-point plan that included low-interest student loans, investment
in mass transit, healthcare reform, and reducing unemployment. Prominent
newspapers (The New York Times, the Washington Post), liberal intellectuals
(Christopher Hitchens, David S.Broder), and educators (the entire faculty of
Harvard Law) offered their enthusiastic endorsements. He did not win a single
primary and was done by mid-March.
Bernie Sanders is currently running the universal liberal playbook. He has announced a 12-point plan (two more than McGovern!) that includes—wait for it—low-interest student loans, investment in mass transit, healthcare reform, and reducing unemployment. He is racking up endorsements, including—so far—RFK, Jr., Bill Press, Roseanne Barr, Jackson Browne, John Cusack, Will Ferrell, Susan Sarandon, Noam Chomsky, Cornel West, Friends of the Earth, Occupy Wall Street, and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. Sanders is going to raise oodles of money, get a lot of headlines, and—assuming he does not make any stupid mistakes—he will do very well in Iowa and will win New Hampshire. Then the walls will almost certainly come crumbling down sometime in March or April.
Bernie Sanders is undoubtedly aware of this history, and knows he is fighting an uphill battle. At 74, we can assume that he does not harbor vice presidential aspirations, nor is he laying the groundwork for a second career as a commentator for MSNBC. It is likely that his main goal—and the goal of many of his supporters—is to pull Hillary Clinton further left. Will it work? Not very likely.
Sanders' problem in this regard is that Hillary knows her history, too. She is well aware that she does not need to cater much to leftists, because most will line up behind their party's standard-bearer, even if they are not thrilled to do so. Using DW-NOMINATE, we can see that nearly all of the Democratic Presidents since World War II have been solidly center-left, located at roughly the same place on the political spectrum as Hillary is (again, -38.1). That includes her husband (-45.2), "most liberal president ever" Barack Obama (-36.8), Lyndon B. Johnson (-34.6), Harry S. Truman (-36.8), and Franklin D. Roosevelt (-37.3). Only the two most liberal Democratic presidents of the last 80 years—John F. Kennedy (-49.1) and Jimmy Carter (-52.1)—are closer to Bernie Sanders than to Hillary Clinton, and each of them barely won their elections. By all evidence, then, Hillary is in the sweet spot for a Democratic candidate, and has no compelling reason to move off that position.
Now, Bernie Sanders could go rogue and run as an independent, like Ralph Nader did. After all, Sanders is officially a Democratic Socialist, and not a Democrat. However, his age and temperament would both seem to make that unlikely. Further, the 2000 election is still fresh in the minds of most Democrats, who recognize that votes for Nader (at least, in Florida) cost Al Gore (-34.8) the presidency. If 2016 looked to be close—the only kind of election in which a third-party candidacy for Sanders would matter—it is hard to believe that liberal voters would be willing to risk once again handing the presidency to a Bush (or to a Kasich or a Rubio).
Turning our attention to the right end of the spectrum—Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, etc.—the equation is quite a bit different:
- The most conservative voters tend to be found in states that are rural
and/or sparsely populated. In contrast to the liberals, these voters have
the potential to control their states' electoral votes.
- The Iowa caucuses can be gamed by the right candidate. With South Carolina
and Super Tuesday following closely on Iowa's heels, a "true conservative" candidate can
create actual, sustained momentum.
- Though very conservative candidates tend to say and do impolitic things,
just like very liberal candidates do, those statements do not generally hurt
them with their base. Ben Carson has said all manner of inflammatory things and his base just laps it up.
- Henry Clay once said, "I would rather be right than be president." Though he
was not a Republican, he nonetheless expressed a sentiment that a large number
of very conservative voters would agree with. Evangelicals, social
conservatives, and tax haters, in particular, have proven willing to spend their
votes on a more "pure" candidate over a more electable one. See, for example,
the tea party.
- There are a fair number of conservative billionaires who are more than willing to fund a pet candidate—Sheldon Adelson, the Kochtopus, B. Wayne Hughes, Harold Simmons, and Rich DeVos among them. Further, a number of grassroots conservatives come from religious traditions where tithing is an expectation. It is easy enough to view support for a pro-life or anti-gay candidate in religious terms, and so some of that tithe flows into politicians' warchests.
These things being the case, we tend to see at least one true conservative remaining in the race (or, at least, exerting an influence on the race) well after their very liberal counterparts are back home eating sushi and listening to NPR. Consider:
- In 2012, a series of very conservative candidates—Michele Bachmann
(61.8), Rick Perry, and Herman Cain among them—took turns as their party's
frontrunner throughout the early months of the election season. The last
non-Romney candidates standing were Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich (37.9), who
both tacked strongly rightward after compiling fairly moderate voting records in
Congress. Santorum did not throw in the towel until April 10, while Gingrich
(backed by Adelson's money) hung on until May 2.
- In 2008, the last three candidates standing between John McCain (37.8) and
the Republican nomination were all very conservative: Mike Huckabee, who bowed
out in March; Alan Keyes, who dropped out in mid-April to become the candidate
of the arch-conservative America's Independent Party; and Ron Paul (97.4), who
lingered until mid-June.
- In 2000, Keyes was also the last to go, waiting more than four months longer
than any other candidate before conceding on July 25.
- In 1996, Pat Buchanan mounted a serious challenge to establishment favorite
Bob Dole (32.8), finishing second in Iowa and winning New Hampshire, Alaska,
Missouri, and Louisiana. Low on funds after these expensive wins, he dropped out
after a disappointing Super Tuesday, but continued to use his television and
newspaper platforms to push Dole rightward (in particular, insisting on the
selection of a pro-life running mate, backed by the threat of a third-party
- In 1992, Pat Buchanan was also the most significant challenger to the
establishment favorite—George H. W. Bush—followed by ultra-rightist
former Klansman David Duke. Buchanan lasted long enough to be given a plum
speaking slot at the Republican National Convention, where he unleashed a
virtual cattle herd of red meat for the base, declaring: "The agenda Clinton &
Clinton would impose on America—abortion on demand, a litmus test for the
Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools,
women in combat units—that's change, all right. But it is not the kind of
change America needs. It is not the kind of change America wants. And it is not
the kind of change we can abide in a nation we still call God's country."
These candidates—and the voters whose loyalty they command—appear to have a substantive impact in pushing the party rightward. As noted, Jimmy Carter—with his DW-NOMINATE score of -52.1—is the most liberal Democrat to occupy the White House since World War II. Richard Nixon (54.8), Ronald Reagan (68.8), Bush 41 (57.8), and Bush 43 (72.9) were all further from the center than Carter, and the unelected Gerald Ford (50.1) was nearly as far away. Meanwhile, more moderate Republican candidates like McCain, Dole, and Mitt Romney don't win, in part because many of the conservatives don't open their wallets, don't make phone calls, don't knock on doors, and don't go to the polls on election day. It is worth remembering that the only presidential election among the last six where the Republicans claimed a majority of the popular vote was 2004, where the ever-shrewd Karl Rove used anti-gay marriage ballot initiatives to guarantee that very conservative voters would not stay home for the election.
The only moderate Republican president since World War II, Dwight D. Eisenhower (29.3), is the exception that proves the rule. Largely apolitical, and wildly popular after leading the Allied Powers to victory in World War II, he was recruited by both parties to be their presidential candidate in 1952. Knowing that he could count on a large number of independent voters and Democratic crossovers, he found no particular need to pander to the right, particularly on issues of race. He was rewarded with two landslide victories, where he took 39 and 41 states respectively, including Democratic bastions like New York and California (which were blue, even back then) and Republican strongholds like Iowa and Maine (which were then very red).
It seems unlikely that Jeb Bush or John Kasich will be winning a World War in the next 12 months. And choosing a true conservative like Sarah Palin or Paul Ryan (58.6) for the second slot on the ticket is clearly not enough to keep the conservatives happy, so a Vice-President Rubio or Cruz is not likely to be meaningful.
The hard-to-avoid conclusion, then, is that the Republican party should eschew Jeb Bush or John Kasich in favor of Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, or another true conservative. This may not win the election (see Barry Goldwater in 1964), but it's an approach that has a better track record for them than nominating a moderate. Further, if a true conservative is nominated and then gets crushed, it would at least give the Republican Party valuable evidence that the time has come for them to reinvent themselves (as they did after the 1964 embarrassment).
If a moderate tacks rightward long enough to claim the nomination— Chris Christie, in particular, has been throwing lots of red meat to the base— they will likely (with the encouragement of Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus) move back towards the center; to be unable to remember that he ever said anything about defunding Planned Parenthood, or about bombing ISIS back to the stone age. If recent history is any guide, that move—though seemingly sensible—will be a tactical mistake.