Will a Losing GOP Shift Rightward?

by John Sides on February 1, 2012 · 4 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Political Parties

George Packer:

McGovern’s debacle forced the Democratic Party to find its way back from the ideological wilderness—from being the party of delegate quotas and “acid, amnesty, and abortion.” Every successful Democrat after 1972, from Carter to Clinton to Obama, has had at least one foot in the party’s center. A Gingrich rout in November might have the same effect on Republicans—it might drive their party back toward the center, and toward mental health, in 2016. But if Romney wins the nomination and loses the election, the party will continue down into the same dark hole where Palin, Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Santorum, and now Gingrich all lurk.

So this prediction is likely to be wrong on one level.  The evidence suggests that the longer a party is out of the White House, the more moderate its nominees become.   See my post at 538 from a while back.  And here’s the graph from Cohen et al.’s The Party Decides (the horizontal axis should read “Terms Party Has Been Out of Office”):

So if Romney wins the nomination and then loses in November, I think it becomes less likely that the party will nominate a Bachmann or Santorum in 2016—even though undoubtedly conservative Republicans will blame a 2012 loss on nominating a “Massachusetts moderate” in the first place.

That said, Packer’s post speaks to more than just the ideology of the presidential nominee.  There is the question of whether the Republican Party itself will shift toward the center or further to the right.  As Keith Poole recently documented, the rightward shift of the GOP continues unabated through 2011, even as the leftward shift of the Democratic Party has slowed somewhat:

And, like Ezra Klein, I don’t see an easy way for that to change.  The moderate wing of the GOP party certainly has its advantages; I suspect it’s responsible for much of the funding that Romney has received.  However, it cannot match the power of the conservative wing in other respects—media outlets and affiliated activist groups, to name two.  As I’ve said before, for GOP moderates bothered by fringe presidential candidates or Tea Party “crazies,” the best answer is to get your own band of crazies.  In other words, out-organize and out-vote them.


LFC February 1, 2012 at 11:32 am

Given your reference to “the moderate wing” of the GOP, I assume you think there is an existing moderate wing, but is there? At least the title of this recent book (haven’t read it, just a review of it) would suggest otherwise.

Eric L. February 1, 2012 at 1:10 pm

Also see “The losing parties: out-party national committees, 1956-1993″ (Yale UP 1994) by Phil Klinker. Klinker asks how losing parties respond to presidential elections.

LFC February 1, 2012 at 2:40 pm

Before buying into Fig 4-1, I would want to look closely at how Cohen et al measure “ideological extremism.” At least a couple of the placements look odd to me, e.g., McGovern in 72 was, according to the figure, more ‘extreme’ than Goldwater in 64. That seems to me, as an admittedly non-objective observer and one who remembers the 72 campaign very well, to be highly questionable.

Tim Bale February 2, 2012 at 5:00 am

Speaking from the point of view of someone who follows the UK’s Conservative Party pretty closely, this is fascinating stuff. It raises the question of whether, when party members (elite and otherwise) regard electoral defeat as inevitable, there’s a part of them that would actually prefer to go down to that defeat with the leader they like least in place – on the assumption that it will put them in a better position to get the leader (and the policies) they really want next time round. I found an undercurrent of that among Tory moderates in the late nineties and early noughties, and it was certainly the case for the Labour Party (or at least the moderates in it) in the early eighties.

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