One of the reasons I’ve thought Rick Perry was likely to run for president in 2012 is that he published Fed Up — a book chock full of very conservative policy positions. Paul Campos draws the opposite conclusion:

I find it a bit hard to believe that a prospective candidate would go into print with something like this, at least if his handlers had anything to say about it. (In terms of subtle signalling to Wingnuttia, this book seems less like a dog whistle and more like a ceremonial gong)…My theory, which is mine, is that Perry did not start seriously considering the idea of a presidential run until the first batch of GOP contenders started falling on their faces, and the inevitable longing for someone “electable” began to cast about for likely lads.

I like a good Anne Elk (Miss) reference as much as anyone, but I really disagree. It’s not just the old Richard Nixon slogan of going right to win the nomination and then left to win the election. It’s that policy positions are just far more likely to matter at this stage than that one. Candidates, campaign, and policy positions are important during nomination battles because there’s so little basis for distinguishing between candidates.

But once we get to the general election, most voters will choose on the basis of party, so it doesn’t really matter what the candidates say. Even if you’re a strongly pro-Social Security Republican, you’re still probably going to support Perry if he’s the nominee because you agree with him and disagree with Barack Obama on abortion, and guns, and foreign policy, and economic policy, and lots more. Besides, you probably will have a generally positive view of Perry as a person and a generally negative one of Obama, both because you will tend to pay attention to information that confirms those views and because you will probably watch Fox News and listen to Rush and therefore be exposed to those views. Indeed, odds are that you’ll simply not believe that Perry really means what he says about Social Security. Of course, it all plays out the same way for Democrats. As for swing voters, what we know about them is that they are usually among the least attentive voters; they’re the least likely to know what Rick Perry said in a book a couple of years ago. They’re the ones who are pushed primarily by the economy and, perhaps, other events. Now, granted, Barack Obama will probably do what he can to make sure that they know, and the evidence is that ideological extremism is indeed a net negative…but Goldwater or McGovern range extremism only costs a few points on election day in November.

Granted, it’s a lot harder to quantify how much those issue positions will help in caucuses and primaries, if at all. But I certainly think they’re a clear net plus at this point. And any candidate who is offered a significantly better shot at a presidential nomination in exchange for, say, 3 points off the general election vote should in my view absolutely take that deal. If, that is, he’s only interested in winning the presidency and is indifferent about policy.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.