One of the subtexts of the on-again off-again discussion of Personhood I’ve been conducting with respect to the Senate campaigns of Cory Gardner and Joni Ernst and Thom Tillis is that it’s sometimes frustrating to realize how effectively cynical pols can spin their own records. So you’re opposed to rape and incest exceptions to abortion and that’s part of what got Todd Akin in trouble? Repudiate or rationalize your own past support for crazy initiatives that might ban some forms of contraception, and then bask in your own renewed image of “moderation!” It should not work, but it does far too often.

One of the most counter-intuitive things I’ve read in recent years was a consistent poll finding by YouGuv in 2012 that voters perceived Mitt Romney as more “moderate” than Barack Obama. Here’s an assessment by YouGuv’s Gabriel Linz right after the election:

According to popular accounts, candidates often move towards the extremes during primary campaigns, but few have tacked as far as the former governor of Massachusetts, one of the most Democratic states in the nation. As Romney turned his eye to the presidency in the mid-2000s, he became more conservative. Journalists and pundits noted the shift at the time, but much of the electorate apparently did not. As John Sides recently showed with an elegant graphic, that’s finally changing: the public’s perception of Romney has been slowly shifting conservative—catching up with his actual stances—though the public still sees Romney as more moderate than it sees Barack Obama.

Putting aside the earlier respositioning Romney did (e.g., in 2008, when he sought to depict himself with some success as the candidate of the conservative movement), Americans were still viewing the Mittster as a “moderate” in a cycle wherein he endorsed the Cut, Cap and Balance Constitutional Amendment (forcing a permanent reduction in federal spending) and the Ryan Budget (with its famous conversion of Medicare to a premium support system and a decimation of anti-poverty programs), while getting to the right of the entire GOP field on immigration policy, appearing to lust for war with Iran, and maintaining a position on reproductive rights issues well outside the mainstream. That doesn’t even factor in his dog-whistle “welfare” ads or even the “47 percent” remarks.

Now some of these perceptions are a partisan illusion thanks to the belief of conservatives that they are the still point in a turning world, making Obama an “extremist.” And in any event Romney lost, so it’s hard to blame the Obama campaign for failing to hang Romney with his own positions ideologically (they put much greater emphasis on maligning his character and his business record). But the fact remains that campaigns are often reluctant to believe they can educate the public on an opponent’s world view, and it’s easier to find an isolated issue or two where the opponent doesn’t agree with swing voters and just pound away on that (that’s what Bruce Braley’s campaign has done with Joni Ernst until quite recently).

But giving opponents the freedom to characterize themselves ideologically is risky in campaigns, and potentially disastrous in the long run. That concern arises anew from Rand Paul’s fairly transparent efforts to sanitize himself from suspicions that he is a crazy person who hangs with racists and anarchists by becoming the most conspicuous Republican advocate for outreach to African-Americans.

As Paul Waldman notes today, Sen. Paul is too smart to believe that adding criminal justice reform (a very worthy initiative but one that still has significantly greater Democratic than Republican support) to the old “empowerment” chestnuts of school vouchers and inner-city tax credits is really going to wipe out decades of GOP white identity politics when it comes to its ability to attract black voters. No, as with George W. Bush’s “compassionate conservatism,” the real targets for Paul are white moderates who want evidence Republicans aren’t the cads they sometimes appear to be, and the MSM, which for a variety of complicated reasons wants to believe the GOP is “moving to the center.”

As I’ve said repeatedly here, the conquest of the Republican Party by a newly radicalized conservative movement is the most important political phenomenon of our era. At some point this insight, which is widely shared by elite observers of the Left, the Center-Left, and even the non-partisan Center-Right, needs to be shared with the general public. There’s a value to that which transcends any individual election.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.