Three GOP Electability Arguments

While we are on the subject of electability, we might as well get clear about the three very different electability arguments we are hearing–and are going to hear–from Republican presidential candidates in 2016.

Jeb Bush’s is the traditional Median Voter Theorem-driven argument: conservatives need to avoid extremism on issues where they disagree with swing voters–you know, like immigration and education. GOP needs to trust their nominees to be ideologically reliable and give them flexibility to “run to the center.”

Rand Paul, who challenged Ted Cruz’s “winnability” yesterday, is offering what I’d call the “new coalition” argument based on picking off independents and even Democrats via an emphasis on common areas of interest like criminal justice reform and privacy. This is not a “move to the center” argument; it’s more like “move the debate” to subjects where there is a natural convergence without the need for much compromise.

And then there is Cruz, and even more strikingly Scott Walker, offering the traditional, if much-mocked, movement conservative argument that a combination of ultra-high “base” turnout, “hidden voter” turnout, and swing voters attracted by the sheer principled power of unadulterated conservative ideas is the winning formula.

Walker is far and away the most articulate about this; his motto that “you don’t have to go to the center to win the center” is a direct repudiation of the traditional view Jeb’s team is espousing. And he has what he considers proof of this ancient conservative belief: his three wins in Wisconsin in four years, which he attributes to his ability to impress and attract Obama voters (a somewhat dubious proposition given the different electorates in presidential and midterm–not to mention specials like the Wisconsin recall election of 2012–elections, but it’s at least plausible) with exactly the kind of vicious and uncompromising conservatism the base prefers.

Cruz tries to emulate the Walker appeal by claiming he put together the same kind of “big tent” coalition in Texas, though it’s not real convincing since in his one general election he ran against weak Democratic opposition in a deep red state.

Other Republicans who may run in 2016 will likely offer variations on these three electability arguments. A John Kasich will probably echo Jeb’s move-to-the-center appeal. Marco Rubio is likely to have his own version of Rand Paul’s new-mindbending-coalition pitch. Huck and Santorum can try some hybrid between the ideological-shock-and-awe pitch of Walker and Cruz and the idea that their brand of “populism” will pull some Democrats across the divide.

But beware the tendency of the MSM to mash these all together and act like “electability” is a fixed quantity everyone agrees upon, or that voters concerned about “electability” don’t care about ideology and/or will obviously gravitate to the “electable” candidate of the elites, Jeb Bush. The word has many meanings in Republican-land.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.