For the GOP, It’s Always a Base Election

I wonder if anyone has come up with workable definition of a base election. The idea is simple enough. Some elections are won not by winning an argument with the other side and persuading swing voters or independents or undecideds, but by doing a better job than your opponents in convincing your core voters to turn out to vote.

It seems to me that this is roughly how the Republicans won the 2004 presidential election, and also probably how they won the 2002 midterms. It’s definitely how they won the midterms in 2010 and 2014. On the other hand, I think the Democrats were successful in 2006 and 2008 precisely because they convinced people in the middle (and even many Republicans) to come over to their side. I think you can probably make the same case for 2012, although that seems to have been more of a hybrid of the two.

In any case, it seems to me that the Republicans last won a presidential election using a base mobilization strategy in 2004, and we shouldn’t forget how close of a call that was. When the polls closed, most people looking at the exit polls thought that John Kerry had won. And he would have won if Bush hadn’t done such a great job getting out his base in Ohio. Yes, there were also shenanigans in Ohio that may have changed the outcome, but it’s definite that the red parts of Ohio turned out in huge numbers, largely motivated by their opposition to gay marriage.

So, 2004 is a fairly recent example that shows that the Republicans could theoretically win a base election. It won’t be easy to replicate, though. First, demographic changes since 2004 have made it harder for the Republicans to win a base election because their base is now smaller and the Democrats’ base is now larger. Second, it helped Bush a lot that he was the incumbent and could direct media coverage and attention at will. It also helped that he had a willing partner in shenanigans in then-Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell.

Since 2004, the Republicans have tried and failed twice to win an election by pandering to their base rather than pursuing voters in the middle. All the proof you need of that is that Sarah Palin and Paul Ryan were chosen as running mates, both of whom were supposed to please the mouth-breathers and rally them to the cause.

After the Republicans lost in 2012, the RNC’s after-report was clear about the futility of trying to win a base election again in 2016. Yet, the idea seems more popular right now than it was in the last two cycles. Perhaps the only thing that’s changed is the idea of how to give the base what it wants. Does it want someone who is frothing at the mouth about immigration even if they’re pretty inconsistent as a conservative on many other issues? Or, are they looking for the most hated man in Washington, DC, just because they hate Washington, DC so very much?

That’s really the choice they have between Trump and Cruz, although Trump promises to at least change the shape of the Republican base. That doesn’t mean he will enlarge it though.

This is admittedly a weird election season and unpredictable, but I think a base election is close to unwinnable for the Republican Party in a presidential year. If they win, I don’t think it will be because their base turned out and the Democrats’ base did not. If they win it will because the persuadable voters liked their candidate better than the Democratic candidate. And the more their candidate panders to the base, the less likely that the persuadable voters will like them better.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.