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    Science: Moderation Did Not Lose McCain The Election, And Is An Asset For Electability – And That’s Why The “Establishment” Acts Like It Is

    Science: Moderation Did Not Lose McCain The Election, And Is An Asset For Electability – And That’s Why The “Establishment” Acts Like It Is

    There is a belief on the right that John McCain lost because he was too liberal and conservatives chose to stay home on election day. Some who hold this belief threaten to go Scozzafava on the GOP and refuse to work to stop Obama if Romney (or in fewer cases, even Gingrich, Perry, or assorted others) gets the nomination.

    This is a comforting view for many conservatives – it means we didn’t actually lose the 2008 election. It is the cousin of the liberals’ belief that conservatives won the 2004 election only because we were better wordsmiths, a view that was equally unproductive for any other purpose than making George Lakoff famous.

    The evidence does not support the claim that McCain lost because conservatives did not show up at the polls. Considering the economic conditions, the unpopularity of the incumbent Republican president, and Obama’s well-funded and well-run campaign, it would have been extremely difficult for a Republican to win no matter they were.

    However, even putting that aside, the evidence also quite specifically is not consistent with the claim that conservative discontent could have made the difference. Depressed conservative turnout did not happen.

    A Washington Post poll taken the day of the election of registered voters found 34% conservatives, 21% liberals, and 43% moderates. The last 15 daily polls the Washington Post conducted before the election averaged 21.4% liberal, 41.2% moderate, and 34.2% conservative.

    The national exit poll showed that those who voted were 34% conservative, 44% moderate, and 22% liberal – pretty much mirroring the registered voters.  This is actually remarkable, considering the advantages that Obama had over McCain in funds and underlying economic and political conditions.  If anything, we should have expected turnout to skew against conservatives.

    It is possible that the Obama campaign may have done a better job of registering voters, although that cannot account for that large a percentage of the electorate.  Also, the difference between registered voters and adults is tiny, and surely the number of disgruntled conservatives who refused to vote for McCain make up a fairly minuscule proportion of the not-registered-to-vote population.

    Other factors militated against conservative turnout as well.  The fact that the Obama campaign had a vastly better funded operation than the McCain campaign (mostly due to the desire to give to winners and the support bonus he garnered from Bush’s unpopularity and the bad economy), and the differential effects of economic impacts on the parties (i.e. the effect-via-registration-and-turnout of the economic conditions that mostly determine presidential elections) are ordinarily worth quite a lot. These issues go hand-in-hand, and while differential campaign effects can swing especially close elections , they probably are mostly included (indirectly) in economics-based forecasting models since predictors of support in turn predict campaign resources.  This is also why McCain’s moderation losing him the race by suppressing volunteering is also implausible, along with the fact that there should be some evidence of depressed conservative turnout under such circumstances as well.

    While 20% of  conservatives voted for Obama, it is unlikely that these included many conservative purists. It is well established that far more people call themselves conservative than actually are – the vast majority of these were real CINO’s, not protest voters, and even in 2004, a with a vastly weaker (electorally) Democratic candidate , 15% of “conservatives” voted for John Kerry.

    In short, the ideological breakdown of the 2008 electorate shows no depressed conservative turnout and is overdetermined as it is – there is no known unexplained difference that could be plausibly attributed to McCain’s moderation, and in fact conservative turnout may even be better than expected under the circumstances.  This is not to say that no conservative stayed home, but this analysis has also not considered the non-zero quantity of moderates that turned out for McCain but might not have voted for a True Conservative.

    But enough about that one race.  The current state of science is that looking at the full historical picture, moderation is an electoral asset.

    The Republican field is now probably narrowed down to the two candidates with the most heterodox records (other than John “We Are The 1%, Literally” Huntsman and Magneto). True, Romney owns his record of moderation more than Gingrich. Gingrich has been in politics so long that commentators or opponents can seek to portray him as the far-right mean ol’ “Gingrinch Who Stole Christmas” or Scozzafava and Pelosi’s boy-toy, depending on the biases and motivations of the accusing rhetorician.

    Considering the current landscape, it is important to emphasize that the scientific consensus on presidential elections is that moderation is an asset – not a liability – for electability.

    There are numerous statistical models of that predict presidential election outcomes, mostly relying on economic indicators. When the challenger is considered at all, the relevant variable is generally their moderation. Other studies find an overall benefit to moderation for members of Congress as well.  Similarly, most rational-choice theory and game theory work, particularly common in the analysis of congressional voting, assumes that voters will usually support the closest option to their ideal, meaning that those with fairly extreme views will frequently  compromise rather than render themselves irrelevant and make no gains whatsoever. Much to many activists’ chagrin, this does explain congressional behavior fairly well.

    Now it is possible that someone establishes as the new king of the hill a better model for predicting or explaining presidential elections that demonstrates that overly-moderate but plausible candidates will lose more base votes than they will gain from the center  – as always, science marches on.

    But until then, “establishment” politicians and consultants, immersed in data and the election sciences, are going to treat the current state of science as fact, as they should. And that means assuming that more extreme candidates are probably harder to elect than more moderate ones, or at least that, else equal, going more extreme in a tough election is not a good strategy.

    This does not mean the most moderate possible candidate is always the best option. Instead, it recommends the Buckley Rule, which, based on the idea that conservatives can’t win elections without moderates, says to vote for the most conservative candidate in the primary who can beat the Democrat. This rule was famously suspended by Rush Limbaugh in 2010 in order to support Christine O’Donnell over Mike Castle.

    This brings up another important point. While Republicans hurl steady streams of RINO accusations at each other, the main strategic point of contention is whether we prefer the advice of William F. Buckley or Rush Limbaugh. Most people in differing GOP factions are not actually that far apart.  When looking at it that way, these fights and accusations about who is a legitimate conservative look a bit silly.

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    Comments



     
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    RightKlik | November 21, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    There’s a lot I’d like to respond to in this post but I’ll limit it to a few points.

    First, I’d note that the language we use in these discussions often seems to favor liberals. We hear a lot about moderate and conservative Democrats as well as moderate Republicans, but where are the liberal Republicans?

    The middle of the spectrum seems to be shifted left a bit.

    What’s responsible for this left shift?

    The MSM generally shapes the debate and would have us believe that conservatives in the Republican party have dragged the party so far to the right that there’s no such thing as a liberal Republican.

    This perception seems to have become reality. So in 2008 we had a “conservative” John McCain and a “moderate” Barack Obama.

    Likewise, in 2012, no matter who the Republicans nominate, whether it’s Ron Paul or Michele Bachmann or Mitt Romney, the Republican will be described as a “conservative” and Obama (his record notwithstanding) will often be portrayed as moderate.

    The “moderate” label is quite ductile and malleable.

    Matthew, you said that “It is well established that far more people call themselves conservative than actually are…” I strongly suspect that a similar phenomenon exists for moderates, i.e., a lot of uncommitted, independent voters who call themselves “moderate” regularly vote for candidates who are NOT moderate.

    In other words, a voter can just as easily mislabel himself a moderate as he can mislabel himself a conservative.

    I’m not sure how much success Republicans can expect to achieve by chasing after the moderate label. Whoever they chose in any important contested race will be labeled an extremist of some sort.

    The quality of the candidate matters, but conservative ideology is not a liability.


       
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      RightKlik in reply to RightKlik. | November 21, 2011 at 8:19 pm

      “It is well established that far more people call themselves conservative than actually are…”

      It is well-established that polls of American adults skew to the left of those who actually show up to vote.

    This post is ridiculous. Bring up David Souter if you think that there is not a difference between conservative and establishment Republicans; see what reactions you get. There is so much wrong here, I can’t even begin to address all of it.


     
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    eaglephin | November 21, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    IMHO McCain lost because he could not articulate a clear and convincing conservative vision of America with him as president. Reagan swayed people to the right. McCain was in the middle but Obama swayed them to the left.


     
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    RightKlik | November 21, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    “While 20% of conservatives voted for Obama, it is unlikely that these included many conservative purists. It is well established that far more people call themselves conservative than actually are – the vast majority of these were real CINO’s, not protest voters…”

    I’m not sure this statement can be supported with evidence. Obama ran as a moderate and he was presented as such by most of the media. I see no reason to assume that these conservatives were “CINOs.”


     
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    Matthew Knee | November 21, 2011 at 8:49 pm

    RightKlik: Adults polls skew to the left on policy/partisanship. Not sure on declared ideology, for reasons I explained and because adults universes, being lower-information, are likely more unstable (thus more subject to momentary trends such as Obama having a hard time), but it is possible. However, the reg voters polls, especially due to their timing (which renders those 2009 polls irrelevant), are still a far better apples-to-apples comparison, and I explained above that the difference is just not enough to matter anyway.

    In terms of the 20%, we know that there are a bunch of folks out there who wrongly believe their views to be conservative, so surely this group will be a good portion of the “conservatives” for Obama. Furthermore, I used Kerry’s share of the conservative vote as a baseline, and it is not that much lower. Obama did much better than Kerry, so he should be expected to do better with such a group. When one removes baseline level of “conservatives” who vote Democrat and account for Obama being a better candidate than Kerry, the POSSIBLE impact, even if conservatives who thought McCain was too moderate mostly expressed that by voting for Obama (a fairly implausible story I might add, and certainly no more than a fraction of the unexplained difference), is minuscule.


       
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      RightKlik in reply to Matthew Knee. | November 22, 2011 at 3:14 am

      “RightKlik: Adults polls skew to the left on policy/partisanship…”

      The flip side of that observation is that voters skew to the right on policy/partisanship.

      The peculiarities of the of the 2008 election make the results more difficult to interpret.

      In 2008, among committed conservatives who otherwise might have stayed home to protest a weak, moderate Republican nominee, the threat of a historically bad, extremely liberal president was too important to ignore. So conservatives did show up, but primarily to vote against Obama, not for McCain.

      “The evidence does not support the claim that McCain lost because conservatives did not show up at the polls.”

      Reluctant rock-ribbed conservatives did indeed show up, but they showed up to vote against the liberal. Ultimately those conservatives were unable to do much to help overcome the strength of the Obama campaign because they were unable to convince themselves or their low-information, uncommitted “conservative” compatriots that McCain was a candidate worthy of support.

      “The national exit poll showed that those who voted were 34% conservative, 44% moderate, and 22% liberal – pretty much mirroring the registered voters. This is actually remarkable, considering the advantages that Obama had over McCain in funds and underlying economic and political conditions. If anything, we should have expected turnout to skew against conservatives.”

      It’s not remarkable at all, considering the extent to which Obama stimulated his own opposition.

      Again, these data could just as easily support the argument that many conservatives showed up only because the Democrats lurched so far to the left. If McCain’s listless conservative supporters were more motivated than one might have predicted, that reflects on Obama. These data do not necessarily support the notion that the “moderate” Republican met or exceeded expectations. The results of the Electoral College vote (Obama 365, McCain 173) were pretty much in line with the lowest expectations, skewing very badly against conservatives.

      Moderate voters (including marginal conservatives) were presented with two ostensibly moderate options; unsurprsingly, they went with the fresh-faced novelty moderate.

      “This is not to say that no conservative stayed home, but this analysis has also not considered the non-zero quantity of moderates that turned out for McCain but might not have voted for a True Conservative.”

      An important question would be, “Which group was bigger?” Even more important: “Which group would be bigger in 2012?”

      Given that moderates are not fully wedded to ideology (as evidenced by their very existence) one could argue that ceteris paribus, conservatives will be more powerfully influenced by the ideology (or lack thereof) of any given candidate.

      On the other hand, “true” conservatives and “true” Liberals can attract moderates in droves (See Reagan, Obama).

      Extremists present a problem, but they aren’t leading in the race to replace Obama. In fact, I would submit that conservatives nominated by the GOP are almost always well within the mainstream. Conservative analysts and commentators have probably not done enough to underscore that point.

      “While 20% of conservatives voted for Obama, it is unlikely that these included many conservative purists.”

      That would be a safe bet, I’m sure.

      We can’t expect voters to line up for weak or unconventional candidates, but all things being equal, I see no reason to assume that centrist candidates like Mitt Romney are better equipped hold marginal conservatives in their orbit around the Republican party. Voters who are closer the middle are probably looking at personality and pursuasiveness more than they’re looking at policy and ideology. With both parties determined to produce candidates who all blend together at the midpoint, it’s no wonder many marginal conservatives find it easy to drift to the Democrats.

      “…it recommends the Buckley Rule, which, based on the idea that conservatives can’t win elections without moderates, says to vote for the most conservative candidate in the primary who can beat the Democrat. This rule was famously suspended by Rush Limbaugh in 2010 in order to support Christine O’Donnell over Mike Castle.”

      Conservatives have been burned too often by people like Arlen Specter and Lisa Murkowski (and Murkowski’s Republican supporters in the U.S. Senate). They won’t be easily swayed by the cautionary tale of Christine O’Donnell. Moreover, the O’Donnell story has some important lessons for lazy GOP insiders, if they care to take note.

      Perhaps the most important lesson is that “good strategy” isn’t always going to accomodate the safe, insider-approved candidate who is “next in line.” Recruiting a candidate more conservative than Castle and more electable than O’Donnell might have been quite difficult, but the results couldn’t have been worse for the GOP than what actually transpired.

      GOP insiders insisted on Castle, and Castle failed to deliver. The GOP establishment’s good strategy failed. The Republicans’ professional pols and consultants need to take some responsibility for that.

      Conservatives aren’t always going to settle for the “scientifically” vetted, technocratically-correct candidate if they don’t trust the candidate and if the candidate can’t convince anyone that he/she is a distinct alternative to the Democrat.

      I think republicans do need to be careful about nominating someone who’s too moderate in 2012. Obama has the strength of incumbency now and all the support of the MSM. And I’m sure Obama’s just as good a campaigner as he ever was. I don’t know if a 3rd-place moderate from 2008 can overcome those challenges. If the GOP base can’t make a positive case for the Republican nominee, moderate Obama voters will only move to the Republican if economy in ruins or if there’s some unexpected disater for the Democrats.


         
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        Matthew Knee in reply to RightKlik. | November 22, 2011 at 9:24 am

        The thing is, there will always be a Democrat who hardcore conservatives don’t like hanging over their heads if they don’t vote (and vice versa for hardcore liberals). That’s built into the rationales behind the models. Not backing a candidate you consider too moderate pretty much always will have the cost of someone worse being elected.

        It is possible that Obama was more objectionable than most, but conservative turnout in 2008 was the same as the much more favorable 2004 election, more than the 2000 election, and one point lower than the 1996 election (and in all these years, Gallup’s adult yearly average was better for conservatives than in 2008).

        For your scenario to be correct, conservative turnout were it not for those who stayed home would have to have been of landslide proportions in an election that should have been much worse than the last few elections, especially 2004, and that’s just not plausible.

        Also, if the hardcore conservatives stayed home in such huge numbers, the number of self-identified conservatives who voted for Obama would be elevated enormously. Instead, it is only elevated 5 points from a year in which the Democrats did 5 points worse, meaning that there is minimal wiggle room on that number.


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