Dr. Thomas Sowell at Stanford University is a leading conservative voice. I wasn’t surprised to see him claim that Mitt Romney lost because he was too moderate. It’s an old argument by loyal conservatives: when a candidate loses, it is because he’s too moderate.
Sowell claims that the reason Romney and other so-called moderates lose is because the message is muddled, and doesn’t really stand for anything. I’ll grant him this one, but on the moderate stand, I can’t concur.
If Sowell’s theory is correct, we would reach the following conclusions. First, Mitt Romney would have run a moderate platform for much of his campaign. Second, Romney polled better when he ran as a conservative instead of a moderate. Third, conservatives would outperform moderates in other elections.
Sowell and other conservatives claim that whenever someone loses, it is because he or she was moderate. But Mitt Romney actually ran as a conservative in much of his campaign, by his own admission. Remember when he insisted during the primary that “I was a severely conservative governor?” He also flanked Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry and Ron Paul by running to the right of them, especially on immigration (which later helped cost him the election).
That’s also why Romney lagged behind President Barack Obama for most of the campaign. Angry conservatives blamed the “Obama attack machine,” but much of the Democratic President’s script came from Gingrich, Perry, Paul, and even Rick Santorum’s own lines criticizing Romney for being a “vulture capitalist” instead of a “venture capitalist?” Check those ads if you don’t believe me.
But Romney did throw a huge scare into the Obama reelection machine on October 3. That’s when Romney threw the conservative playbook out the window and crafted a moderate message, which erased Obama’s big lead in the polls. Feel free to go to real clear politics or even Nate Silver’s site to see Romney’s dramatic bounce in surveys. That’s how Romney went from losing by nearly double-digits to only a 47.34-50.6 percent loss, and narrow defeats in swing states. Yes, Democrats, that 61.48 percent win in the Electoral College was a lot closer than it looks on the map.
If conservatives did such a good job, we would expect other arch-conservatives like Missouri Representative Todd Akin to knock out the Senator with the lowest approval rating, instead of losing 55 percent-39 percent. Or we would see TEA Party favorite Richard Mourdock to prevail against Congressman Joe Donnelly, instead of blowing the race. By the way, ousted moderate Republican Senator Dick Lugar was leading Donnelly by a 2 to 1 margin. Sure moderate Senator Scott Brown lost, but he outperformed Romney in Massachusetts by a wide margin, and could win John Kerry’s seat in a special election.
Sowell is right about one thing: mushy messages don’t sell. Ronald Reagan, who would have been TEA Party primaried today for being too centrist, offered a consistent message that appealed to much of the country, instead of out-of-touch liberalism. Even though Romney’s last minute moderate conversion almost won it, voters just couldn’t trust the abrupt switch. The G.O.P. should remember that in 2016.
John A. Tures is an associate professor of political science at LaGrange College.