Up until two months ago, most political consultants within the DC Beltway would tell you that you need a “moderate” candidate in order to win an election. That candidate, the consultants would tell you, should be a centrist, an establishment-type, someone who makes most people safe and secure. Someone predictable.
Outsiders, consultants explain, are unknown quantities; unable to steal votes from the sacred independent, middle-of-the-road voters who often carry much weight in so-called purple states like Ohio.
Conventional wisdom dictates that in order to win the general election, the primary candidate has to draw from the middle to outpace his/her opponent.
This presidential race is unlike many other races in recent history, for both the Democrats and the Republicans. But is there any truth in the theory that moderate candidates are effective for either party?
The establishment didn’t work for the GOP
Republicans bristle at the idea of an “establishment” centrist candidate. They point to the last 20 years, in which they have won only two presidential elections after unsuccessfully nominating Bob Dole in 1996, John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.
In each of those Republican primaries, anti-establishment outsiders were quickly sent packing. Sam Brownback, Jim Gimore and Tom Trancedo were all anti-establishment outsiders in the 2008 GOP race. Rick Santorum, Buddy Roema, Michelle Bachman and Rick Perry were all anti-establishment, political outsiders. Where are they today?
The establishment rarely works for Democrats
In 2008, Senator Hillary Clinton’s star was shining brightly. She seemed to be the heir apparent for the Democratic nomination. She was, by definition, a Washington insider and portrayed herself in the same mold as her husband: a pragmatic moderate who could get things done.
But a war-weary electorate was looking for something fresh. They rejected all the insiders (Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, John Edwards and Bill Richardson), instead rolling the dice on a virtual poltical unknown with almost no experience in Washington DC.
But the election of Barack Obama was an anomaly in politics. It defied conventional wisdom. Clinton’s campaign consultants wound up with egg on their faces.
In 2000, the Democrats took the safe bet with Al Gore, who is about as establishment as they come. Of course, we all know that Gore came within inches of winning that election, and that he was able to sway independent voters. But still, it was not enough.
Four years later, John Kerry, another insider and establishment type fended off political outsiders such as Howard Dean and Wesley Clark. He also beat other insiders Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman and Dennis Kucinich.
When outsiders make a splash
Many Republicans still blame billionaire Ross Perot for handing Democrat Bill Clinton a victory over President George HW Bush in 1992; and Democrats still seethe when they speculate about the damage that Ralph Nader played in 2000, supposedly stealing very critical votes from Al Gore.
This campaign cycle, both the Democratic Party and Republicans have their hands filled with so-called outsiders.
I don’t know how you describe Bernie Sanders as an “outsider” because he’s been a part of Washington’s infrastructure for nearly 16 years. But he is most certainly not an “establishment,” middle of the road candidate. He is a self-described socialist, but his poll numbers look good in both Iowa and New Hamshire. He will likely get crushed in South Carolina, but are Democrats fired up enough to “feel the bern” past Nevada?
And then there’s Donald Trump, a candidate who is all over the map. Trump defies every ounce of campaign logic known to man.
The establishment is beside itself. The National Review and Rich Lowry can’t stop him or slow him down. His off-the-cuff remarks about immigrants, Muslims and even war heroes only makes him more popular.
He is an egomaniac who has filed for bankruptcy four times. Yet, he describes himself as a fiscal conservative who can make “America Great Again.” (He’s just short on specifics)
So maybe, just maybe, this will be the year when Republican voters tell the consultants to just stuff it.