Republican Candidates Should Be Competent, Not Pure

Worry less about electioneering skills for the current election than about governing skills and the next one.

Mitt Romney never made a convincing conservative.

Photographer: David Ryder/Getty Images

Conservative writers Philip Klein at the Washington Examiner and Matt Lewis at the Daily Caller are having a nice discussion today about what the Republican Party should do in 2016. They’re both wrong.

Klein says Republicans can only win by nominating a conservative, though he doesn't make the tired argument that there’s an invisible bloc of right-wing voters who would magically show up if only the party stood up for true conservative principles. Instead, he makes the sensible point that moderate candidates (such as Mitt Romney and John McCain) who capture the Republican nomination by feigning conservative positions and principles wind up seeming awkward when they try to campaign on them.  

Lewis argues that all that matters is is the candidate's authenticity. The reason Romney seemed awkward is that he was an awkward candidate. If New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (not really a conservative, by these standards) wins the nomination, he won’t look awkward because he projects authenticity in whatever he does.

So why are Klein and Lewis both wrong?

Because there’s very little evidence that awkwardness makes any difference. In fact, candidate traits just don't matter much to voters. “Authenticity?” It’s mostly a phony idea. There’s no evidence that “authentic” candidates do well and inauthentic ones do poorly. Moreover, like charisma and other intangible supposed attributes, the causal arrow probably works more often in the other direction: Winning candidates create the perception of authenticity; losing candidates become phonies.

There is, however, a real penalty for being perceived as an ideological outlier -- and a reward for being perceived as a moderate, as the awkward and inauthentic Romney was in 2012. Voters tend to favor those candidates who voters perceive to be closer to them. Ideological extremes aren't a disqualifier (after all, Ronald Reagan was perceived as very conservative in 1980, but overcame that because Jimmy Carter was such an unpopular president), but it does hurt some. 

Whether it’s worth risking a few percentage points in the general election in order to run a more reliable conservative (or, on the other side, liberal; the arguments are equally valid for both sides) is a judgment call and political science probably doesn't have an answer. If asked, I’d say to worry less about electioneering skills for the current election than about governing skills and the next one. Electoral results are often out of the control of incumbent politicians, but to the extent that they can be affected, it’s by governing well and generating positive outcomes. And in the long run, conservative principles will almost certainly be advanced more by a skilled Republican who is only faking his real conservatism than by a real conservative who isn’t very good at presidenting.

Predicting who will have good governing skills isn’t easy; it’s even hard to agree about who was good at it after the fact. But at least if the parties focus on looking for candidates who have those qualities, they'll be deciding based on attributes that really will matter.

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