Down and out.

Photographer: Andy Manis/Getty Images

Walker's Fall and Why Conservatives Lose

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

What went wrong for Scott Walker? Several theories abound, and I'll add one, too. But first consider what political scientist Patrick Egan said:

Keeping his admonition in mind, let's look at some of the explanations we've heard for Walker's early exit.

Washington Examiner's Byron York, for example, makes the case that Walker simply wasn't up to snuff on basic issues, international and domestic.

But every candidate has weaknesses. It wouldn't have been hard to explain why Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008 lost the Republican nomination. Yet both won it. So we can't know, in isolation, if Walker was an inherently weak candidate.

Another theory: I like Nate Silver's reminder that luck may play a significant role in nomination politics. It's easy to imagine slightly different circumstances yielding different results. What if Donald Trump hadn't gotten in, or flamed out quickly? What if Walker had simply been asked more questions during the two debates he participated in? (He talked, as Silver shows, the least of any of the candidates.)

A third possible explanation comes from my View colleague Ramesh Ponnuru, who argues (as Silver does) that "there's no middle lane in the Republican primaries." That is, a candidate can't simultaneously please hardcore and moderate conservatives at the same time. Ultimately, Walker "wasn't pure enough for the purists," but his efforts to satisfy them pushed away mainstream conservatives.

But if there's no path available for a very conservative candidate to be acceptable to the rest of the party, then it isn't a coincidence that relatively moderate conservatives including Romney and McCain win nominations.

In fact, not only do those candidates win, but they rarely have a strong (more) conservative opponent in the end.  Candidates who seem like the logical choice for the "Buckley Rule" -- the idea that conservatives should vote for the "rightwardmost viable candidate" -- simply don’t get coordinated support from conservative party actors. So Walker is out early this time (and another strongly conservative candidate, Bobby Jindal, for example, has floundered). 

Part of the reason that the most conservative viable candidates have faded in the last several presidential cycles is that the winning GOP nominee -- Romney, McCain, George W. Bush -- adopted their platform. So in some ways, hardliners are getting their way. But no one believes that these more mainstream nominees have the same conservative instincts as the hardliners do.

So why haven't the purists followed the Buckley Rule and rallied around candidates such as Walker?

Some of it is the inherent nature of what Ponnuru correctly calls "purism." If all you care about is perfection, then every candidate is going to come up short. 

Another possibility is that some conservative opinion leaders face perverse incentives because of the way the conservative marketplace doles out rewards.

It's well-known that conservative books and talk shows have higher ratings when a Democrat is in the White House and that losing can be a lucrative option for conservative candidates. This doesn't mean conservatives deliberately tank elections. But the entire U.S. political system is built on incentives for ambitious politicians, and it's important to be aware when the normal rewards are running backward.

How many talk-show hosts present themselves as True Conservatives who preach the truth against party RINOs such as John Boehner? Could they do the same thing if Louie Gohmert was House speaker? Similarly, rallying around and nominating a Scott Walker (or Bobby Jindal or any other very conservative, traditionally qualified choice) would remove anger at the Republican Party from their arsenal. Some radio hosts have been talking up the not-very-conservative Donald Trump or Ben Carson, not conservatives who can win.

Fortunately for those who want to make sure that the most conservative electable candidate wins, there's a solution: Follow the Buckley Rule. Whether that means supporting Marco Rubio or Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum or Bobby Jindal, the point is to decide which one of the remaining viable candidates is most conservative, and coordinate on supporting him. If this doesn't happen, more moderate conservatives will pick the nominee. 

  1. Sure, Ben Carson is very conservative -- but candidates without conventional credentials for the job will be unacceptable to most party actors, regardless of how they do in early opinion polls. Telling sign? He has hardly any high-profile endorsements.

  2. The same dynamic works for Democrats. Ratings go up for liberal shows when Republicans hold the White House. It matters less because (for whatever reason) the liberal marketplace just isn't as robust, and therefore doesn't really develop significant perverse incentives.

  3. Viable candidates? Those who have conventional qualifications for the job, and are in the party mainstream on public policy. Ted Cruz might qualify on those counts, but has angered too many party actors to have a solid chance at the nomination. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net