He was right.

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Can Ben Carson Be a Barry Goldwater?

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.
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No, the Republican presidential nomination fight this year is nothing like 1964, despite the speculation of veteran pollster Peter Hart and others. And while it’s possible, it isn't especially likely the general election will wind up like 1964, either.

Hart raised the possibility of such a connection in commenting on Ben Carson's rise in the polls (including a survey conducted by Hart's outfit) and on how enduring those gains might be. "What if the cake is baked?" he said. "This is not a status-quo electorate."

But back in 1964 the Republican Party was a coalition of conservatives, moderates and liberals. Republicans of all ideological stripes were elected to Congress then. The conservatives opposed the foreign policy of engaging with the world through multinational treaties and organizations such as the United Nations. They opposed what would become the Great Society and, though they were nowhere near as explicitly bigoted as Democratic conservatives were on civil rights, they nevertheless opposed most civil-rights legislation.

They allied with Southern Democrats to often form a working majority, regardless of which party -- usually the Democrats -- had nominal control of both chambers. The bipartisan “conservative coalition” could block many liberal initiatives.

In Republican presidential politics, however, the moderates and liberals had control. They chose New York Governor Thomas Dewey in 1944 and 1948, and the people who supported Dewey (including the governor himself) recruited and backed Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, and supplied the personnel for his White House. They nominated Ike’s vice president, Richard Nixon, in 1960; while Nixon was a rabid anti-communist, he ran as a moderate successor to Eisenhower, not as a conservative.

But in 1964, the conservatives finally won the party's nod with Barry Goldwater. An enormous gap existed between him and Nelson Rockefeller, his liberal rival. And in 1980, the GOP conservatives prevailed for good when they nominated Ronald Reagan. Below the presidential level, the liberal wing of the Republican Party was basically wiped out entirely by the mid-1980s, and even moderates became scarce. Southern realignment was a big part of the story. The Dixiecrats were replaced by very conservative Republicans. 

Today, “moderate” candidates such as Jeb Bush and John Kasich have few disputes on policy with, say, Ted Cruz. They all call themselves conservatives; they use more or less the same ideological rhetoric. They are, for the most part, competing over the same groups of voters. Yes, there are significant disagreements between various types of conservatives -- on immigration, for example, or over the Export-Import Bank. But remember: Similar candidates try hard to differentiate themselves during primary elections by exaggerating their differences in order to win over groups of voters. 

Given the history, it's easy to see why many Republicans today are frustrated. Conservatives have been telling themselves at least since the 1950s that the key to their success was to take over the Republican Party. They did that some 30 years ago, yet they have utterly failed to undo the New Deal or the Great Society. The reasons for that failure are complicated, having to do with general-election results, with the status-quo bias of the U.S. political system, and with the deep unpopularity of many of the conservatives' policies.  But it isn't surprising they have turned on their own (very conservative) Republican leadership as a response. (Frustrated liberal Democrats often have a similar reaction to their party's leadership. )

If Republicans wind up choosing a candidate who was perceived as very conservative – Ted Cruz, for example -- they likely would suffer a penalty in the general election, just as the party suffered from nominating Goldwater in 1964 (and Democrats were hurt by George McGovern in 1972). It would be enough to make Hillary Clinton a solid favorite in what otherwise might be a tossup. 

And what if Republicans went off the rails entirely and nominated Carson? He would almost certainly pay a price for perceived ideological extremism, but it could be even worse than that. We don’t know how swing voters would react to a candidate without conventional qualifications for president, but the effect could be negative and large. We are in the realm of guesswork here, because no one similar has reached a presidential election in the modern era.

Of course, as I keep saying, it's still too early to take polls seriously, and Carson – like Donald Trump – has received virtually no support from visible Republican leaders. His faction, the Christian conservatives, have repeatedly failed to nominate their favorite presidential contender, especially if that person is a non-politician. Maybe they will succeed in nominating their second or third choice this year. But one thing is certain: 2016 will be nothing like 1964.

  1. By 1964 conservatives had accepted NATO, but they have never accepted the idea of alliances that involve mutual obligations; they believe the U.S. can and should act on its own in foreign affairs and national security.

  2. Many conservative proposals are quite popular; some of those have been carried out. But a lot of the bedrock agenda, such as opposition to Medicare and Medicaid or fundamental changes in Social Security, is difficult to act on because most voters don't approve.

  3. See: the Bernie Sanders campaign. Many Sanders supporters are merely making a rational calculation that support for a more liberal candidate will push the party in their direction. But others are certain that liberal ideals could have been carried out, if only Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and other Democratic politicians hadn't sold out.  

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