Presidential Primaries 1948-2012
A Brief History of Electability
One of the siren songs raised in favor of moderate and establishment-backed candidates every primary election season is that they are “electable” and their opponents are not. Sometimes, this is frankly code for “not like those conservatives.” But if the idea that conservatives are unelectable is a fallacy, so too is the reflexive assumption that any candidate described as “electable” is actually the opposite, or is not any sort of conservative. History reminds us that good candidates win and bad ones lose, and while ideology can matter more or less depending where and when the election is held, neither conservatives nor moderates have any monopoly on winning elections. And if you look at the history of failed GOP “electability” candidates, you will find that they were usually moderates who faced significantly weaker and/or non-conservative opponents.
Let’s take a two-part walk through the history of electability arguments, starting with a review of the GOP primaries from 1948 to 2012. In the second part, I’ll look at statewide swing-state races over the past decade to consider what kinds of Republican candidates actually do win contested elections.
Electability in the GOP Presidential Primaries, 1948-2012
The Republican Party’s internal conservative/moderate divides go back to the era of William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt, but we can first see them play out in something like public presidential nominating contests in the post World War II era, and they flowered much more dramatically after the primary system was handed over to 50-state popular vote campaigns in 1976.
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