Why did Mitt Romney lose the 2012 election? There are lots of reasons one could offer. When I think back on his candidacy, I think of the ways his positions shifted (from relatively liberal in some areas, useful when running for governor of Massachusetts) to pretty conservative (useful when running in the Republican presidential primaries). And I think of some of his bizarre comments, like saying he had advisors bring him binders full of women and how the trees in Michigan are the right height. Immediately after the 2012 election, conservatives offered their own explanation: Mitt Romney wasn’t a true conservative. If he had been, then he would have attracted mass support from true conservatives, enough support to easily defeat President Obama.
This same argument is used today by those who support Republican presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz. An essay at The Federalist argues that Ted Cruz is the only true conservative in the race. Marco Rubio has said the same thing.
Meanwhile, the same thing is happening on the Democratic side, with candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders arguing over who the “true” progressive is in the race. Each wishes to hold the title, and each has an argument against the other using the title.
It strikes me that the logic used by candidates from both parties can be expressed as a simple equation:
Political Prosperity = Ideological Purity + error
All candidates are arguing that their nomination will lead to party success, while nominating their opponent would lead to failure. But, of course, this is only argumentation, as we have to hold the election to truly see who wins. As such, their arguments for their own ideological purity are merely an imprecise measure of political prosperity. Every other factor has to get lumped in the error term.
And you know who looms out of that error term? Donald Trump, who currently leads Ted Cruz in Republican delegates. Mr. Trump would not call himself ideologically pure or a true conservative. (At some point in time, we must acknowledge that there is so much bluster in any political campaign, mixed with unending commentary, that a search for a candidate’s name and the phrase “true [conservative, progressive, etc.]” turns up plenty of results. I am trying to make an argument, while also respecting all the people who indeed have called Mr. Trump a “true conservative.” There are some.) Mr. Trump has called himself a “commonsense conservative,” which has a pragmatic ring to it.
We could also look to President Obama as another person who fits in that error term. Mr. Obama has famously eschewed politicking. He has argued that his positions are commonsense and that there are many areas that both Republicans and Democrats can agree on. Indeed, his favored legislation to increase the number of Americans with health insurance is based on a plan from a conservative think tank (the Heritage Foundation) and was previously implemented by Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. I think Mr. Obama would be happy to call himself progressive, but he has shown continued disinterest in ideological purity.
Perhaps this is simply the difference between running for office and actual governance. Ms. Clinton, Mr. Cruz, and Mr. Sanders have legislative records that they must present to the public. (Ms. Clinton also has leadership experience, especially her time as Secretary of State.) Mr. Trump has his business experience, which involves deals and dictates more than policy. Mr. Obama, in seeking reelection in 2012, had his governance and leadership. Naturally, leading is more pragmatic than advocacy, and a president must actually govern, while a senator is more an advocate for the people of her state.
In any case, the argument of ideological purity as a determinant of political prosperity seems an odd one to me. Even if purity could help win an election (and I find no evidence that it can), it is surely less useful in governance. A candidate can declare she will push to lower taxes until economists crunch the numbers and suggest it is impossible without massive spending cuts. A candidate can decry drone strikes and state he will ban their use until a military leader has a dangerous terrorist in their sights and asks to pull the trigger.
In the case of this equation, ideological purity might be a useful rhetorical tool, but the error term is too large for it to offer much prediction of political success. Purity makes perfect bluster, but the realities of politics often bust the blustering candidate.