Quora Questions: Why Don't GOP Candidates Move to the Center?

Donald Trump at a rally at the Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi, Michigan, on September 30. Jonathan Ernst/reuters

Quora Questions are part of a partnership between Newsweek and Quora, through which we'll be posting relevant and interesting answers from Quora contributors throughout the week. Read more about the partnership here.

Answer from Michael Lee, public policy analyst:

Why are some GOP nominees so obsessed with catering to their base in the general election—rather than heading to the center as Nixon recommended? Simple answer: it works! When the base shows up, the party usually does well. This is true of Republicans and Democrats, of course, which is why you hear so much talk about whether liberals will show up to vote for Secretary Hillary Clinton, too.

The quintessential example of the base motivating a win is the 2004 election.

Faced with an increasingly unpopular war in Iraq (one that would eventually cost Republicans Congress in 2006), President George W. Bush ran for re-election by motivating the Republican base to show up. There were lots of actions that went into that strategy, but the most visible example was anti-same-sex marriage initiatives placed onto the ballot in numerous states. (I read once that those were supposedly Karl Rove’s idea, though I’m not sure). The Republican base—back then, far more hostile to the idea, as hard as that might be to imagine—turned out to vote “no” on same-sex marriage, and as a corollary, they voted to re-elect President Bush.

There were plenty of other factors, of course, so don’t think that was the only thing going for Republicans or against Democrats back then. That’s just a high-profile example. And President Bush cruised to re-election, increasing his margin from 2000 in both the popular and electoral votes.

You can interpret that election in numerous ways, too, but the flip side of the Republican base coin is assessing what happened with the Democratic base. In 2004, Democrats nominated a veteran in then-Senator John Kerry in hopes of neutralizing the “weak on Iraq” argument, but never got too excited about him. Lacking Democratic enthusiasm coupled with his campaign’s seemingly laser-like focus on his service in Vietnam didn’t prove to be sufficient to defeat the sitting President.

When the votes were tallied in 2004, President Bush had more than 62 million—a total that neither Senator John McCain nor Governor Mitt Romney could match.

Now, McCain’s case is interesting—remember, back in 2000, he was the anti-establishment pick. (There’s a reason he and Governor Sarah Palin made so much of the “maverick” label when he chose her to be his running mate in 2008!) So by 2008, when the Republican Party was dealing with the Bush Administration’s political fallout, he needed to shore up support from mainline Republicans he’d opposed in 2000. Hence, among other things, the Palin pick—she was widely known in conservative circles as an up-and-comer, though his campaign definitely didn’t prepare her for the national exposure.

In Donald Trump’s case, I’m inclined to think it doesn’t have anything to do with a conventional base/middle strategy. Trump’s never embraced that kind of thinking with respect to electoral strategy. I suspect he’d decided that he wasn’t going to let the media dictate anything to him, up to and including their demands that he distance himself from white nationalists. The interesting thing there is that Governor Mike Pence has been out explaining Trump’s denunciations of David Duke, for example, but Trump himself hasn’t kowtowed to the media’s demands of him. That dovetails nicely with his strategy of stringing the media along when it suits his interests.

So George W. Bush got the base out and won. McCain and Romney didn’t and lost. It remains to be seen what will happen with Trump.

Why are some GOP nominees so obsessed with catering to their base in the general election — rather than heading to the center as Nixon recommended? originally appeared on Quora—the knowledge-sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. More questions: