Although the 2014 election cycle is just getting started for the dwindling number of Americans still taking their civic duty seriously, the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination will be underway in my state only six months from now.
Within Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state, potential GOP presidential candidates are already reaching out to people like me and surveying the landscape. Sen. Marco Rubio was just here for our U.S. Senate primary, as was Texas Governor Rick Perry. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee was the keynote speaker at a gathering of Christian conservatives in May. Texas Senator Ted Cruz landed the coveted keynote speaking slot in front of Iowa’s politically active home-school community earlier this spring. A group very influential in the caucuses.
With Republican U.S. Senate nominee Joni Ernst in a winnable race this fall against Rep. Bruce Braley, expect potential 2016 Republican presidential standard-bearers to try and use her statewide campaign as a launching pad for their own. Ms. Ernst should have no problem attracting national GOP star power on the campaign trail.
So what are Iowa conservatives looking for?
After suffering through two straight presidential election losses, and losing the popular vote in five of the last six, even conservatives are now talking about “electability.” Of course, conservatives have a different idea of what that term means than the ruling class in Washington, D.C.
For the beltway ruling class, “electability” has two meanings:
1) Only the ruling class itself gets to actually define it.
2) Only candidates willing to uphold the current corporatist vs. Marxist status quo in both parties’ leadership can possibly get elected, lest the gravy train be threatened.
But what does “electability” mean for conservatives? Is there a blueprint for conservatives to follow so that we can avoid the Republican Party establishment snatching defeat from the jaws of victory yet again?
History says yes.
Since the rise of Ronald Reagan and the modern conservative movement along with it in 1976, every national election won by the GOP has followed the same template. Republicans win not by ignoring demographics or pandering to them. Republicans win by tailoring their principles to those demographics.
That begins in the primary, where the demographics favor movement conservatives. The last two GOP presidential nominees failed to obtain a majority of primary votes until after their last serious competitor left the race. That’s because neither John McCain nor Mitt Romney were movement conservatives. Once their last true challenger departed the race, conservatives essentially decided “if you can’t be with the one you love, then love the one you’re with.”
Except on Election Day each had a difficult time turning out their base. For example, in 2012, Mr. Romney won those coveted independents Karl Rove obsesses over by 11 points in Virginia, 10 points in Ohio, and 4 points in Colorado. Yet he still lost every one of those key battleground states. Why? Because President Obama did a better job turning out his base. True, you can’t win with just your base. But you can’t win without it either.
As the culture moves to the Left, the base of the Republican Party is moving further to the Right. Many believe that puts the GOP’s national candidates in a bit of a bind , fighting a two-front war between a base that wants leadership on conservative principles while trying to win votes from those who don’t.
That’s a false choice.
The base of the Republican Party has always been more conservative than the American public at-large, but that didn’t stop the GOP from winning national elections in 1980, 1984, 1988, 1994, 2000, 2002, 2004, and 2010. Yes, I’m including mid-term elections in this conversation because the GOP won those years by nationalizing the issues. The anti-Brady Bill and anti-Hillary Care campaign of 1994, the pro-Iraq War election of 2002, and the Tea Party anti-Obamacare campaign of 2010.
Back to presidential politics. When you look at each of the presidential elections won by the Republican Party during the modern era, they all have something in common.
The first thing every successful Republican presidential nominee did was energize the conservative base in the primary. These are the party faithful most likely to vote for him, but just as importantly they provide the guts-and-glue, word-of-mouth advertising and grassroots activism on the ground that money can’t buy. It’s not just will they go to the polls, but will they take anybody with them.
The conservative base is not typically energized by personalities as much as they are a candidate’s beliefs and stance on the issues. For Reagan, it was his comprehensive conservative worldview. For George W. Bush, it was his willingness to talk openly about the faith many in the GOP base have in common, and even use his candidacy as a platform to communicate that to the nation. Personal charisma matters, but the capability to charismatically defend conservative principles matters more.
There are certain transcendent conservative principles that a GOP candidate always has to speak to — pro-life, Second Amendment, and lower taxes. However, each primary cycle has its own unique slate of issues that matter most at that moment. In the upcoming cycle, I believe it will be these issues — Obamacare, Common Core, amnesty, and religious freedom. It will be very difficult to win the GOP nomination if a candidate is squishy on these issues, and then even if they do they won’t win the general election.
But don’t just take my word for it. Ask Presidents Dole, McCain, and Romney if what I’m saying is true. Ask the second terms that didn’t happen of Presidents Ford and H.W. Bush, each of whom faced a primary challenge from the Right.
As an aside, in 2016 the GOP base also wants to find a candidate to coalesce behind to avoid the splintering of the past two cycles, which allowed weak establishment candidates to win. For that to happen, a candidate(s) will have to emerge that appeals to the diversity of priorities within the conservative movement. That candidate(s) will have to appeal equally to the crowd at Americans for Prosperity as well as the American Family Association.
On to the general election.
If the GOP base is energized, there are two general election issues that are always winners for Republicans in their victorious presidential campaigns — small government economic populism and a strong national defense.
The 2012 election became a battle between “you didn’t build that” and “you did build that.” That’s a losing argument for Republicans. Victims always trump corporatists in the court of public opinion. The argument that wins for the GOP is “you can build that.” The American Dream is that one you can go from signing the back of the paycheck to signing the front. That with enough talent and preparation anything is possible provided government doesn’t get in the way of the family, small business owner, and entrepreneur.
For that message to resonate, the Republicans have to nominate people who have truly lived the American Dream or can articulate it. George H.W. Bush rode Reagan’s coat-tails to the presidency in 1988, but left on his own in 1992 he was the guy that didn’t know how the scanner at the grocery store checkout worked. We need candidates whose fathers used to build car elevators, not have one installed in their homes.
Mr. Obama won eight of the richest 10 counties in America in 2012, so the GOP needs to get back to its middle class roots. They are the ones most hurt by Mr. Obama’s Cloward-Piven strategy, thus that is where the GOP nominee in 2016 must appeal if he wants to win the White House.
Strong national defense in an era of America’s lost standing in the world will also be a major issue in 2016. Republicans must find a candidate who can convince voters they can lead America back to prominence on the world stage. That candidate must do so with resorting to naively pretending that ignoring evil will make it go away on the one hand, or enlisting our military into playing global mall cop on the other.
So who are the candidates that fit this profile?
That is for the candidates themselves to determine. This is the blueprint to victory. Now that we know it, it’s up to the candidates themselves to show us during the primary campaign they are the one it was meant for. The modern history of the GOP says if we deviate from this blueprint yet again, regardless of what Mr. Rove and the “deep-baritoned voices” in some sectors of allegedly conservative media claim, we’ll watch Hillary Clinton taking the oath of office in January 2017.
(Steve Deace is a nationally-syndicated talk show host and the author of “Rules for Patriots: How Conservatives Can Win Again.” You can follow him on Twitter @SteveDeaceShow.)