Mitt Romney didn’t lose because of the GOP’s far-right agenda. That’s what’s scary.
Sides and Vavreck spend a good deal of time arguing that to win in 2016 Republicans need to do little more than run a competent campaign and hope the economy continues to struggle. In denying that there is any positive or negative ideological “mandate” from 2012, they place great emphasis on YouGov.com polling showing that voters perceived Romney as being closer to their own ideology than Obama. (That’s not to say, of course, that these perceptions were accurate.) They also shoot down arguments that GOP positioning on health care, immigration (even among Latinos), or abortion (even among women) had a material net impact on voters. Other social scientists may busily work to undermine these conclusions, along with those that consider Obama’s field operation as having at best a limited impact on the popular vote results (though possibly swinging two very important battleground states, Florida and Ohio). But advocates of any game-change theory must deal with the underlying reality that Obama’s 2012 performance among most demographic groups was very close to his performance in 2008, with a relatively uniform downward swing arguably attributable to fundamentals. If these allegiances hold, the demographic winds are blowing in a direction favorable to Democrats. But they don’t move mountains in four-year intervals.
Unlike Alter, and to a lesser extent Balz, Sides and Vavreck don’t make normative judgments about either party’s agenda, and thus don’t express alarm (as I do!) at their evidence that “moderate” Republicans can strongly support candidates committed to a full-on assault on the social safety net, progressive taxation, voting and collective bargaining rights, and other “consensus” legacies of the recent past. Nor are they worried that swing voters think the two parties are roughly equidistant from some mythical “centrist” norm. If unreflective partisanship and “false equivalence” are indeed the dominant filters through which Americans perceive political events, then we should all pay close attention to the intraparty dynamics that determine whether presidential candidates reflect median-voter versions of their party’s basic point of view, or something dangerously different. If it’s true that in 2012 marginally less robust economic indicators might have elected not only Mitt Romney but also a GOP candidate more openly and firmly extremist, then there’s some reason to think that, if the country experiences the kind of economic conditions congressional Republicans have every intention of producing, they might nominate such a candidate in 2016 and have a decent chance at victory. So when we see grassroots Republican activists in Iowa going wild with joy over Ted Cruz, we may be witnessing not another “clown car,” but a whole new circus coming to town.
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