The party has a long history of flirting with political novices before embracing solid experience.
This is, we keep hearing, the year of the outsider. As of Oct. 26, the Real Clear Politics average of national polls had the combined percentage of support for Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina at 54.7%. Some individual polls have the number as high as 58%-63%. For a host of election analysts and pundits, this number is so powerful that they cannot avoid the temptation to predict that Republican primary voters are finally done nominating traditional candidates who have government experience.
That is probably not true. A just-released CBS/New York Times survey of Republicans found that seven out of 10 have not made up their mind on who will actually get their vote. In addition, history and the nature and composition of the Republican electorate suggest that the eventual nominee will have a track record within the party and will largely follow the traditional path to receiving the nomination in Cleveland next year.
Nobody can look at the current polling data and reasonably dispute that there is a groundswell of resentment toward anything associated with Washington, D.C., or even Republicans viewed as “establishment.” Yet we must remember how long it has been since Republicans nominated for president someone without extensive experience in the political arena. Wendell Willkie, a corporate attorney and electric-power company president, was the last man to jump the hurdle. That was 1940. Dwight Eisenhower was nominated in 1952 without having held elective office. However, Gen. Eisenhower had led the Allied forces in World War II and was America’s first ambassador to NATO, so he can’t be described as an outsider.
More recent attempts by outsiders have fallen apart. In 1996, Pat Buchanan challenged front-runner Bob Dole, the eventual nominee. Mr. Buchanan’s campaign resembled that of Donald Trump in many ways, full of fiery rhetoric and attacks on “do nothing” Republicans. Mr. Buchanan even won the New Hampshire primary before being trounced in South Carolina and essentially eliminated days later on Super Tuesday.
In 2012, businessman Herman Cain was briefly the front-runner. Like Carly Fiorina today, Mr. Cain touted his private-sector credentials and the need to shake up the status quo. But voters decided he lacked a firm grasp of policy and couldn’t master the realities of running a successful modern-day campaign.
Conservative voters are smart and thoughtful, and they base their decisions on facts and reasoning. They may cheer for charisma and messages that challenge the status quo. But ultimately, more often than not they support a candidate with substantive credentials. They value service and commitment to the party and its principles. Outsiders can make a great pitch, even have some really good ideas, but they cannot compete with a voting record or governing experience.
Choosing candidates who have been previously elected to public office doesn’t guarantee sound policy and governance. But picking inexperienced ones invites recklessness. Consider the example of televangelist Pat Robertson, who sought the 1988 Republican nomination. His daily experience on television for more two decades did not prevent him from making rookie mistakes—like exaggerating his military experience and record, which was easily disproved and caused immense damage. Despite what the mainstream media might want to claim, recklessness is not part of the conservative DNA. Being a conservative is more than a matter of ideology. It includes a worldview on how things should be done.
For instance, after the 1994 elections, some congressional Republicans spoke loudly about the beginning of a conservative revolution. There is a problem with that notion. Voters who call themselves conservative, in the truest sense of the word, don’t want a revolution of any kind. They want lawmakers to play by the rules and protect the foundations of American greatness.
Finally, although polls of registered voters show the outsiders leading, consider who actually participates in the GOP primary process: committed party members and insiders. For an “outsider” to win, he would need to achieve what Barack Obama did in 2008 and turn out a large number of voters who previously haven’t participated in primaries and caucuses. This is not an easy feat.
There is no arguing that there is a real impatience for conservative ideas to prevail, which is why many Republicans voice support for one of the outsider candidates, who use lack of experience as an asset. That, however, is no assurance of the durability for this sentiment.
No matter how many headlines Donald Trump earns, analysts should expect the love affair with outsiders to end long before we get to March 1, when 12 states hold their nomination contests. The combination of history, the nature of conservatism, and the composition of the electorate make it highly unlikely that any of the outsiders who are now so prominent will be accepting the GOP nomination come July.