As loved as Ronald Reagan was among conservatives, moderates, and even “Reagan Democrats,” the liberals absolutely hated him. They still do. He’s the center of attack for many and even the topic of discussion in colleges as being overrated as a President.
President Barack Obama is equally polarizing. Despite the enmity from Republicans, what we often forget is that his campaign platforms the last two elections were actually further to the left than he’s actually been able to accomplish.
Looking at the three Presidents in between, we see that they all ran on platforms that were further from center than their opponents. Mitt Romney, John McCain, John Kerry, and Bob Dole were clearly less polarizing than their opponents. Al Gore, George H. W. Bush, and Michael Dukakis could make arguments that they were as polarizing as their opponents, but they weren’t clearly further from center.
Despite the common Republican Establishment philosophy of putting up moderate candidates, the evidence is very clear. America loves the extremes.
The logic to push towards the center isn’t completely off base. The independent vote is important and it makes sense that they would be more likely to vote for a moderate than someone on either end of the spectrum. The reality has proven otherwise. Independent voters aren’t looking necessarily to the center. Most are looking for the polarizing element that draws their attention as being important. Someone might be fiscally conservative but socially liberal, for example. They can be registered as an independent because neither side truly appeals to them completely, but their vote is determined by which side makes the better case to appeal to their individual needs at the time.
Polarizing works. Let’s look at the current state of the candidates according to Crowdpac. Their left-to-right scale is pretty accurate.
We divided it up into three sections. The most polarizing – those furthest to the left and furthest to the right – are in the “Winner Zone.” Based upon history, their perspectives make them most likely to be able to win in a general election. There are other things to take into account beyond their left- or right-leanings, of course. Scott Walker, Rand Paul, and Lawrence Lessig might all be in the “Winner Zone” but they have other aspects of their campaigns or personalities that make them less likely to win.
Those in the yellow zone have a chance, especially if their opponent is also in the yellow or even the red zone. President Bill Clinton and both Presidents Bush fell into this category.
In the red zone so close to center – these candidates have no chance of winning if history is correct. Notable is Donald Trump who may be able to buck the trend out of confusion and entertainment value rather than relying on his actual ideals.
If you take a similar chart since the 1980s, you’ll see that the winners have always been more extreme than their opponents. As noted, Dukakis might have been further left than Bush was to the right, but not by much. More importantly, he was riding the wave from coming off of a successful Reagan Administration. Could Joe Biden fall into the same category? We don’t think so, particularly because President Obama’s Administration has not been successful, but one never knows.
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that closer to the center is what can win the independents, but the last three decades has shown us otherwise. For Republicans to win the White House in 2016, they need to start thinking right.