The historic pattern for one seeking to become the president of the United States has been to run your primary election campaign away from the political center, towards the activist base of your party. You then swing back towards the center, once you’ve secured your party’s nomination, so you can catch the necessary chunk of swing voters in the general election. I wrote in my previous post about how Hillary Clinton would have a built-in advantage in 2016 from not needing to attempt this, having no apparent strong Democratic primary opponent.
Interestingly, Republican Jeb Bush, who has all but declared his candidacy for 2016, appears to be largely ignoring the established wisdom on this strategy, despite having many strong primary foes. As Republican strategist Kevin Madden noted in a recent New York Times article comparing the strategies of Bush and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Bush “is running a general election right from the beginning because he doesn’t want to get to a place where the nomination is not worth having.”
Apart from having a basis in personal belief, his tactics may also be wise politically. There may be realities built into our current era that no longer make it tenable to employ this ingrained strategy.
The biggest one would be the speed and reach of information. I was struck a few weeks back at The Dress world event (“blue and black” vs. “white and gold”) – in the space of a few hours, a random photo of a dress had gone from obscurity to uniting the world online in a fun and perplexing debate. I had seen two mentions of it on facebook around 7pm, then googled it to see what the issue could possibly really be (the posted picture, to me, was obviously blue and black), and within an hour it seemed that every online site I frequent was posting about it. Furthermore, by the time major television outlets were talking about it the next day, the internet had already resolved why the photo was so tricky (http://m.xkcd.com/1492/) and had moved on to other things.
Whatever you say as a candidate in a public setting (and often, as in the infamous 47% remark, in a supposedly-private setting), particularly polarizing statements, will make it out there, and will make it out there fast. If you as a voter are not personally invested in the primary races for presidential elections, there’s a decent chance one of your Facebook or Twitter friends are, and you’ll see glancing references to these polarizing statements made by primary candidates.
Moreover, the internet doesn’t forget things. Even those who aren’t paying attention to what’s being said by candidates now will eventually see all of a candidate’s past and present statements before them simultaneously (if only as a Buzzfeed list titled something like ”17 Things Ted Cruz Has Said That He Also Disagrees With Himself”).
The other possible major structural element of our era that may invalidate the traditional swing-back-to-the-center strategy is based on contrast. Congress is “operating” at historically high levels of partisanship, with historically little getting accomplished. A candidate who avoids tacking towards partisanship will stand out from the crowd and from the dysfunction in Washington simply by way of contrast.
Will the party base, who aren’t being catered to by a general-election-focused candidate as much as they are by others, respond to this with their primary votes? When their base-pandering candidate wins a few early primaries and their facebook feeds and daily news sites start filling with polls showing how poorly that candidate is looking to fare in the general election, they can’t ignore it.