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Good luck distinguishing the extremists from the moderates

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A lot of the presidential candidates debates so far this cycle have focused on ideological purity. The Democratic candidates have argued over which one of them has greater fealty to the Obama presidency's accomplishments, while the Republicans have been fighting over who is more Reagan-like. But activists and voters also have to consider the concept of electability. This is proving harder this year than usual.

The perennial question for partisan voters and activists is, "Who will give us the most of what we want but still be able to get into office?" It's a delicate balance. Many liberals, for example, might be drawn to Bernie Sanders's proposals on the economy or health care reform, but they fear that nominating him would hand the election to the Republicans, so they end up supporting Hillary Clinton. This tension between ideological fealty and electability is nothing new.

What is new this year is Donald Trump. Figuring out just what he stands for and what he would do in office is remarkably challenging. A few other high-profile candidates with scant records in the public sector, like Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson, add to this puzzle.

Below, I have charted out the "ideal point" scores for each of the current presidential candidates, as calculated by Crowdpac. These scores are based on campaign finance patterns, campaign policy statements, and, where available, legislative voting records. The scores range from -10 (the most liberal position) to +10 (the most conservative position).

Most of the lessons of this figure are unsurprising. Sanders is the most liberal, Rand Paul is the most conservative. Chris Christie and John Kasich are relatively moderate. There's a yawning gap between the Democrats and the Republicans.

It gets tricky when we look at a candidate like Trump. He clocks in at 4.9, just to Santorum's right and Bush's left. Is this plausible? Possibly, but it's also highly unreliable. Trump, for one thing, has no legislative record, making the calculation of his ideal point somewhat uncertain. But he also has almost no concrete policy proposals, with the exception of his ideologically extreme positions on immigration and refugees.

His past statements suggest he is supportive of current funding levels for Social Security and Medicare and supportive of same-sex marriage, and that his pro-choice positions have recently evolved to "pro-life with exceptions." But he's been so vague on these issues — all he's really focused on is building a border wall and bombing ISIS — that it's difficult to know where he actually stands. The Trump ideal point in the chart above should really look like a very diffuse probability cloud.

This presents a real conundrum for Republican Party elites. They might reason that Trump is vague on most of these issues because he largely doesn't care, and would thus acquiesce to Republicans in Congress. That would be more or less okay from the party's perspective. On the other hand, he might well completely ignore Congress's wishes and just do whatever feels right to him on any given day. Trump's primary goal over the past several decades has been to enhance the Trump name. What policies that translates into is anyone's guess.

This means that figuring out which candidate is more electable isn't that easy. Ted Cruz's ideological extremism (he clocks in at 9.6) makes him look potentially unelectable. And indeed, ideologically extreme presidential candidates (George McGovern and Barry Goldwater are good examples) have done very poorly at the polls.

But even if many Republicans are concerned about Cruz's extremism and don't like him personally, they have a pretty good sense that he's strongly aligned with party principles. He might make some bad calls, but he's not likely to surprise them.

Besides, extremism might only be a modest disadvantage in a general election. It's not irrelevant, but it tends to pale in comparison with the economy and other aspects of the political environment.

And it's just very rare for a party to hold on to the White House for three consecutive terms, as the Democrats are attempting. Despite a strong record of economic growth, a popular incumbent in President Clinton, and a mainstream nominee in Al Gore, Democrats still lost the White House in 2000. A Hillary Clinton victory, even over an extreme conservative like Ted Cruz, is far from a guarantee.