Who Can Best Win?

What sort of candidate is best to represent a party in an election? There are some who are convinced that a moderate candidate is always – or at least usually – more electable. The theory goes that staunch conservative or liberal votes can be taken for granted and therefore to win you need to win over moderates. Others argue that the key to winning is to mobilize and excite the base. There is evidence to support both theories, but it is largely anecdotal: both sides can cite examples of where their theory seems to have worked, but, of course, no election can then be re-run with a different strategy and different candidates.

The American way of choosing candidates – primary elections, for the most part – tends to produce a change of strategy. Candidates need to appeal to a primary electorate first, and that may mean pandering to the extremes, then in a general election they often tack to the center. Inevitably, such a change of tack will raise suspicions the candidate can’t be trusted.

Is there any reason to suppose that one strategy makes more sense than the other from a party’s point of view? Truthfully, there is no general answer to this question. It depends on the nature of your general electorate. In Utah, for example, Republicans saw a successful primary challenge to their sitting Senator. Does this leave them with an unelectable extremist candidate? No, it leaves them running a Republican in Utah, who is extremely likely to win. The same applies in Alaska, which has proved in the past it is perfectly capable of electing any old idiot running as a Republican, or a candidate whose only qualification is being a blood relation of the governor. Just such a candidate – Senator Lisa Murkowski, daughter of former governor Frank Murkowski – was defeated by a little known attorney backed by Sarah Palin. Republican control of the seat is unlikely to be threatened.

By contrast, in Delaware, Sarah Palin is supporting an outsider who is challenging Mike Castle’s bid for the Senate. This is a rather unfortunate move for the Republican Party. It is not so much that conservative Republican is unlikely to win in Delaware, though this is probably the case. It is that a Republican who is not Mike Castle is unlikely to win in Delaware. Castle has been winning statewide for thirty years. He has been governor and the state’s At Large Congressman. His candidacy has already scared Beau Biden – the Vice-President’s son – out of the race. But this is because Delaware is now a very blue state. In swing states such as Pennsylvania and Florida, different criteria apply.

In Pennsylvania, Senator Arlen Specter has the distinction of effectively losing the primary in both parties. Technically, he chickened out of the Republican primary and only lost the Democrats’, but he was not hesitant in admitting that his reason for defecting was his fear of losing. In Florida, Charlie Crist, who also feared losing his primary, is still in the race as an independent, and polls show he is competitive, though perhaps now trailing.

There doesn’t seem to be a general answer, and nor should we particularly expect there to be one. Staunch conservatives will normally win in Alaska or Utah and certainly can win in Florida or Pennsylvania, but to be competitive in Delaware, Republicans need to pick their candidate carefully.


Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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