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Romney and Conservatism

Romney on a campaign stop in Philadelphia in April.

Romney on a campaign stop in Philadelphia organized by the Tea Party on April 17.

With the Republican presidential nomination contest all sewn up, it is time to give historical perspective—as the Miller Center often does—to the process that has delivered Mitt Romney the nomination of the Republican Party. I will attempt to do so in two parts: one with a relatively long, and another with a relatively short, view of history. First, I will show how 72 years of GOP presidential nominations (19 contests) make it very unsurprising that Romney has won the nomination. Second, I will show how four years of GOP presidential nominations (two contests) actually raises doubts about the conventional wisdom that Romney’s stances on the issues are uniquely inconsistent or “un-conservative” among the Republican candidates.

Since it has become clear that Romney will become the nominee, many pundits on the Right (e.g., Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and Erick Erickson) have complained that the “conservatives” in the Party lost to the “moderate establishment” in the Party. However, with rare exceptions like James Antle, what these commentators on the Right typically don’t mention is how common this has been in the history of the Republican Party. 

The inability of conservative activists or “grassroots” conservative candidates to dethrone an establishment front-runner in the nominating contest is a story that has a long and repeated history. Since the modern American conservative movement emerged within the Republican Party in the mid-twentieth century, the Party has nominated only two grassroots conservative candidates (Goldwater and Reagan) who appealed to the GOP’s conservative base in opposition to the moderate establishment.

Let’s briefly take a look at this history since 1940. In the 1940s and 50s, the conservative Senator Robert Taft was overlooked repeatedly in favor of more moderate and liberal nominees like Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey, and Dwight Eisenhower. In 1960, Eisenhower’s VP, and establishment candidate, Richard Nixon won decisively over the conservative Goldwater. In 1968, Nixon was nominated over the conservative Reagan. In 1976, the moderate incumbent Ford narrowly beat back a challenge by Reagan. In 1988, moderate, establishment, next-in-line, candidate George H.W. Bush beat back a challenge by televangelist Pat Robertson, and in 1992 he beat back a challenge by “culture warrior” Pat Buchanan (who coined the term in his convention speech). In 1996 moderate, establishment Senator Bob Dole fended off challenges by cultural conservative Buchanan and economic conservative Steve Forbes. In 2000, establishment scion George W. Bush won the nomination over Forbes and Buchanan, as well as conservative activists like Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes (although during his Presidency many on the Left criticized Bush as an extreme conservative, at the time of the nomination campaign he was considered more moderate than the other candidates). In 2008, next-in-line candidate John McCain beat out social and economic conservative candidates by self-styling himself as a “Progressive Republican” in the mold of Teddy Roosevelt. Thus, in the nineteen Republican presidential nominations since 1940, the Party has only nominated two grassroots conservative candidates who appealed to the Party’s conservative base. It is no surprise that next-in-line, establishment candidate Romney fended off challenges from social and cultural conservatives like Santorum and Bachmann and libertarian economic conservatives like Ron Paul.


As noted above, many pundits on the Right have complained that Romney is too far to the Left and wished that the GOP would have chosen one of the more conservative candidates (while, of course, many on the Left have complained that Romney is too far to the Right). However, if we can manage to cast our minds all the way back to four years ago, we will remember that Romney was actually positioned as the “conservative alternative” to next-in-line “centrist” frontrunner John McCain. In 2008, the Republican field was composed of three groups of candidates (see UVA political science professor James Ceaser’s book Epic Journey): the “social conservative” candidates (Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee), the “national security hawk conservative” candidates (John McCain and Rudy Giuliani), and the “full spectrum conservative” candidates (Mitt Romney and Fred Thompson). Ceaser explains that each “bracket” of candidates sent a winner to the final round: McCain, Huckabee, and Romney. In that race, Romney was seen as a “fusionist” candidate who was conservative on not just one, but all three, dimensions: economic, social, and foreign policy. He was the “conservative alternative” to other candidates that represented only one of the three aspects. It is true, as has widely been reported, that Romney was more moderate and liberal in his past than he was in the 2008 and 2012 campaigns. Romney grew up as the son of a moderate Republican governor in Michigan. In his 1994 campaign for the Senate and 2002 campaign for the Governorship in Massachusetts, Romney adopted more centrist positions than he did in the 2008 and 2012 campaigns for the GOP nomination. Notably, his signature piece of legislation as governor of Massachusetts was Romneycare. Although contemporary conservatives currently point to this as Romney’s great treason, a look back at history reminds us that conservative policymakers and organizations, like the Heritage Foundation, supported that particular approach to health care as the “conservative alternative” to nationalized health care.

While Romney’s critics on the Right claim that his conservative stances since winning office in Massachusetts in 2002 are disingenuous moves pandering to Republican presidential primary voters, it is hard to find a “purist” or “full spectrum” conservative among the other candidates to appease them: Newt Gingrich is infamous among conservatives both for the way he made enemies among Republicans as Speaker of the House and for his stances on policy issues since being forced to resign his Speakership (e.g., teaming up with Nancy Pelosi on environmental issues and calling Paul Ryan’s budget plan “right-wing social engineering”); Rick Santorum’s support for the “big government conservatism” of the Bush administration made him suspect to many economic conservatives; and Ron Paul’s positions on foreign policy and social issues are anathema to many social and foreign policy conservatives. “Conservative voters” in the GOP in 2012 have been hard to please. 

While none of the Republican candidates has had a consistent, “full-spectrum conservative” track record, in terms of symbolism and style, Romney comes across as the least conservative. And, ultimately in politics, it is symbolism and style that often counts (remember that George W. Bush is often characterized as an “extreme right-wing” President even though he increased government spending and debt more than any modern President before him—which, supposedly, “conservatives” are opposed to). In style and symbolism, other GOP candidates like Santorum and Gingrich seem more “conservative” than Romney even though in substance and record on the issues they are not.

Given Romney’s background, biography, and personality, Romney’s elusive “core” comes across as more of a Rockefeller Republican, like his father, than a culture warrior that rouses the passion of grassroots conservatives. Thus, his critics on the Right are probably correct to charge that he is not one of them when it comes to the culture war, but wrong to charge that he is uniquely inconsistent or “un-conservative” among Republican politicians.

Verlan Lewis is a Ph.D. candidate in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia. His recent work has focused on American political parties, thought, and development.


Thank you for the historical perspective comparing grassroots vs moderate candidate success. Fascinating!

Great and insightful article!  Understanding history, sure helps us understand where, and how, each of these canidates will lead us.  I’ll take my chances with Romney this Fall!  =)

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