Here’s something beer and politics have in common — an endless debate over what’s most important in their product. For those of you who remember the two decade long advertising campaign for Miller Lite beer, the question argued was the beer was good because of “Great Taste” or because the brew was “Less Filling!” In politics you hear the debate centered around whether a candidate must be faithful to a party’s perceived principles or be centrist enough to get elected.
What brings this to mind was a couple of questions from the recent USC/L.A. Times poll that caught my attention. The questions dealt with which kind of candidate the Republican Party should put forward. Should the standard bearer be a conservative who can rally the base? Or should he or she be more centrist to capture crossover voters from the Democrats and Independents?
The pollsters found that registered Republicans and unaffiliated voters who said they would vote Republican were fairly evenly divided on the question. These voters were asked whether it was important that the Republican nominee for U.S. Senator or Governor be a “true conservative.”
While 20% found it Extremely Important and 26% said it was Very Important, 31% said it was only Somewhat Important and another 20% said it was Not At All Important.
As to whether the party should nominate a conservative candidate or a centrist the Republican and unaffiliated voters who plan to vote Republican were again divided. Conservatives candidates gained 42% in the poll; centrists corralled 46%.
The Republican pollster, Linda DiVall, who worked up the numbers in partnership with a Democratic pollster, said she was surprised with the result. As someone from outside California she said the reputation of California Republican voters is that of a conservative lot. Her impression may be gained from the image portrayed by the outspoken activists in the party. However, polling over the years indicates the rank and file Republican voters tend to be more pragmatic and the poll results came as no surprise to those who studied polling of California Republicans over the years.
The issues raised by the poll intrigued me because almost one year ago, I wrote on this page about the constant battle between the effort to be conservatively pure on the one hand, or to be flexible enough to appeal to the middle and win elections on the other. That column generated a number of comments on both sides of the divide.
A number of Republicans want nothing to do with the “big tent” philosophy of including Republicans of different stripes. They expect unity on certain issues and happily say good riddance to those Republicans who don’t agree and are labeled RINOs (Republicans in Name Only).
Others point out that winning candidates are often chosen by voters in the middle and centrist candidates appeal to these voters. If a splintered party cannot appeal to the middle can they field a winning candidate?
This debate does not apply only to Republicans. The progressive website Calitics continuously complained that there was no leftist alternative to Jerry Brown in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Now former founding executive director of MoveOn.org, Peter Schurman, has declared his intent to run a grassroots campaign against Brown pledging to campaign “on our principles.”
Holding on to principle over winning is important to many party loyalists. Indeed, they argue that embracing principle is the only way to win.
Dan Schnur, Director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC, said the debate is endless because it will always be inconclusive.
Which probably means the debate will pop up at just about every primary election into the foreseeable future.