September 25, 2013

There are two views as to why characters like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and groups like Heritage Action insist the party follow them out on a right limb time and time again.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) (Gary Cameron/Reuters)
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

One is that this is a cynical system of people fattening their coffers and seeking air time. That’s how the instant Cruz took to the Senate floor on Tuesday the avalanche of fundraising letters from FreedomWorks and other right-wing groups revved up. It’s a well-oiled machine fueled by resentment and constant disappointment.

There is another explanation, however, that assumes these people are all earnest, all selfless and just terribly out to lunch. But they are smart! They went to the top Ivies! Well, it’s easy for smart people to become convinced of political “truths” that are pure fantasy. It has to do with numbers.

A smart Senate Republican went through a compelling set of numbers yesterday that neatly encapsulated the dilemma facing Republicans and their base.

In 2012, for example, about 125 million people voted for president. Except in extraordinary circumstances, winners generally get a majority of the popular vote. That’s roughly 62 million people you need to win the White House.

But say you are a conservative cable TV show host. If  you get a few million viewers each night in your audience, you’re extremely successful and beating the pants off the opposition. If you’re a conservative magazine editor and you get a few hundred thousand readers (many of whom are the very same people who watch the conservative cable TV show) you’re going gangbusters. All of them and a fraction of those who write in or interact with you may heartily believe in the same stanch conservative principles you do. Nevertheless, if it were an election and they all turned out to vote, someone who got all those votes would only be in the category of “also getting votes were . . . ” In some states, they wouldn’t get on the ballot.

That is the disconnect between conservative media and conservative electoral success. What is the entire political universe for a conservative cable TV host or magazine is miniscule when it comes to a winning electorate, even in a single large state. Even if you are among the top radio talk show hosts, you may get 10 or 15 million listeners, less than 10 percent of the presidential electorate. The idea that they are representative of the electorate as a whole, the GOP as a whole, or even all conservatives is silly. Their audience is intense but tiny in electoral terms. (They may be critical to volunteer or fundraising efforts, but for now I’m speaking of raw votes.)

When things don’t turn out as planned, excuses must be found (e.g. the MSM, the weak-kneed Republicans). But in fact, the easy and more accurate answer is often that their view was a small minority of public opinion.

You see this disparity again and again in the stark contrast between the hard-line conservative media’s views and national polling on everything from immigration to the government shutdown. Yes, in some very conservative states and in some very conservative districts the conservative media may be closer to the norm of all voters, but you can’t of course build a national party only on super-red congressional districts and Southern states. Why, you’d never win the Senate or the White House.

The problem extends to lawmakers as well. If a senator gets 2,000 calls all complaining about a certain position, that may be far less than 1 percent of his electorate. And Twitter? It’s probably less than a fraction of one percent. It sure seems like a lot of people are upset, but it’s not a useful guide to understanding your electorate. For that you need reliable polling, on-the-ground familiarity with your constituents and a network of reliable voices to act as an early warning system. Still, when those tweets and calls come in, it can be intimidating.

I bring this up because consumers of conservative media listen, watch and read people who presume to tell them what “America thinks” and what “Republicans want.” Someone like Cruz says he is the embodiment of American conservatism. Sometimes they present a true measure of the electorate. But a lot of the time they don’t (as I’ve frequently written on immigration). Taking all of it too seriously is a mistake. And it gives the base the idea that if you only speak and write clearly and loudly enough, America will accept a very, very conservative agenda. It just isn’t so.

This should also suggest that a dogmatic, the-other-guys-are-the-enemy demeanor is great for building a fundraising list, a subscription list or a TV or radio audience, but it’s a really bad way to approach an electorate that must be persuaded, not pummeled. In fact, it’s very likely off-putting.

So, then, you have two explanations for why Cruz and Heritage Action are convinced they are “winning.” You decide.


Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.