Now that Christmas has triumphed yet again in the War on Christmas, taking place as scheduled, we can turn our attention to the presidential primaries. After all, the Iowa caucuses are only 401 days away. For quite a while yet, the candidates are going to spend their time figuring out how to bring base voters over to their side (and you should probably steel yourself for 500 or so repetitions of “It’s all about that base, ’bout that base” jokes from pundits showing they’re down with what the kids are into these days).

Here’s Anne Gearan in today’s Post:

Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic front-runner for president, is working hard to shore up support among liberals in hopes of tamping down a serious challenge from the left in the battle for the 2016 nomination.
Clinton has aligned herself firmly with President Obama since the November midterms on a range of liberal-friendly issues, including immigration, climate change and opening diplomatic relations with Cuba. In an impassioned human rights speech this month, she also condemned the CIA’s use of harsh interrogation tactics and decried cases of apparent police brutality against minorities.
The recent statements suggest a concerted effort by Clinton to appeal to the Democratic Party’s most activist, liberal voters, who have often eyed her with suspicion and who would be crucial to her securing the party’s nomination.
But the positions also tie her ever more tightly to a president who remains broadly unpopular, providing new lines of attack for the many Republicans jostling to oppose her if she runs.

And here’s a story from Mark Preston of CNN:

The first votes of the 2016 campaign won’t be cast for another year but there’s already a race well underway: The Christian primary.
Republicans are actively courting white evangelical and born again Christian voters, knowing they will be crucial in early-voting states such as Iowa and South Carolina.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal is urging people to join him next month in Baton Rouge for a day of fasting, repentance and prayer focused on the future of the United States.
On the same day, another gathering will take place in Des Moines, where at least five potential GOP presidential candidates will address Iowa voters on “core principles” that include “social conservatism.”

Later in the story, Preston notes that if Christian conservatives fail to unite behind a single candidate, their power will be diluted and a more “centrist” candidate could get the nomination. Which is both true and false. That could be the series of events, but we shouldn’t be too quick to assign causality (and there are no “centrist” GOP candidates, only some with weightier résumés who the establishment thinks have a better chance of winning; the ideological differences between them are somewhere between tiny and nonexistent). The truth is that the party’s born-again/evangelical base almost never unites behind a single candidate. The only time it has happened in recent decades was in 2000, when George W. Bush easily beat a weak field of opponents.

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But there’s no doubt that the courting of the base will indeed occupy much of the candidates’ time. One common but oversimplified narrative has it that they have to do so in order to win the nomination, but it will cost them in the general election. The truth, however, is that this is a much greater danger for the Republicans than the Democrats.

To see why, look at what Clinton is up to. She’s coming out strongly in support of some moves the Obama administration has made recently and talking more about things such as inequality. That will warm liberal Democrats’ hearts, but will it actually hurt her in the general election? It’s unlikely, because her position on all these issues is widely popular. Are voters going to punish her for advocating an end to the Cuba embargo, which 68 percent of Americans believe should happen? Or a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, which is supported by about the same number? Or some set of populist economic policies, when around two-thirds of Americans say government policies favor the wealthy? Some issues, such as police practices, may not be so clear-cut, but on the whole the things Clinton is saying now are unlikely to turn up in attack ads in October 2016.

The story isn’t quite the same on the Republican side. Christian conservatives actually have relatively few policy demands, and most of them are already covered by what any Republican president would do anyway (such as appoint justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade). What they do demand is a demonstration of affinity and loyalty. They want to know that a candidate loves them and will be there for them throughout his time in the White House.

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The danger for Republican candidates is that in the process of showing love to the base, they alienate other Americans. There’s no reason a candidate couldn’t do the former without doing the latter, if he exercised enough care. One area where it may be impossible is same-sex marriage, where the more conservative evangelical voters are still firmly opposed (though those attitudes are slowly changing), while most Americans are in favor. But what those voters mostly want is to be convinced that the candidate is one of them: that he sees the world the same way they do, loves what they love and hates what they hate. In theory, even an allegedly “centrist” candidate can accomplish that. But so often in the process of this courting, they end up looking like either panderers or extremists; that’s what happened to John McCain and Mitt Romney.

In the end, base voters in both parties want to be won over. They don’t want to go into the general election having to support a candidate they can’t stand. They may approach the courtship looking reluctant, but they’re still hoping that there will be a marriage at the end of it. And they don’t need to be convinced that their nominee is the best candidate they could ever hope for — they just want to decide that he or she is good enough. If the candidate loses, they may say afterward, “Well I never liked him anyway.” But in the meantime, getting enough of their votes in the primaries doesn’t depend on being the most religious (for the Republicans) or the most populist (for the Democrats). The question is what you do to make yourself good enough.

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