Former presidential candidate Pat Buchanan has argued that his timing was off when he ran for president in the 1990s. He says that people were not ready for his populist message of immigration restriction and protectionism, and that now they are rallying to Trump on these issues. That’s one way to look at it. Another is to see that Buchanan’s actual 1990s constituency is in disarray, and that his true successor in 2016 was partly Ted Cruz and partly—nobody.
Much of the retrospective commentary about Buchanan’s 1996 run for president (when he finished second in the race for the Republican nomination) focuses on immigration, trade, and foreign policy. But a look at his supporters tells a different tale.
Buchanan’s most high-profile success in 1996 was his victory in the New Hampshire primary. He did not win in New Hampshire primarily as a trade restrictionist or an immigration warrior. He won New Hampshire because of his advantage among voters who thought that religion should play a large, or somewhat large, role in public life. He lost among the rest of the voters. There was no exit poll for the 1996 Iowa Caucuses (where Buchanan finished a very close second to Midwesterner and party-establishment favorite Bob Dole), but one would expect Buchanan to have shown similar strength there among religious and social conservatives.
Commentators now argue that Buchanan’s social conservatism limited his appeal, but that gets it exactly wrong. Being the candidate of social-conservative conviction politics was Buchanan’s appeal.
Religious and social conservatives are not an especially loyal constituency—at least, they are not loyal to candidates. They will happily switch among candidates, according to who they think best serves their policy goals. In 2000, George W. Bush, Alan Keyes, and Gary Bauer boxed Buchanan out for support among religious conservatives. This development didn’t free Buchanan up to win based on immigration and trade. It left Buchanan with no support at all.
Unfortunately, there is more to this story than the decline of Buchanan’s presidential prospects. There is also the plight of religious conservatives. Buchanan lost in 1996, but the miracle is that he had done so well in the first place. He was a professional journalist, and though he had served in the executive branch, he had done so as a public-relations man. He had no business running the executive branch. Since Buchanan’s run, other socially conservative candidates who have been more plausible as presidents have done no better as candidates.
In 2008, Mike Huckabee managed to win Iowa based on his support among evangelical Christians, but he was not able to replicate Buchanan’s magic in New Hampshire. Buchanan won 36 percent of the New Hampshire Catholic vote in 1996, whereas Huckabee got only 6 percent from that large majority of non-evangelical New Hampshire Republicans.
The weakness of social-conservative candidates among non-evangelical voters did not end with Huckabee. In 2012, Rick Santorum won Iowa on the strength of his support among evangelical voters, but he got only 8 percent of the votes of New Hampshire Catholics—despite being Catholic himself. Santorum received less than half the share of the Catholic vote that went to the greedy, opportunistic, and twice-divorced (but pugnacious) Newt Gingrich. Does that sound familiar? Gingrich didn’t win the nomination, but neither did Santorum.
In 2016, Ted Cruz was able to repeat the feats of Huckabee and Santorum in tapping Iowa’s evangelical social-conservative networks and winning the Iowa Caucuses. Cruz also followed Huckabee and Santorum in losing New Hampshire because he only appealed to a tiny sliver of that state’s non-evangelical voters.
Cruz was eventually able to add strongly ideological conservatives and Mormons to his coalition. He won a somewhat larger share of the popular vote than had Buchanan, Huckabee, or Santorum—though he still finished a distant second for the nomination. What is more disturbing is that, even among Cruz’s base of Republican-leaning evangelicals, a figure as outlandish and unprincipled as Trump should have outdistanced Cruz significantly among evangelicals who rarely attend church services.
This is not a demonstration of Trump’s inheriting the Buchanan coalition. It is a demonstration of the erosion of the Buchanan coalition. Buchanan, at his best, was able to talk to both religious evangelicals and Catholics. The Catholic part of that coalition fell off first, and the less-observant elements of the evangelical electorate appear to be teetering.
This doesn’t mean that those voters can’t be won back. It does mean that they can’t be talked to as if they were already on the team. They are more like swing voters who have to be brought along with clear messages—preferably using images as well as words. Rhetorical shortcuts won’t work. These voters might respond to pictures of a late-term fetus. They won’t respond to a promise to defund Planned Parenthood. The issue is too abstract.
Rick Santorum’s promise to talk about the dangers of birth control was an obvious instance of such errors, but only the most obvious. The speech in which Ted Cruz dropped out of the race might contain the clearest example.
The speech must have been painful to deliver, since it meant that Cruz’s dream of being president had been, at best, delayed. But it was also Cruz’s chance to make one last impression on the national electorate. The speech was better than those he had given on the nights of the Iowa Caucuses or the Wisconsin primary. And then he called his mother a “prayer warrior.”
There is nothing wrong with that expression in itself. It is common in some evangelical circles. But this was one of Cruz’s last chances to speak to a national audience. The expression “prayer warrior” is incomprehensible to most of the people Cruz needs to win over if he is ever to be elected president. Those are the people whom social conservatives need to reach if our political future is to hold anything other than endless defeat. We should keep our principles, but we had better learn to speak our country’s language.
Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.