Mark Shields: Why Republican voters aren’t acting like the GOP

Mark Shields

Mark Shields

In the important matter of choosing their parties’ presidential nominees, Republicans and Democrats have behaved entirely differently. Republicans have preferred their presidential candidates to be familiar and well-credentialed and to have previously run well, if unsuccessfully, for the nomination.

Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor and the 2012 GOP nominee, had previously finished second in the race for the 2008 nomination, behind John McCain, a four-term U.S. senator who himself had finished second, behind George W. Bush, in the 2000 GOP race. And Bob Dole, who had been his party’s 1976 nominee for vice president and finished second for the 1988 presidential nomination, was finally nominated in 1996. The 1988 nominee, George H.W. Bush, the vice president, as well as a former congressman and ambassador to the United Nations and China, had finished second in 1980 to Ronald Reagan, who himself had finished second in the Republican primary in 1976 to President Gerald Ford.

Democrats are just the opposite. If you run for the Democratic nomination and lose, then, by the Democrats’ brutal rules, you are a loser and essentially barred from future consideration. Look at the record. In the past 45 years, first-time Democratic presidential candidates — George McGovern in 1972, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Michael Dukakis in 1988, Bill Clinton in 1992, John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 — defeated many better-known and more experienced national Democrats to become, as the political equivalent of first dates, their party’s standard-bearers. The only exceptions in recent history were Vice President Al Gore in 2000 and former Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984.

It has been fair to conclude, as I have, that in choosing their presidential candidates, Republicans have fallen in line while Democrats have fallen in love.

But no more. Republican voters heading into 2016 are ignoring the credential of public service and rejecting the experience of elected office. This was clearly illustrated in a 2 1/2-hour focus group of 12 Republican voters in Indianapolis, masterfully conducted this past week by Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart for the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

Of course, there is nothing scientific about a group of 12 people. But what a well-directed focus group can elicit is how voters personally feel about the candidates and the campaign. These Indiana Republicans are completely down on experienced officeholders. Christopher Berry, 50, a Ben Carson supporter who works in agriculture, put it this way: “We’ve lost our voices as constituents. We’re tired of career politicians.” That sentiment was echoed by coordinator of campus ministry Dwight Podgurski, 58, who is deciding between Jeb Bush and Carson and finds “cultural mistrust of the political process and political figures,” with “programming like ‘House of Cards’ seen as almost a real-life representation of corruption in D.C.”

Shonda Sonnefield, 40, a homemaker and also a Carson backer, was blunt: “We’re just tired of politicians. They don’t keep their word. Their morals are loose. They don’t have values. … We are just ready for someone who has not been in that world.”

When Hart asked the group what relatives each candidate reminded them of and mentioned Donald Trump, John Couch, 50 and self-employed and a Carly Fiorina supporter, answered: A “father-in-law you don’t want around. You see him at holidays. Then you don’t hear from him and you say, ‘Thank goodness.'” When Hart asked for a one-word description of Trump, the answers were not flattering: “disturbing,” ”impulsive,” ”self-serving” and “loud.” Marenda Babcock, a 60-year-old freelance writer who supports Ted Cruz, added, “We like what (Trump) says but not how he says it.”

Even Trump supporter Shawana Shelby, 45 and a child nutritionist, conceded that the New Yorker is “a loudmouth person.” Ben Carson evoked the following one-word descriptions: “thoughtful,” ”intelligent,” ”wise,” ”gentleman” and “good morals.” And what relative is he? “Grandfather,” ”father,” ”older brother,” ”husband.” Wow.

What was made clear in Indianapolis from this fascinating group is that these 2016 voters don’t belong to your grandfather’s or your father’s Republican Party.


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