Rudy Giuliani doesn’t seem to have any tepid supporters on the Right. His fans are dogged in explaining his virtues to their skeptical peers. Steven Malanga recently wrote an essay for the City Journal’s website making the case for Giuliani as a conservative exemplar. He runs through an impressive list of the mayor’s conservative accomplishments. He adds this closing thought: “And if social and religious conservatives fret about Giuliani’s more liberal social views, nevertheless, in the general election such views might make this experience-tested conservative even more electable.”
At one point, the thought behind Malanga’s comment was the conventional wisdom. Socially-conservative views, notably opposition to abortion, were required to get the Republican nomination in presidential and many other races, but hurt the candidate in the general election.
The generalization never had much evidence to support it. It was true that opposition to abortion bought candidates worse news coverage, and true as well that some measures of public opinion found the public to support legal abortion. But other measures of public opinion, at least as good, found the public to be mildly pro-life. Among voters who considered abortion a top issue, meanwhile, pro-lifers clearly predominated.
In recent years, the conventional wisdom has changed. In the 2004 election, it was widely recognized that abortion was a bigger political problem for pro-choice Democrats than pro-life Republicans. John Kerry agonized over the issue; at one point his campaign disinvited Kate Michelman, who had long headed the abortion lobby NARAL, from a rally. The crucial swing voters in that election were not the “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” people who are disproportionately found among the college-educated. Rather, they were social conservatives, often Catholics, who were receptive to Democratic appeals on economic issues. Those voters were the great prize the campaigns sought in Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Iowa.
How will those voters react if the Republicans nominate Rudolph Giuliani for president?
Some of them — especially the ones who had overcome ancestral Democratic loyalties because of the social issues — would probably go back to voting on economic issues, and vote for, say, Hillary Clinton.
Of course, it is possible that Giuliani would more than make up for these losses by bringing in other voters. Maybe the map of the 2008 election would look different from that of the Bush elections, with such states as California and New Jersey in play for the Republicans for the first time in 20 years. So many of Giuliani’s supporters dream. Polls taken right now find him to be the Republicans’ strongest candidate. A USA Today/Gallup poll has him beating Sen. Clinton by two points, while she beats McCain by three. (The Quinnipiac poll recently found similar results in Florida.)
But these polls are not terribly good at predicting election results. In Sept. 1999, a Washington Post/ABC poll found Gov. George W. Bush with a 19-point lead over Vice President Al Gore. Fourteen months later, Gore won more votes than Bush. One thing polls can’t capture is how the dynamics of a campaign change public opinion.
Social and national-security issues have tended to help Republican campaigns in recent years, and economic ones to help Democratic ones. The mix of advantages will look different in a race that pits Giuliani against any conceivable Democrat. On some social issues — crime, welfare, and affirmative action, for example — Giuliani takes the popular position; but these issues have declined in political importance. He will, however, be unable to take advantage of other social issues that have helped Republicans and increased in importance. National security, notwithstanding Giuliani’s reputation, is at least as likely to be a drag on the Republican ticket as an aid to it. (I’m less persuaded than Giuliani’s fans that his reputation for toughness, competence, and taking Islamist terrorism seriously will help him against the Democrats as much as they think it will, but that’s another piece.) And on issues such as health care and trade, he will have the same uphill climb that other Republicans do.
Giuliani, like Obama, is an exciting candidate. The safe bet, however, is that even with superstar nominees each party is going to go into 2008 with a floor around 46 percent and a ceiling around 54 percent. For either party to go into such a race by throwing away one of its advantages (and betting on stardom) would be risky.
None of this is to say that Giuliani is unelectable. Perhaps he would be the Republican party’s strongest nominee. But if so, it won’t be because he’s a social liberal.
– Ramesh Ponnuru is an NR senior editor and author of The Party of Death.