How conservatives lose elections

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It would seem that in recent years conservative candidates in both Israel and the U.S. have forgotten how to win an election.


To win an election, a political party must identify and satisfy its political base. It must also identify and attract potential swing voters. To accomplish the latter task, a party has to identify the strengths and weaknesses of their opponents and co-opt their strengths while highlighting their weaknesses.


One of the most difficult challenges of running a campaign is figuring out how to attract undecided voters without alienating or demoralizing a party's base. On the face of it, doing so should be easier for conservatives than for liberals in the U.S. and Israel because a majority of voters in both countries define themselves as right-leaning.


As Karl Rove noted recently in The Wall Street Journal, in spite of the Democrats election victory, the U.S. remains a center-right country. According to pre-election and post-election surveys of American voters last month, 34% consider themselves conservatives, 45% say they are moderate, and only 21% call themselves liberal.


In Israel, consistent polling shows that more than 60% of Israelis reject making territorial concessions on Jerusalem and the Golan Heights and do not believe it is possible to reach a credible peace accord with the Palestinians. Moreover, the vast majority of Israeli Jews are socially conservative; 80% of Israelis, for example, classify themselves as religiously observant or traditional.


These numbers go a long way in explaining why liberal candidates in both the U.S. and Israel seek to portray themselves as conservative hawks during electoral campaigns. In the U.S., Democratic presidential candidates from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama have run as moderates with conservative tendencies. In Israel, leftist politicians from Yitzhak Rabin to Shimon Peres to Ehud Barak to Tzipi Livni, have all portrayed themselves as security hawks ahead of elections.


As candidates, these politicians (and their supporters) understood that to win, it was necessary for them to go to the right – where the voters are. Once elected, of course, they have governed as liberals — that is, until they began considering their reelection prospects.


While it makes sense for left-leaning liberals to move to the right in elections, it makes little sense for their opponents to move to the left. After all, the voters are on the right. Yet for some reason, moving to where the voters aren't is becoming common practice in both the U.S. and Israel.


As we saw in the U.S. presidential election and in the current Israeli Knesset campaign, by moving to the left, right-leaning candidates demoralize their base. And far from convincing swing voters to support them, they make swing voters feel comfortable supporting their opponents.


During the presidential campaign, Republican nominee Senator John McCain believed that to win, he needed to convince voters he was the "anti-Republican" Republican. McCain believed President Bush's low approval ratings meant the public had rejected the Republican Party.


But McCain's analysis was wrong. Americans had rejected Bush and his policies, not his party as a whole. Had McCain campaigned as the anti-Bush candidate by attacking Bush's passivity on issues like illegal immigration and the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs, and had he attacked Bush's big government policies, he would have successfully distanced himself from an unpopular president and rallied his base.


Moreover, he would have been able to attack Obama for pushing immigration, foreign policy and economic policies identical to or even more extreme than Bush's failed policies.



By incorrectly identifying the object of both Republican dissatisfaction and swing-voter concerns, McCain demoralized his base and convinced undecided voters it was okay to support Obama. Indeed, it was McCain's anti-Republican campaign more than Obama's change campaign that brought a majority of voters to Obama. As polling data indicates, Obama did not move many Republican voters to his side.


What enabled Obama to win the election was not a massive voter shift from right to left. Rather, Obama owes his victory in large part to the fact that McCain's anti-Republican campaign convinced a lot of Republicans that they had no one to vote for and so 4.1 million Republican voters stayed home on Election Day.



As Rove reported, Obama's crucial victory in Ohio came despite the fact that he won 32,000 fewer votes in the state than John Kerry did in 2004. It wasn't that Obama was loved. He won because McCain's base hated McCain. In Ohio, McCain's anti-Republican campaign caused him to win 360,000 fewer votes in the state than Bush won in 2004.


In Israel, Likud under Benjamin Netanyahu today has the advantage of running against Kadima, whose strategic and diplomatic programs have been largely rejected by voters. On the other hand, Netanyahu is running against Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni who is quite reasonably playing down her radical and failed policies and basing her campaign on her undeserved reputation for competence and her dubious public persona as a clean politician.


To win, Netanyahu and Likud should be doing two things. They should be continuously pointing out Kadima's record of failure in office and they should be attacking Livni. They should be emphasizing Livni's personal failures in office and focus the public's attention on the fact that she owes her political rise to her association with corrupt politicians like Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.


Instead, Netanyahu is pointing his guns at his own party. For three precious weeks, he staged an ugly campaign against his intra-Likud adversary Moshe Feiglin. And in so doing, he angered a significant portion of his political base.



Then too, rather than emphasizing the policy distictions between likud and Kadima, Netanyahu has sought to blur those distinctions by promising to form a unity coalition with Kadima after the elections and pledging to continue the government's negotiations with the Fatah terror movement toward an Israeli withdrawal from Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem. As well, Netanyahu has opted not to highlight his own oft-stated refusal to withdraw from any part of Jerusalem or the Golan Heights.


As to political integrity, rather than highlight Livni's ties to crooked pols, Netanyahu has tried to "out-integrity" her by bringing a political enemy, former justice minister and dovish Kadima supporter Dan Meridor, back into Likud.


Far from harming Livni's prospects, Netanyahu's actions have increased the public's appreciation for her supposed attributes and so made fence sitters feel comfortable supporting Kadima.


On the other hand, his actions have angered Likud's core supporters. Many are now willing to consider other options for voting. Some are moving to other rightist parties. Some are moving to Kadima. And some are declaring their intention not to vote. This is the reason that over the past two weeks, Likud has lost its 10-15 seat lead in the polls and is currently in a dead heat with Kadima.


Both McCain's failed campaign for the presidency and Netanyahu's current campaign in Israel may be partly attributable to the profound leftist bias of the media in both countries. It is possible that due to the media's overwhelming support for left-leaning candidates, right-leaning candidates have drawn the incorrect conclusion that their societies and their potential voters lean left.


Whatever has caused the state of affairs in which conservative candidates feel compelled to turn to their political opponents for support that will never come rather than
rely on their voters who comprise the majority of their electorates, it can only be hoped that both in Israel today and the U.S. in the future, conservative politicians will reverse course.


It does no one any good when voters elect politicians who do not share their views because politicians who do share their views insult and anger them.

Originally published in The Jewish Press.


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  • Marc Handelsman, USA 12/25/2008 at 3:47

    The problem plaguing conservative American and Israeli candidates is that they have lost their way. When Likud and its American counterpart stayed on message, they would win elections. One of the best candidates in recent memory was President Ronald Reagan. Not only was a he a genuine conservative, but he was comfortable in his “own skin.” Today’s conservatives don’t have the same sense of purpose that earlier candidates did. Ronald Reagan was authentic because he truly believed the positions he articulated. We sorely need that type of leader in this “meshuguna” world.

  • Rob Muchnick 12/25/2008 at 7:32

    After all this time, isn’t it clear to you yet that maybe Bibi actually IS a leftist, instead of just trying to please them?
    Since you know that he’s NOT a stupid man, there must be a reason why he’s willing to lose the election to keep Moshe Feiglin out of the Knesset.
    Maybe you know the reason?

  • Ron Grandinetti, USA 12/25/2008 at 16:21

    Caroline you and Karl Rove had it right along with Marc Handelsman’s comment.
    Gov. Palin did help bring together more of the conservative base, it just wasn’t quite enough to help win the election for McCain. Considering the hits she took from the bias, liberal left media she championed well.
    Let’s hope that Netanyahu takes heed to your column and moves in the right direction to capture the hearts of the conservatives.
    Christians and Jews are celebrating their respective Holy Days this week and Hamas joined in with rockets for Israel. Kind of tells you something about the folks the Israelis have to put up with. Are rockets a peace message?
    Caroline is correct, the Arabs want to saturate Israel and ultimately take over this Jewish Nation. What is really sad, the U.S. administration along with the UN, don’t quite get it.
    More surprising is the U.S., the UN and others developing road maps for peace calling for Palestinians and Arabs to occupy more of Israel. There is something definitely wrong with this picture. It just isn’t going to work. God let the Jewish people back to Israel and the Arabs were not part of the travel plans.
    I said it once before, the real road map to peace is finding the Palestinians a new home somewhere else in the Arab world to establish a statehood. And I don’t want to hear anything about not having any room for them. Just go to Google Earth and take a look at the ME and the vast Arab territory. There they should certainly be able to find peace with other Arabs.
    Have a Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah.

  • richard 12/25/2008 at 19:41

    can somebody please explain why they think it possible that islamists would make peace with jews or christians when the two main islamic groupings; shia and sunni are at war with each other and each considers the other as infidels.

  • Stuart 12/26/2008 at 0:08

    I’m glad you finally are able to bring yourself to question Netanyahu’s tactics. But the tepid nature of your criticism tells me you don’t get it. Netanyahu is a bald-faced liar that sold out to Clinton with respect to Hevron and Jonathan Pollard. He talks tough and then sells out his party’s voters. Moshe Feiglin evinces integrity and a fear of G-d that Netanya cannot touch.
    Netanyahu “out-integrity” Livni? Get real. Netanyahu demonstrated (again) his purity of cynicism in the days following the Likud primary. How is Netanyahu’s ignoring Likud’s voters and rearranging the list different from Sharon’s ignoring of his party in proceeding with the Gaza expulsion?
    I’ve always wondered whether you were bucking for a postion in a future Netanyahu government. This equivocal critique of Netanyahu’s tactics rather than his basic nature pretty much strengthens that impression.

  • Scott 12/26/2008 at 11:42

    You are right,Marc…Begin was the Ronald Reagan of Israel…after him were midgits,which is why Likud is the nothing party it is now.American Zionists are giving up,I fear.Hell,vote for Tzipi Livni…she is a beautiful woman

  • GET REAL 12/27/2008 at 2:20

    You would do a great service to your readers if you would have a full detailed article or interview on/with Moshe Feiglin. Moshe is a Rightest with integrity and ‘Bibi’ is a Leftist pretending to be a Rightist only when he can gain politically. Remember what ‘Bibi’ Did when he was PM?


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