New poll: GOP demands purity of essence

Republicans are off the deep end now, but pragmatism can wax and wane in a party over time

Published November 18, 2009 4:50PM (EST)

When the Republican base takes a purist turn and starts driving out moderates, as it did in an upstate New York  Congressional race recently, it’s tempting to write them off as politically unhinged, and totally detached from strategic reality. And a new poll shows that impulse isn't entirely incorrect.

According to CNN, 51 percent of Republicans want to see their party nominate candidates who agree with them on the issues, even if that means slimmer odds against a Democratic opponent in the general election. By contrast, fewer than 4 in 10 Democrats say the same thing.

Obviously, there is a real trend in the current GOP toward enforcing orthodoxy, even at the cost of electability. Primary challenges based in the party’s right wing in Kentucky, Florida, Colorado and California seem to indicate as much. So does the ongoing swoon over a certain Alaskan. Today’s Republicans can sound something like Gen. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, panicked about someone sapping away their purity of essence.

At the same time, though, it’s worth remembering that this isn’t really some psychological trait associated with being a Republican. The degree to which people value electability over ideology varies over time, and tends to depend on the situation. In November 2007, Democrats preferred a presidential candidate better on the issues to a more electable one by a 58 percent to 37 percent margin.

Now, you might say that the electability-versus-purity question didn’t mean the same thing for Democrats in the fall of 2007 that it does for Republicans two years later. After all, at that point any Democratic nominee looked like a probable general election winner, whereas the GOP doesn’t have grounds for long-term optimism of the same kind. So the current insistence on conservative purity is, perhaps, more of a death-wish than the Democrats’ comparable numbers from two years ago.

But the left probably shouldn't underestimate the ability of a party to sober up at the last minute. How do you think John Kerry got himself nominated in 2004?

By Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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