Will Trump, Closing in on GOP Nomination, Follow Nixon’s Advice and Run to the Center?

The 45th president’s base alone cannot deliver a second term, no matter how passionate his preaching to the choir. The road to victory runs through the press and the people who don’t vote Republican.

AP/Mike Groll, file
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at Rome, New York, April 12, 2016. AP/Mike Groll, file

As President Trump closes in on a third Republican presidential nomination, advice from the only other man to achieve that feat looms large. To win, President Nixon said, a GOP candidate pivots to the center, something Mr. Trump did in 2016 but has shown little appetite for since.

“Run to the right in the primary election,” Nixon said, “and then run to the center in the general election.” It was a lesson he learned as President Eisenhower’s vice president in 1952, the first Republicans elected to the White House in 24 years. 

The Republican Party today faces an electoral landscape that parallels 1952. Their candidate has won the popular vote just once in the last eight tries, stretching back to 1992, and Democrats have an advantage of 11.6 million registered voters nationwide.

Based on Mr. Trump’s outsider status, independents and Democrats were among the nine million voters who switched to him in 2016 from President Obama in 2012. Now he’s a much more pronounced political brand and has work to do to pry support away from Mr. Biden.

While the Electoral College chooses the president, even there, the Republicans are at a disadvantage. “Democrats cross the 50 percent threshold in seven states worth 73 electoral votes,” I wrote in the Sun last November, “compared to three states for Republicans worth 22.” 

To win, I wrote, Republicans will have to follow the Willie “The Actor” Sutton Rule. Asked why he robbed banks, Sutton replied, “Because that’s where the money is,” or so a journalist, Mitch Ohnstad, claimed.

In his autobiography, Sutton wrote that although he’d never given the answer, he might have because it “couldn’t be more obvious.” It’s just as self-evident that to win a national election, a candidate needs to tally more votes than his opponent.

Preaching to the choir, of course, is easier and more gratifying to the ego. While soaking up amens, a candidate can ignore that the nation outside the comfortable confines of adoring press and cheering voters is not quite so favorable.

In 2016, Mr. Trump targeted that broader audience. He appeared across news channels, networks, and late-night shows. This year, he has avoided even Fox News Channel, limiting his audience to talk radio, podcasts, and outlets where centrist viewers are rare.

Mr. Trump avoided going where the money was in 2020, as well. He aimed to drive up turnout among his base, believing their passion could overcome the GOP’s disadvantage. This ignored that Democrats were also whipped into a frenzy, and that they had the numbers on their side.

Ignored by Mr. Trump, independent voters broke for President Biden by nine points in 2020. It was a ten-point shift from 2016 when Mr. Trump won their group by a percentage over Secretary Clinton.

After Senator Goldwater’s thumping by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Nixon laid out a strategy for future Republican presidential candidates to the New York Times and lamented that the “totalitarian right” had kept Goldwater from growing beyond his base. “The center,” he said, “does not try to read anybody out of the party.”

Of ideological extremes, Nixon said, “The farther you go in either direction, the greater the inclination to read others out — to say, ‘It’s my way or nothing.’” Running to the middle, he built his Silent Majority, winning 32 states in 1968 and 49 in 1972.

Mr. Trump shows no inclination to implement Nixon’s advice. He has never even leaned into what might be his most persuasive centrist pitch: He was once a Democrat. President Reagan was, too, and mentioned the fact often enroute to 44- and 49-state landslides in 1980 and 1984. 

“I didn’t leave the Democratic Party,” Reagan said. “The party left me.” It’s the same message that the long-time Democrat, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., used this year when launching his third-party bid — a “declaration of independence” aimed at coaxing voters to switch their allegiance, too.

Mr. Trump’s base alone cannot deliver a second term, no matter how passionate his preaching to the choir. The road to victory runs through the press and the people who don’t vote Republican. Mr. Trump may not want to go there, but it’s where the money is.

The New York Sun

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