It's Too Early for Third Party Talk

The conventional wisdom surrounding the presidential campaign’s most unconventional candidate, Rudy Giuliani, has always been:  Sure he is leading in the polls now, but once the Republican base discovers his liberal stances on social issues and his messy personal life, he won’t stand a chance.   

But now, with Giuliani having established himself as the Republican Party frontrunner for more than 200 days, and with fewer than 100 days until the Iowa caucuses, social conservatives are starting to recognize an uneasy truth:  Rudy Giuliani can win the Republican presidential nomination.  Not only does Giuliani continue to lead the national polls and raise more money than any other Republican candidate, but he stands to benefit most from the abbreviated primary schedule and Hillary Clinton’s ascendancy   

The prospect of a Giuliani nomination has understandably alarmed social conservative leaders, some of whom have suggested that the proper response is to threaten to form a third party if Rudy Giuliani wins the Republican nomination.  In fact, at a recent meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah that I attended by phone, conservative leaders openly discussed various options should Giuliani become the GOP’s standard bearer. Let me say here what I said there: talk of a third party candidacy is premature, and I urge caution and concern about an approach that has not worked in years past. Still nearly a year away from the Republican convention, social conservatives ought to focus their energy on nominating a viable Republican candidate who represents our values.

Giuliani’s success thus far has been built, in part, on support from regular churchgoers and socially conservative voters.  The Giuliani campaign stated as much in a recent memo to supporters citing polling that showed Giuliani leads among all Republican subgroups, including churchgoers and social conservatives, and concluding, “There is no clear social conservative favorite.”

But the reason why Giuliani has the support of some social conservatives is because many still have no idea where he stands on the issues they care about.  Many conservatives remember Giuliani as a hero of 9-ll, but fewer have been told about the twice-divorced mayor of New York who supported abortion-on-demand and homosexual unions.  In a recent Pew survey, only 41 percent of Republicans and independent leaning Republicans could identify Giuliani as the GOP candidate in favor of abortion rights, while 47 percent said they didn’t know any of the Republican hopefuls was pro-choice.  Another recent Pew poll found just 22 percent of the public — and just 31 percent of Republicans—know Giuliani is pro-choice, and that 59 percent of Republicans who say social issues are very important to them are not sure what Giuliani’s position on abortion is. 

So far, Rudy Giuliani has suffered little for deviating from the GOP’s traditional pro-life stance.  Conservative leaders need to step up efforts to inform their supporters where the candidates stand on the issues they care about.  Voter ignorance about the candidates’ positions has not been helped by some of the other Republican candidates who have thus far spent more time attacking each other than challenging the frontrunner on his liberal policy positions. 

A recent spat saw the campaigns of two pro-life candidates attacking one another over which candidate has been pro-life longer.  While it is important to have a robust debate in which all the candidates are challenged on the important issues, if the socially conservative candidates continue to berate one another while inexplicably leaving Giuliani untouched, the one candidate completely at odds with the party over values issues will triumph. 

Some Republicans claim that the party needs to support Giuliani because electability matters more than ideology, especially at a time when “anyone but Hillary” is the prevailing sentiment among many.  But the truth is that the GOP does not need to settle for a socially liberal nominee, because socially conservative positions still win the day. 

America is a fundamentally conservative nation, especially on values issues.  While polls show a drop in Republican affiliation, polls also show that nearly twice as many voters call themselves conservatives as liberal.  No issue punctuates this reality more than abortion.  A recent Gallup analysis of abortion trends revealed that the share of Americans who consider themselves "pro-life" has risen 12 percentage points (from 33 percent to 45 percent) in the last 12 years, while the portion calling itself "pro-choice" has decreased 8 points.  Most significantly, Gallup found that 22 percent of pro-life Republicans consider abortion a decisive issue, meaning a candidate must share their position on the issue in order to get their vote, while just 8 percent of "pro-choice" Republicans felt similarly.

While none of the candidates is perfect on all the issues, we cannot afford to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  The GOP has enjoyed an unprecedented run of success –winning five of the last seven presidential elections — by nominating pro-life, pro-family, pro-victory candidates.  There is no need to deviate from that winning formula now.  

If Rudy Giuliani — who likes to tell Republican voters on the campaign trail that their party needs to “move beyond” issues like abortion — wins the Republican nomination for president, a debate over the prudence of running a third party candidate who represents conservative social values can take place.  Right now, however, social conservatives — the GOP’s nominating base — should remember this:  Rudy Giuliani can only win the Republican presidential nomination if social conservatives abandon the pro-life cause, or if significant numbers of us disengage from the electoral process.  Either development would be tragic.

But if social conservatives stay united and continue to inform one another about where the candidates stand on the issues we care about, we can ensure that our values will be represented in the presidential election.