A veteran pollster once told me that the thing he liked most about his role in campaigns is that a pollster is the only consultant paid to know and tell the truth. The full and complete truth. It’s a pollster’s stock in trade. Where are we if the election were held today? Can we win? What groups compose our minimum winning coalition? These are the simple questions that a pollster is paid to answer with candor.
It’s a great role. But it’s sometimes a difficult role to play because there may be a limited constituency for candor inside a campaign. Candidates, family members, other consultants and the kitchen cabinet often prefer a sanitized or even wholly fabricated version of reality. But someone must bear the responsibility for telling it like it is, even at the risk of offending.
Here’s some truth for the conservative wing of the Republican Party. There can be no denial that moderates have the polls going their way. Sen. John McCainJohn McCainPentagon should have a civilian chief to give peace a chance McCain to support waiver for Mattis, Trump team says Senators crafting bill to limit deportations under Trump MORE (Ariz.) and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani have impressive numbers, real juice. By comparison, Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.) and other conservatives rumored to be in the race are running on fumes. Yes, there’s an outside chance that Brownback or someone like him could “poll vault” back into the competition. But, realistically, that’s a long shot.
The most probable scenario that might favor a conservative Republican is a protracted battle between moderates McCain and Giuliani that denies either one a clear majority in early caucuses and primaries. This could give the weak and fragmented conservative base time to sort out the possibilities and settle on an alternative to the weakened moderate that survives the McCain-Giuliani shootout. But there’s no guarantee a conservative would ever emerge from the pack to play this closer role.
An alternative tack for conservatives might be to accept the reality of current poll numbers, decide to align with either McCain or Giuliani, and then strike the best political deal possible with the moderate that seems most open to conservative goals. This scenario would acknowledge that the real goal is to block a Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonDemocrats miss warning signs, even in blue Maryland Robert Gates doesn't expect job in Trump administration Dean drops out of DNC chairmanship race MORE or Barack ObamaBarack ObamaObama promotes bipartisan cures bill Confirm Scott Palk for the Western District of Oklahoma Dean drifts behind in DNC race MORE presidency.
It’s well-known that McCain understands all this and is courting the right. He’s occasionally talking conservatively while cherry-picking a few old-school issues. He’s hired some conservative strategists. And it’s paying dividends. A smattering of conservatives that would not have broken bread with McCain-Feingold a year ago are now in his camp. But McCain still has not wooed the majority of movement conservatives.
Meanwhile, Giuliani’s campaign seems to have made its move in a rightward direction by campaigning boldly with and for conservative candidates in the closing weeks of the recent election. But for some reason, few conservative voices have championed Rudy. Most seem hell-bent on gratuitously bashing Giuliani for his past marital matters and moderate stances on some social issues. One cannot help but guess that McCain operatives were behind recent press reports that rounded up quotes from some conservatives trashing Giuliani.
Here’s the truth. Rudy Giuliani has impressive numbers in the polls, better numbers than McCain earns in some end-of-year polls. In particular, Giuliani performs well in general election match-ups. But his numbers are strong inside the GOP coalition, too. Beyond the numbers, Rudy has star power that generates intense support. He’s taken tough stands conservatives appreciate. As mayor, Giuliani demonstrated the courage to be politically incorrect — fighting homeless panhandlers. And Rudy projects a Reagan-like affability that disarms ideological opponents. His patriotism is purer than McCain’s. Who knows? Perhaps Giuliani might bargain with the right. He’s a transactional politician who might welcome the entreaty and concede more than even McCain would.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.