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In 1964, an angry Republican Party threw caution to the wind and nominated conservative Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater for president. Eight years later, Democrats rallied behind South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, an unapologetic liberal.
In each case, the party’s rank and file embraced what it thought was a truth-teller who reflected the core values of its party and promised to lead a movement. And, of course, both candidates lost badly, though Goldwater’s defeat did have a positive long-term effect on his party.
It isn’t yet clear whether Republicans are willing to roll the dice on a risky nominee this year, but after three nominating contests, it’s impossible to discount that possibility.
The difference between 1964 and 1972, on one hand, and 2012, on the other, is that the incumbent president this year is weak and extremely vulnerable in the general election. Throwing away a nomination to make a statement is one thing when the nomination probably doesn’t matter. It’s another thing when that nomination looks valuable.
Whatever his weaknesses, former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) is getting plenty of mileage from his strong debate performances and attacks on the establishment and the liberal elite media.
His populist message makes conservatives feel good, much as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s angry message of change resonated with Democrats in late 2003 and much as Goldwater’s “in your heart, you know he’s right” message won over conservatives almost 50 years ago.
Republican grass-roots conservatives unquestionably are angry — at President Barack Obama, at the national media and, most importantly, at their own party leaders, who they believe have been too willing to compromise on core concerns. They might be so angry that they are willing to overlook Gingrich’s character flaws — character flaws they would scream about in a liberal Democrat.
Looking forward, there were two particularly interesting things to glean from South Carolina exit polls.
First, a majority of GOP primary voters who said that the ability to defeat the president was their top concern voted for Gingrich.
Gingrich almost certainly won the electability argument in South Carolina because of his debate skills and combativeness, but it also isn’t unusual for people to assume that the person they prefer is also the strongest general election candidate. It’s an easy rationalization to make.
The reality of the situation is different, at least so far. Gingrich’s personal ratings have been worse than Romney’s nationally, and polls to this point repeatedly have shown former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney running far better against Obama than does Gingrich. That means future general election trial heats could affect the GOP race’s outcome.