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Chasing Reagan

September 9, 2015

Every Republican presidential candidate deals with the Ghost of Ronald Reagan.  As the only unquestionably successful GOP president of the last 55 years, all roads lead back to the Gipper.

You can argue comparing yourself to Reagan isn’t useful with 32-year-old Independent voters, but in a primary, it’s unavoidable.

The Reagan comparison has three main uses.  The first is as cover.  Donald Trump explains his previous status as a Democrat and some of his old issue positions by pointing out Reagan was an FDR Democrat.  Ted Cruz can point out Reagan challenged sitting President Ford when someone thinks he’s not showing Mitch McConnell proper respect.

The second is to point out your favorite candidate is Reganesque.  You’ll often hear people refer to Marco Rubio’s rhetorical skills this way, particularly since it sounds better than calling him GOP Obama. Trump supporters use this one too, saying he wants to make America great like it was in Reagan’s time.

The final approach is becoming less viable as we move further from the Reagan years, but is still in use.  “I was part of Team Gipper.”  In previous contests, John McCain and Newt Gingrich called themselves foot soldiers in the Reagan Revolution.  John Kasich sometimes refers to his first few years in congress during this time (though he also points out he was the only Republican to beat a Democrat incumbent in the 1982 midterms).

Guess what?  Trump is in on this one too, describing Reagan as a friend (who’s presidency Trump slammed in The Art of the Deal).

So what are voters looking for when they compare modem candidates to the Gipper? Who are the most and least Reaganish of the current crop?  Let’s take a look.  In doing so, you’ll see why outsiders are doing so well this year.  It’s not just voters being mad at the establishment or politicians in general.

The Reagan Index

We can’t just say someone feels similar.  Nothing less than a sloppy, half-assed statistical measure based on my generally informed opinions will do.

This isn’t about how Reagan was perceived when running for president in 1968, 1976, 1980 or 1984.  It’s not about his specific job performance, what he did well, what he struggled with.  To the best of my knowledge, nobody has recently surveyed Republican voters on exactly what they like about their icon.

If they did, I think the following items would come up:

Defeating the enemy

Reagan famously wanted to defeat the Soviets instead of focusing on detente. Especially since he was criticized at the time, but it actually happened, this is a huge part of the Reagan image.

For the most part, it happened without sending American troops into combat.  Reagan’s direct interventions were relatively small.

This leads to candidates talking about doing whatever it takes to defeat ISIS, but not wanting to put boots on the ground.  Reagan actually did this, but current candidates face a more asymmetric situation.  Still, few spend much time talking about outreach to the many non-radical followers of Islam trapped inside these countries.

Cheerful and optimistic

Everyone remembers the “shining city on a hill.”  Reagan was an optimist.  He made us feel good.  Marco Rubio takes the prize for best matching Reagan’s tone.

Different economic plan

When Reagan took office, the economy sucked.  When he left office it was better.  He did things differently than his predecessors.

At this point, many Anericans don’t remember or never knew the details of supply-side economic theory.  Reagan changed tax rates a bunch of times in varying directions.  His scary for the times deficits seem tame now.

The details are unimportant.  People remember he didn’t try to get different results with the same strategy.  No economic plan that seems like more of the same will get traction.

Speak with conviction

This doesn’t require tons of thought.  Reagan always sounded like he believed what he was saying.  According to his diary, he really did.

Clear, memorable statements 

This is where Rubio falls a little short.  The tone is of a younger Reagan, but since we’ve already experienced the original, much of what he says isn’t retained a few minutes later, we just remember it sounded good.

More conservative than average Republican

Current candidates are victims of a moving target.  Reagan was to the right of a party that included a bunch of northeastern liberals who have long since fled.

However, the memory is that the most conservative Republican president of the past 90 years or so was also the most successful, both electorally and in office.

This is why it’s hard to convince many GOP voters that a candidate is too conservative.

Fresh Approach

Reagan wasn’t like anything Americans had heard in a long while.  This was a combination of tone, approach, and legitimate policy innovation by the time he ran in 1980.

Many current candidates are running on modified versions of Reagan’s policies instead of taking more of a clean sheet approach and asking themselves what he might do in 2016.

Belief in individual Americans

This is another place where many in the current field fall short.  Reagan regularly ran against government.  Many of his best lines were about the inefficiency of government.

But he also constantly talked about the capability of individual Americans.  This is where Carson is doing a better job than Trump.  While The Donald argues we should let him fix everything, Carson’s life story is an example of how far one person can go.

Executive experience 

Reagan got things done by delegating.  People remember he picked some pretty good people and let them do their thing.  He never seemed overwhelmed by the job.

As preparation, Reagan spent 8 years as chief executive of a large swing state (California was purple in those days).  He was skilled at working with the legislature and had plenty of practice when he got to Washington.

Candidates without this background can seem limited.

Not a career politician

However, Reagan wasn’t elected to office until his mid-50s, making him a relative outsider and someone who didn’t appear to roll out of his crib thinking about winning elections.

Having solid executive experience while not being a career politician is tough to beat.  This memory helps Trump and Fiorina, even if their executive experience is outside government.

Opposed by elites

Everyone over 50, and some who are younger remember how most media and intellectual elites were positive Reagan would fail.

Whenever Trump is reflexively dismissed by someone important, this memory kicks in.  It’s also why the more mainstream establishment candidates do better when being attacked by the New York Times.

On to the scores.  The perfect Reagan clone would have a score of 10.0.  None of our contestants is above 7.0.  Almost everyone is at least at 5.0.  Candidates either do very well in some areas with a couple fatal flaws or are sort of so-so across the board.

The results do help explain some of the current polling.  On average, the outsiders do noticeably better.  Keep in mind, this is an inexact scoring system.  A candidate scoring at 5.73 is fundamentally the same as one at 5.64 or 5.55.  Let’s not take this too seriously.  There are clear trends though.

Ben Carson (7.0)

Many don’t take Carson seriously as a candidate due to lack of political or executive experience.  Sure, being an innovative neurosurgeon is harder than what everyone else has done, but it’s not relevant to dealing with ISIS (or so we think).

Though he connects with audiences, the doctor often steps on his best applause lines and isn’t the natural performer Reagan was. True.  That’s why Carson gets a 7.0 and not a 10.  Add 8 years as governor of a huge state and better oratorical timing and you have Reagan, except if his acting career included multiple Oscars.

Donald Trump (6.73)

The Reagan comparisons may be a stretch, but except for Carson, Trump is the closest of the current group.  No, he’s not as positive, not as inclusive.  His executive experience is outside of government.  He’s not noticeably more conservative than the average Republican (current version).

However, he does speak with great conviction, is not a career politician, wants to defeat the bad guys, and says memorable things.  He also offends the cognoscenti, something Reagan used to do too.

Carly Fiorina (6.37)

Surprised to see Carly so (relatively) high?  Others score higher in various areas, but she gets at least some points everywhere.  Of all the candidates, she does the best job of staying on message, something Reagan was great at (though not included as a category).

Though not incredibly inspirational, Fiorina is generally positive and always exhibits a high amount of confidence in America.  She speaks with a ton of conviction and balances executive experience without being a career politician.

Ted Cruz (6.0)

Scores better than most, gets deductions for lack of executive experience, lack of positive message.  Cruz is often more defined by what he’s against, though when you actually listen to him, it’s not actually abrasive.

I don’t want to claim the Reagan Index explains all, but for those wondering why voters are temporarily less enthralled with Tea Party Hero Cruz than Trump/Carson, this may offer clues.

Mike Huckabee (5.73)

Huck is past his sell-by date.  There are newer voices, more outside voices, even equally Christian voices who are both of the above (Carson).

He is half cheery Reagan optimism and half social conservative scold.  Though Reagan was well accepted by the evangelical movement, he was able to straddle the line better than most.  He was very clear to support religion and the place of God in the public discourse without overdoing the morality play and making more secular voters uncomfortable.

From his first run in 2008, Huckabee has focused primarily on social conservatives, making the Reagan tight-rope act impossible.  Still, he has 7/10ths scale Gipper verbal skills.

Rand Paul (5.64)

The Paul candidacy got trapped between the insiders and the outsiders.  In a normal year, Rand would qualify as an outsider and his cozying up to a few establishment figures, an important tactical step to avoid the all-out war Trump will face if he starts collecting delegates by the bushel.

Unfortunately, Trump, Carson and Fiorina stole his thunder and Cruz has done a better job of hanging in. Still, there was a reason he was once taken fairly seriously.  Among all of the candidates, Paul does the best job of promoting individual freedom.  Along with Carson he does the best job of conveying confidence in individual Anericans to make important decisions for themselves.

Chris Christie (5.55)

Christie’s decent score is a reminder of why many national Republicans were partial to him in 2012 and 2013.  He does say memorable things, does communicate clearly and had an entitlements reform plan that is well thought out and distinct from the field.

Unfortunateky, he’s also perceived as less conservative than most of the field, less than most GOP voters.  He’s also less popular in New Jersey than Reagan was in California.

Won’t get there, but Republicans weren’t crazy to like him.

Marco Rubio (5.36)

Rubio is often thought of as Reganesque, but scores lower than many competitors (if not the rest of the establishment pack).  Why?

While Rubio is unfailingly positive about the future of America and sounds good on a regular basis, he’s lacking major policy innovation.

More importantly, he both lacks executive experience and has already spent as much time in government as Reagan had at the end of his presidency.

John Kasich (5.36)

Kasich gets knocked down for being a little less conservative than average, even if you could argue he’s at least as conservative as Reagan was (times have changed).  He’s also a career politician.  While the years on Wall Street help to round him out, Kasich has still spent over 80% of his adult life in office.

Bobby Jindal (5.09)

Social Conservative Bobby has less time to push an innovative economic agenda or sound more upbeat.  Like most of his Reagan Generation brethren (Rubio, Walker, Paul Ryan), he’s spent most of his career in public office.

Jindal also struggles to say things that stick, especially when focusing on economic issues or foreign policy instead of social issues.

Of the candidates who won’t make the main event at the Reagan Library next week, Jindal is the only one included in our analysis, as he is showing a moderate pulse in Iowa.  Santorum, Perry, Graham, Pataki and Gilmore are not worth discussing at this time.

Jeb Bush (5.09)

You probably were not surprised to see Jeb near the bottom of the list.  You probably are surprised to see him ahead of Walker.

The negatives are obvious.  No Bush is ever going to communicate like Reagan, regardless of how “joyful” they plan to sound while campaigning.  Still, Jeb has some ideas that aren’t carbon copies of the other candidates and don’t rigidly fit existing dogma.

He’s also not a career politician, even if his name suggests otherwise.

Scott Walker (4.55)

Ouch.  Walker is dead last among candidates with a chance at relevancy.  Despite having recently written about his shortcomings, this is still worse than I would have figured.

While Walker is something of a Reagan disciple, one of many candidates in the race heavily influenced by the Gipper, as a candidate, he has little in common.  Walker is the definition of a career politician.  He says few things that are memorable, and while he’s issued policy papers that many conservative opinion leaders agree with, he’s not the bold change in direction Reagan was.

In Wisconsin, at least Walker had the right enemies, but public employee unions are leaving him alone right now.

NOTE: Perhaps Team Walker realized how poorly their candidate was doing on the Reagan Index.  He’s scheduled to give an address at Eureka College, the Gipper’s alma matter, tomorrow (9/10).  Apparently the theme is sending an outsider to DC to clean it up.  It’s likely to make Walker seem small by comparison, but if he can pull this off it bodes well for his chances of rebooting.

These ratings aren’t completely fixed in place.  As candidates get more exposure, participate in more debates, confront more issues, their numbers will move up or down a bit.

While I can’t promise the eventual nominee will top the Reagan Index chart, I am fairly sure he or she won’t be at/near the bottom on the day the nomination is clinched.  If nothing else, a candidate’s progress on the index may act as a proxy for how well they are improving communication with voters.

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