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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

In the many Republican primaries we’ve had so far this year, it’s reasonably safe to say that the word “conservative”–often modified by “true” or “most”–has been used by candidates almost universally as a personal and policy identifier. That’s not surprising, given the relatively high level of ideological conformity among self-identified Republican voters, and the impetus to self-conscious conservatism provided by the Tea Party movement and an energized Republican base.

So it’s interesting to take a look at next Tuesday’s Michigan gubernatorial primary, and find a very competitive Republican candidate, Rick Snyder, who doesn’t much use the C-word, and in fact, is appealing for Democratic and independent votes on the apparent ground that like Mike Dukakis in 1988, he’s about competence, not ideology.

According to a new poll from the Michigan-based firm EPIC-MRA, Snyder is in the lead in a very close three-way race for the gubernatorial nomination against two candidates, Attorney General Mike Cox and congressman Peter Hoekstra, who are competing heatedly with each other for the Tea Party/True Conservative mantle. Yet in the Year of the Conservative, you search high and low on Snyder’s web page to find the word “conservative.” There are plenty of things Snyder talks about–notably his business experience as an executive with Gateway, and his determination to make Michigan government operate efficiently–that appeal to conservatives. But he mainly identifies himself as “one tough nerd”–the sort of thing you’d normally associate with elitist liberals–and in the stretch run of the primary, seems to be branding himself as a moderate with special crossover appeal to Democrats and independents.

To be sure, Snyder calls himself pro-life (though he has broken with anti-abortion groups by strongly supporting embryonic stem cell research) and pro-gun, but has avoided discussion of social issues in his campaign. More importantly, he’s associated himself with former Gov. William Millikan, whose moderate (and pro-choice) policies as Michigan’s chief executive and GOP party boss were nearly as annoying to conservatives as his endorsements of the last two Democratic presidential nominees. And he’s also linked even more closely to moderate (and pro-choice) former congressman Joe Schwarz, who flirted with an independent candicacy for governor before being tapped by Snyder’s campaign to reach out to Democratic and independent crossover voters.

The “reachout” idea is interesting but problematic. Michigan is an open primary state, and moreover, one that lets voters decide within the privacy of the voting booth which primary they will participate in (leading to high levels of confusion and spoiled ballots). But it’s not clear how willing Michigan voters are to cross over. The EPIC-MRA poll cited earlier shows that only 2% of likely GOP primary voters are Democrats, and only 15% are true independents. The same poll shows self-identified conservatives outgunning moderates 72-24.

It’s certainly plausible that the Cox-Hoekstra battle will let Snyder, with or without a significant crossover vote, sneak through to victory. There’s some precedent in Indiana, where Marlin Stutzman and John Hostettler split the Tea Party/True Conservative vote and let Dan Coats win. But Coats is a much more orthodox conservative figure than Snyder, and didn’t openly appeal to non-Republican voters. So if Snyder wins on Tuesday, it will provide an exception to the general rule that being a loud-and-proud conservative is a condition precedent for representing the Republican Party in major elections this year. And who knows, a Snyder win could even supply some encouragement down the road to conservative efforts nationally to close primaries or require runoffs.

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