Why Conservatives Never Cry Voter Fraud Against One of Their Own

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Timothy Stanley is a historian of the United States at Oxford University. He is the author of "Kennedy vs. Carter: The 1980 Battle for the Democratic Party's Soul" and most recently of "The Crusader: The Life and Tumultous Times of Pat Buchanan." He blogs on American politics for the London Daily Telegraph and has written for The Atlantic, Dissent, and National Review. His website is www.timothystanley.co.uk.

Rick Santorum is turning out to be one of the Republican Party’s great coulda-shoulda-beens. He was denied the Iowa caucus—and all its precious momentum—by bad math. On January 4, Mitt Romney was declared the winner by just 8 votes. Over the next two weeks, rumors trickled out of Iowa of ballots being miscounted and entire precincts disappearing off the electoral map. On January 19, local GOP officials adjusted the results and pronounced Santorum the winner, by 34 votes.

A win is a win, but it came too late for Santorum to feel the full benefit. In the meantime, Romney got a bounce that he didn’t deserve. Who knows, without it Romney might not have done so well in New Hampshire and might have done even worse in South Carolina. And Rick Santorum could be the official anti-Mitt candidate rather than the hyperbolic Newt Gingrich.

What is surprising is that no one has yet cried fraud. Given the Tea Party’s deep suspicion of both Romney and the Republican establishment, why have no conspiracy stories been written? 

In fact, history shows that conservatives are bad at holding the GOP to account over its electoral glitches. I’ve just published a book called The Crusader: the Life and Times of Pat Buchanan that examines a similar scenario that took place during the 1996 Republican primaries. As in 2012, the quixotic behavior of the local GOP gave grassroots conservatives cause for concern. Yet, as in 2012, the conservatives kept their complaints to themselves. The fatalism of the American Right is astonishing.

Pat Buchanan entered the 1996 primaries on a populist platform that promised to outlaw abortion, slap a tariff on imported goods, withdraw troops from overseas, and win what he described as a “cultural war” against liberalism. His platform was eccentric and his resources were few, but Buchanan was a brilliant speaker and knew how to draw press attention. Once, when asked “Do you support any form of gun control?” he replied, “I think it’s very important to have a straight aim.”

From the start, Buchanan’s people complained that the establishment stacked things against them. His supporters flooded the 1995 Iowa Straw Poll and were confident of a win. But Bay Buchanan (Pat’s sister and campaign manager) claims that she was denied access to the count. She says that she was told that, due to “technical difficulties,” the tallying would be done in secret. Whether Bay imagined a conspiracy or not, the result was very close. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and Texas Senator Phil Gramm tied exactly, both taking 2,582 voters, or 24 percent. Buchanan got 18 percent. Bay was convinced that Buchanan narrowly came first, Gramm second, and Dole last. Worried that the press would say Pat won and anoint him the leader of the conservatives, Bay said Gramm had maybe agreed with Dole to accept a face-saving tie and put Buchanan back in his place.

Phil Gramm certainly tried to stack the Louisiana caucus in his favor. Louisiana had moved its vote to a week before Iowa in a bid to steal the Hawkeye state’s glory. Gramm’s local supporters lobbied to make it a caucus to keep turnout to a minimum. Just 42 polling sites were created and were scattered into obscure places across the state.

However, Gramm got overconfident and stopped his campaign visits. Seeing an opening, Team Buchanan swooped down there a week before the vote and started pressing the flesh. On election day, February 6, 1996, turnout was unexpectedly large and was thought to be breaking Buchanan’s way. Exit polls gave him a double digit lead. Yet, after a long wait, the result was officially recorded as 44 percent for Buchanan and 42 percent for Gramm. Again, several Buchanan staffers insisted that the victory has been diluted by inept counting.

No matter, for Iowa was on February 12, and Pat had “the big mo.” As election night wore on, Bob Dole’s initial lead dropped to the point of a near statistical tie with Buchanan. Buchanan’s tellers, Connie Mackey and Terry Jeffrey, were convinced of victory. But they noticed an odd discrepancy. The crucial county of Dubuque went heavily for Pat (according to figures supplied by the Des Moines Register) but the exit polling service used by the networks called it for Bob Dole. Somehow, 13 percent of Buchanan’s votes were lost. If a similar error was repeated across the state—even by a much lower margin of 5 percent—then Iowa was called for the wrong man. The networks declared the final result as 26 percent for Dole and 23 percent for Buchanan. Pat’s people were deflated, but they never issued a formal complaint.

The story illustrates the ways in which caucuses are unfavorable to outsider candidacies. On the one hand, they benefit passion and organization over money and endorsements. On the other, they require a great deal of trust in the impartiality of both the state GOP and the national media. Whereas a primary is just a day of voting followed by electronic tabulation, the incredible complexity of the caucus system is open to error and even fraud. Small campaigns just don’t have the legal or logistical force to effectively police it.

If Pat Buchanan had won Iowa, there’s a good chance that he would have been the Republican nominee in 1996 rather than Bob Dole. He won New Hampshire a week later, and the momentum of these two victories combined would have made him virtually unstoppable. Without Iowa, however, he was just a colorful also-ran.

In interviews with Buchanan’s staff, they told me that they feared that complaining would reinforce their image as conspiracy theorists and bitter losers. They also didn’t want to be accused of wrecking Bob Dole’s chance to win in the general election. Richard Nixon had similar reasons for accepting his narrow defeat at the hands of Jack Kennedy in 1960: it was the most honorable and most gracious thing to do.

But I also sensed that the reason why they didn’t complain was that being an outsider candidacy had made them psychologically conditioned to losing. Perhaps they imagined conspiracies in order to explain away failure, but certainly they were prepared for defeat from the first day that Buchanan declared his candidacy. Conservatives see mainstream politics as the fiefdom of big “liberals” (be they Republican or Democrat) and any attempt to bring those liberals down is, by dint of the sheer mass of liberal power, a suicide mission.

The same may be true of Rick Santorum, whose campaign is riddled with the mythos of Tea Party insurgency and establishment omniscience. In South Carolina, 2012, Santorum ran an ad that parodied Mitt Romney as Big Brother and the conservative voter as a latter-day Winston Smith. Of course, we all know what happens at the end of 1984. Winston Smith learns to love Big Brother. Whether or not Santorum’s people accept Mitt Romney so willingly, especially after the nightmare in Iowa, remains to be seen.

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