“The candidates that the two parties choose as their standard-bearers are most often in the middle of the political spectrum,” author James Pfiffner says in The Modern Presidency, describing the typical strategy used in election campaigns, “and tend to move more toward the middle (ideologically) after the primaries and as the general election approaches.” Running to the right in primaries before moving to the center for a general election was a strategy advised to fellow Republicans by Richard Nixon, who Pfiffner then chronicles in the 1960 general election against Democrat John Kennedy. Depicting both candidates as fiscal conservatives, Pfiffner says, “the election was about competence and character, and there was not a sharp ideological difference between the two candidates.” 1
As in the 1960 election, the outcomes in 1968 and 1976 were also close, a fact that Pfiffner similarly attributes to opposing candidates competing from the center of the ideological spectrum. “With this rational tendency for political parties to put up presidential candidates who are in the middle of the political spectrum,” Pfiffner asks, “how can we explain the Republicans’ choice of Barry Goldwater in 1964 and the Democrats’ choice of George McGovern in 1972?” 2
Without providing any information about respective primary opponents who ran against Goldwater or McGovern, a more consistent question for Pfiffner to ask might have related to reasons why both challengers failed in their general election campaigns, unlike the 1976 victory achieved by Jimmy Carter.
1. James P. Pfiffner, The Modern Presidency, Sixth Edition (Boston: Wadsworth, 2005), 6. Mark Halperin and John F. Harris, The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008 (New York: Random House, 2006), 170.
2. Pfiffner, The Modern Presidency, 27.