If Rudy Giuliani were to win the Republican presidential nomination, would that trigger a significant third-party effort by social and religious conservatives, potentially costing the former New York City mayor the general election? Don't expect an unequivocal answer here. I, for one, am still trying to get my arms around the fact that Giuliani is doing so well and appears to have a 50-50 chance of clinching the Republican nomination. Those odds perplex me, especially given his fairly liberal stands on hot-button cultural issues and his tangled personal life.
An argument can be made that if Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York is the Democratic nominee (as seems very likely), many Republicans -- even those who are far more conservative than Giuliani on such issues as abortion, gun control, and gay rights -- would hold their noses and vote for him anyway if he is the GOP's standard-bearer. One can argue that in politics, hatred of the enemy is as strong a motivator as love of an ally.
Contrary to popular belief, turnout did not kill Republicans in last year's midterm elections. Yes, Democrats turned out a bit more than usual and Republicans a bit less. And, yes, both parties pretty much held on to their own registered voters; relatively few defected on either side. The lopsided election result came from independents siding with Democrats by a 16-point margin. Republicans had plenty of reasons to stay home in 2006, but they didn't end up doing so.
Of course, 2008 might not follow the same pattern. And a good case can be made that Giuliani would lose too much of his base to win the general election.
Social conservatives have pretty much run the Republican Party for a long time, at least 20 years. The assumption has been that no one who opposes them on any key social issue can win the party's presidential nomination. Outside of the Northeast, that has also been true in most House, Senate, and gubernatorial contests.
For social and religious conservatives, the nomination and election of someone with Rudy Giuliani's track record would represent a repudiation of their place in the party, regardless of how he shades his positions these days. It would also give a green light to "pro-choice," pro-gun-control Republicans, as well as to those who might support domestic partnerships or civil unions for gays. Social conservatives would lose their grip on the party. To them, losing the 2008 presidential election to the Democrats might arguably be better than losing control of the GOP.
Several months ago, the chief executive officer of a major investment company explained his support for Giuliani by saying that he didn't know whether the former mayor could win the nomination, but that Republicans needed to move their party in Giuliani's direction. In some ways, Giuliani's candidacy could become something of a proxy fight between secular Republicans, who see the GOP as needing to emphasize economic and foreign-policy issues, and religious Republicans, who see social and cultural issues as being of paramount importance.
In some ways, this fight has been inevitable ever since working-class and lower-middle-class conservative white voters abandoned the Democratic Party and migrated to the GOP. Their shift was partly a reaction to the Democratic Party's stands on civil rights and the Vietnam War, but it also was in response to the Democrats' increasingly liberal positions on cultural issues.
In a Clinton-Giuliani contest, would social and religious conservatives be motivated more by their hatred of the former first lady or by the ramifications of the Republican Party's electing a president with moderate-to-liberal positions on cultural issues? The fact that Giuliani's major competition for the GOP nomination, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, is someone who just four or five years ago had very similar positions on these issues complicates matters further. It also underscores how different things might be if former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had the funding to be a viable Republican alternative.
For the moment, the questions are clearer than the answers. But that's what elections are for.