Not so long ago, Rudy Giuliani was the consensus front runner for the Republican presidential nomination. He had won the first beauty contest of the primary season, from the nation’s most self-important electorate, the neoconservative punditariat: George Will, Norman Podhoretz, John Podhoretz, David Frum, and Richard Brookhiser all lined up behind Giuliani, together with an assortment of lesser-known malefactors who make a living sharing their ill-considered opinions with the rest of us. Finally, it seemed, the GOP was ready to give the social conservatives who embarrass much of the party’s elite a candidate whose public opinion on such issues as abortion, illegal immigration, and “gay rights” matches the private opinion of much of that elite on those issues. And, as a result of the media consensus in his favor, Giuliani led in the national polls for months.
Something changed once real voters began casting real ballots. Giuliani suffered embarrassing defeat after embarrassing defeat: four percent in the Iowa caucuses, behind Ron Paul’s ten percent; nine percent in the New Hampshire primary, barely ahead of Ron Paul’s eight percent; zero delegates in the Wyoming caucuses, behind Duncan Hunter’s one; three percent in the Michigan primary, behind Ron Paul’s six percent; four percent in the Nevada caucuses, well behind Ron Paul’s fourteen percent; and two percent in the South Carolina primary, behind Ron Paul’s four percent and well behind the semicomatose Fred Thompson’s sixteen percent. The Giuliani campaign tried to explain these defeats away by arguing that it had made a strategic decision to bypass these states, but the fact is that Giuliani made numerous appearances in Iowa and especially New Hampshire, before concluding he was going nowhere in those states.
Despite his dismal performance through South Carolina, there was still a slim chance that Giuliani could have gained the Republican nomination. That chance was based on the hope that Giuliani would win the Florida primary, which then would have catapulted him back into the national race and positioned him to do well in the 24 states selecting delegates on Super Tuesday. Giuliani’s advisors had focused on Super Tuesday because voters in those states had less opportunity to learn about the candidates, none of whom was able to spend much time in any one of those states. In other words, Giuliani’s only hope for victory was that the voters on February 5 would be ignorant and ill-informed.
That strategy was killed in utero, however, after Giuliani suffered a crushing defeat in the Florida primary, finishing third with 15 percent behind Mitt Romney’s 31 percent and John McCain’s 36 percent—and barely ahead of Mike Huckabee’s 13 percent. The next day, Giuliani withdrew from the race and endorsed McCain.
The reason for Giuliani’s collapse is twofold: The issues that matter to voters are not the issues that matter to Giuliani’s neocon advisors, and the more Republican voters learned about the thrice-married adulterer who had turned New York into a “sanctuary city” for illegal aliens, favored gun control, marched in gay-pride parades, and proclaimed January 22, 1998, “Roe v. Wade Anniversary Day” in New York City, the less they liked.
Giuliani bet his campaign on the belief that the “War on Terror” is now the premier social issue, as Jonah Goldberg has argued, and that the voters are as eager for an endless war against “Islamofascism” as are his foreign-policy advisors Norman Podhoretz and David Frum. It was not a wise bet. There is concern over Iraq even among Republicans, and, at this point, more Americans are worried about an impending recession than are worried about Iran. In each of the five states for which exit or entrance polls are available, more voters cited the economy as the most important issue than cited Giuliani’s signature issue of terrorism, with the economy beating out terrorism by such lopsided margins as 55 percent to 11 percent in Michigan and 40 percent to 15 percent in South Carolina.
In fact, despite the Giuliani campaign’s emphasis on national security, Giuliani’s foreign-policy experience is virtually nonexistent. His much-touted snubs of Yasser Arafat and the Saudis while mayor of New York signify little beyond a keen sense of what it takes to succeed in New York politics, and, before Giuliani withdrew, the NYC fire-fighters union had set up a website, www.rudy-urbanlegend.com, seeking to do to Giuliani what the Swift Boat veterans did to John Kerry by arguing that “Rudy has used the horrible events of September 11 to create a persona that is an elaborate fabrication. He is nothing more than a shameless self-promoter.”
The other reason Giuliani failed is that GOP voters learned more about him. Despite the manifest failures of the politicians they vote for, many GOP voters actually value traditional morality, believe that abortion is evil, want to curb immigration, and are serious about the Second Amendment. Thus, once voters learned that Giuliani had a tawdry personal history, favored abortion, “gay rights,” and gun control, and had actively resisted efforts to enforce immigration laws as mayor of New York, his support among GOP voters plunged. It turns out that the traditional social issues remain the real social issues after all.