Bob Dole Says He, Reagan Might Not Win in Today's GOP, Thinks Party Should Close for Repairs

Image credit: Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo

Bob Dole says he couldn't make it as a Republican today - and a tilt toward more conservative voters in the key Iowa Republican caucuses may bear him out.

"Could people like Bob Dole, even Ronald Reagan - could you make it in today's Republican Party?" host Chris Wallace asked Dole on "Fox News Sunday."

"I doubt it," Dole said. "Reagan wouldn't have made it. Certainly, Nixon couldn't have made it, because he had ideas and- We might have made it, but I doubt it."

The 1996 presidential nominee went further, saying his party should close up shop until it's figured things out.

"I think they ought to put a sign on the national committee doors that says 'closed for repairs' until New Year's Day next year and spend that time going over ideas and positive agendas," Dole said.

The Republican National Committee has advertised a broad-based retooling after some tough years for Republicans. Despite their gains in 2010, Republicans lost the 2012 presidential race along with nearly every competitive Senate campaign. All that came after another crushing loss in 2008.

Dole's comments reflected concerns of other centrist Republicans forced out of the party by primaries or the threats of primaries as conservatives gained influence over the GOP during President Obama's tenure in the White House.

Is Dole right? A look at the changed demographics of Iowa Republicans suggests he might have lost the 1996 Iowa caucuses had today's Republicans judged him then.

Dole topped the 1996 Iowa GOP field with 27 percent of the caucus vote. His coalition was broad: He won 30 percent of "somewhat conservative" caucus-goers and 29 percent of moderates, according to entrance polls. His worst showing came among "very conservative" caucus-goers, from whom he gathered 21 percent of votes.

Pat Buchanan, the conservative former Nixon aide, finished second with 23 percent. He was the favorite of the "very conservative" bloc: Buchanan raked in 37 percent of their votes, while trailing Dole badly among the other categories - 22 percent of "somewhat conservative" and only seven percent of "moderate" caucus goers.

Iowa Republicans leaned more to the middle in 1996. According to polls of Republicans entering GOP caucus sites in 1996, 34 percent of caucus-goers were "very conservative," 41 percent "somewhat conservative," and 25 percent "moderate" or "liberal."

In 2012, when Rick Santorum narrowly topped Mitt Romney in Iowa, "very conservative" had climbed to 47 percent, an increase of 13 percentage points. "Somewhat conservative" accounted for 37 percent, a four-point drop; liberal/moderate caucus goers accounted for 17 percent, eight percentage points fewer than in 1996.

An analysis of the changing demographics of Iowa suggests Buchanan may have edged out Dole if the caucuses were held today, assuming the candidates held on to the same percentage of each category of voter from 1996 to 2012.

According to national exit polls, Dole's general-election coalition was just a shade more moderate than Romney's in 2012. In 1996, 57 percent of Dole's supporters self-identified as "conservative" (as opposed to liberal or moderate); last year, 60 percent of Romney's voters said they were "conservative." Those data have their limits, as exit polls aren't conducted in every state.

Of course, there are too many factors to predict a re-writing of history. It's impossible for the Dole of then to run today, as it's impossible for the Iowa voters of today to caucus then. Caucuses are social events, and the formation and spread of political opinions depends on too many things to simply plug one candidate into another year and assume the numbers can predict what would have happened.

If the Bob Dole of 1996 ran today, he could very well find a new appeal to voters. Especially running against different candidates, Dole's percentage of votes from liberals, moderates, and conservatives could vary drastically in a different landscape.

But in the 1996 primaries, strictly looking at changing voter demographics, Dole's first victory may not have been, had today's Republicans caucused.