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Why Can't Conservatives Get Their Acts Together?

The movement is a juggernaut. But when it comes to presidential politics, it's a flop.

Posted on January 10, 2012, at 2:53 p.m. ET

Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library / Via

The last Republican nominee to unite the conservative movement, Ronald Reagan, speaking in support of Vice President George H. W. Bush at the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans.

A new generation of Tea Party conservatives has watched with horror as the conservative movement splintered around a half-dozen conservative presidential candidates, letting moderate Mitt Romney sail toward the nomination.

How, they wonder, could this happen?

To which veterans of the conservative movement answer, How could it not?

The 2012 election is following the – for conservatives – heartbreaking pattern set in all of the last four contested Republican primaries: 1988, 1996, 2000, and 2008.

“For the last 30 years conservatives have splintered their vote, which has given advantage to less authentic conservatives to win the GOP nomination,” said Greg Mueller, a veteran conservative operative who worked for presidential hopefuls Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes. “Not since Reagan in '80 have conservatives had a clear shot at the establishment frontrunner. It is looking like political deja vu for the conservative movement again this cycle.”

The paradox: The conservative movement, known for its focus and discipline and ability – in Washington – to hold together disparate social and economic interests, has proven again and again unable to unite around a single candidate. In 1988 Pat Robertson drew religious conservatives while Jack Kemp was the favorite of economic conservatives, and moderate George H. W. Bush got the nomination. In 1996, Buchanan, Forbes, and former Reagan aide Alan Keyes all outshone the would-be conservative favorite, Senator Phil Gramm, and handed the nomination to the compromising Senate Majority Leader, Bob Dole. In 2000, Forbes appealed to the anti-tax right, while Keyes and Gary Bauer competed for religious conservatives, and George W. Bush – who had tended better than his father or Dole to his right flank – took the nomination.

“Conservatism in 1980 knew what it stood for,” said Craig Shirley, a movement veteran and Reagan biographer whose firm is working with Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign. The movement is going through a bit of an identity crisis. This is the residue of 8 years of George Bush.”

It’s also the residue of a new moment for a party whose identity was shaped by Bush’s response to the 9/11 terror attacks.

“The shattering fact of 9/11 pretty much overwhelmed and subsumed philosophical differences within the party for eight years. Differences between libertarians, social conservatives, and moderate suburban Republicans were not in the forefront of thinking among party activists,” former Reagan speechwriter and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan told BuzzFeed. “Suddenly in 2009, with the GOP out of power in Washington and the economy collapsed and two wars unwon, the old philosophical disagreements, in their modern iteration, came to the fore.

“Republicans are working out these tensions through the current nominating process,” she said in an email.

Others blame the candidates, not the movement.

“A dominant conservative candidate has not been able to emerge in recent years. There have been a series of flops,” said Jeffrey Bell, a movement veteran who is policy director at the American Principles Project in Washington. “And this year we didn’t have soup-to-nuts, fully funded presidential candidate. All of them lacked money except for Perry, and Perry wasn’t ready to run for president.”

The battle to be the conservative Romney alternative featured, at its start, Rep. Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain, but has now boiled down to three men: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; former Senator Rick Santorum; and Governor Rick Perry. Many conservative leaders have remained on the sidelines, and a moment of real momentum to pull conservative leaders around Santorum appears to have passed. Christian conservatives, including Gingrich-backer Donald Wildmon, are planning to meet at the end of this week in Texas to agree on a candidate – very late in the game.

One Christian conservative to pick a side this week is Gary Bauer, the former candidate and president of the group American Values.

“I felt that for Santorum to go into Iowa with a limited budget and present a solid Reagan conservative message and tie for first put an obligation on people like me to step up,” he told BuzzFeed. “I don’t intend to attack anybody else – other than maybe Ron Paul – but I felt it was time to show some leadership and stand with Santorum, although obviously he’s got an uphill climb.”

Bauer acknowledged the echoes of past conservative splits, but said “it’s somewhat different this time in that there’s not an overpowering frontrunner.”

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.