It is said political coalitions are a product of their time. If this is true, the GOP needs a revamp and fast. Or so at least several well-known analysts say. But even before that can happen a candidate must be able to connect with the current party coalition.
Before I go on I should elaborate on what I mean by political coalition. The term political coalition infers far more than the demographics of the voters. For example, the Democratic Party is far more than the party of minorities, single women and the young. It has a geographical coalition of being urban and suburban. The party also has an electoral base of strength on the Pacific Coast, the Industrial Belt and the Northeast.
The GOP’s current coalition is primarily middle-aged and older whites. The party is becoming more downscale than upscale and its geographical base of support remains in rural and suburban/exurban areas. Lastly, the electoral strength of the party is all over the map but it comes primarily from the South, West and Midwest.
Let’s keep in mind here the GOP has lost the last 4 of 6 Presidential elections and the popular vote in 5 of 6. Since 2008 Democrats have made inroads in the formerly GOP states of Virginia and North Carolina. The GOP cannot say the same of any Democratic states. Against this backdrop are the bevy of candidates the GOP could field for Presidency in 2016.
All these GOP candidates have one thing in common; they can help remake or at least hold the GOP coalition. Let’s take a look at some of the likeliest GOP candidates for President in 2016 and discuss how they connect with the party’s coalition. This list is far from exhaustive however as the 2016 field is far, far from set.
- Chris Christie: Governor Chris Christie hails from a Democratic state (New Jersey) and from a Democratic region (the Northeast) of the country. However, this is unlikely to stop him from easily winning a second term in his state. Christie’s base of support comes from the all important independent and moderate vote. But he also plays well in the upscale suburbs of New Jersey where voters tend to be less ideological and more pragmatic. This might allow Christie to play well in the suburbs of key states like Virginia, North Carolina, Florida and Ohio. But on the other side of the coin Christie is very likely to be unable to connect with the downscale aspect of the party. Rural voters might appreciate his fiery rhetoric but his agenda is far from fiscally conservative or libertarian. His pragmatic approach might play well in the Midwest as well.
- Senator Marco Rubio: Marco Rubio’s greatest strength seems to be his appeal to Floridians and more specifically for party hopes, the Hispanic vote. Rubio’s support of immigration reform has hurt him among the grassroots but on the other hand his efforts to defund Obamacare have to earn him some props. Rubio, like Christie, connects with upscale voters. But his personal story could allow him to garner 2004 George Bush numbers among downscale whites and Hispanics. Geographically, Rubio plays well in traditionally GOP areas and the combination of upscale/downscale voters combined with an increased share of the Hispanic vote might put Democratic states like New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada in play. Depending on the dynamics of the race he even could play in Iowa or Wisconsin (I will not stretch and say Michigan or Wisconsin however).
- Senator Rand Paul: Senator Rand Paul hails from the quixotic state of Kentucky. It is solidly red at the federal level but Democratic at the state level (minus Ag Commissioner and the state senate). Rand Paul’s appeal is less geographic and more demographic. His libertarian outlook on foreign policy, fiscal policy and drugs might make him a fan of former, young Obama voters. This could help him in demographically younger states like Virginia and North Carolina but hurt him in older states (Pennsylvania and Florida come to mind). Still, it is hard to see Paul losing any solidly red states even if he loses older voters who might be attracted to a more commonly Republican ticket (Christie or Rubio). How Paul plays with upscale and downscale voters is the question. Perhaps his stepping back from drugs and social issues helps him in the upscale suburbs. On the other hand it could hurt him among downscale voters.
- Governor Bobby Jindal: Bobby Jindal is known as the whiz-kid. Heck, he ran his state’s Healthcare system by his mid-twenties. Jindal, as an Indian-American, would likely help the GOP connect with immigrants and minorities. His brand of social conservatism would also connect him to traditional elements of the GOP coalition. But Jindal’s southern roots might hurt him when he tries to expand the GOP coalition. His social conservatism may not play well outside traditionally GOP areas. Likewise, his Indian-American appeal could fall flat if he is assumed to be just another Southern Republican.
- Rick Santorum: There has to be at least one has-run on this list so why not the former Senator of Pennsylvania who says he is interested in running again for President? Santorum ran in 2012 and lost to Romney. The former Senator also lost reelection in 2006 in a bad year nationally for the GOP. Santorum will strongly connect with the GOP’s Southern electoral base due to his social conservatism. Also, his populist rhetoric will connect with the rural, downscale white element of the GOP coalition. But expanding beyond that will be hard for the former Senator. There is little else at this point to suggest he would win more than traditional GOP states and demographics.
- Governor Scott Walker: Lastly, we come to the Governor of Wisconsin. Walker embodies the conservative, pragmatic Midwestern Republican. He has battled recalls, union protests and managed to win said recall with more votes than his election in 2010. Most startling was that Walker did this by winning young, moderate income voters. Walker’s pragmatic streak is etched with modern conservative elements. He is a solid social conservative, a fiscal conservative but also has inched towards Rand Paul’s views on foreign policy. In his two elections he has won the conservative suburbs of Milwaukee and the more liberal, upscale suburbs of Dane County. This suggests he has upscale appeal. His social and fiscal conservatism connects well with the traditional GOP base. It is his Midwestern roots and pragmatic appeal, even as he has implemented a decidedly conservative agenda that take the cake though. His pragmatism might allow him to win swing voters and minorities without pandering.
Like I said before this list is far from exhaustive. The contours of the election and political environment over the next few years also will likely leave this initial analysis outdated. But from what we can see above a few things stand out.
Chris Christie is the GOP’s best bet if it wants to remake itself into a more center-right, up-scale party. Downplay social and fiscal policy and focus on good governance, reform and compromise (fat chance in this time of polarization). Governor Bobby Jindal and Senator Marco Rubio could expand the GOP tent ethnically. But Rubio seems to play better to a more upscale electorate while Jindal less so. Both seem to fit the traditional elements of the party well.
Rand Paul is a mixed bag. He could reforge the GOP demographically but it might come at the expense of the suburbs the GOP is holding (think Wisconsin’s Waukeesha County). He is unlikely to lose the modern GOP coalition and could add to it. But where it comes from is unlikely to be among downscale, white voters.
Lastly, we come to Governor Walker (Santorum I am not discussing further). Walker connects to the modern GOP coalition extremely well due to his social and fiscal conservatism. His Midwestern roots also help. Walker’s appeal is in his pragmatism however. It could draw the business community to his side in the primary and general elections. Further, he might not singlehandedly peel away any key component of the Democratic coalition but he might be able to eat into their margins while expanding upscale and downscale GOP support.
Obviously, this simple analysis leaves a lot to be desired. But as of now, considering the candidates above the most likely to run, it seems Walker, Paul and Rubio offer the party their best chance to expand the party. Christie seems the best fit to completely revamp it. Walker and Rubio seem to best fit the GOP’s current coalition. Christie is a Northeast Republican and Paul seems a little to libertarian. So, all in all, it seems the GOP could do bestl with either Rubio or Walker.