Henry Olsen over at the National Interest has a very interesting look at the GOP Presidential Primary electorate. Particularly, he finds the paradigm that the 2016 GOP Primary will come down to the “Establishment” vs. the “Tea Party” to be very simplistic (duh). Since the media can find that a solid majority of Republicans, young and old, identify as conservative expect the theme of the GOP nominee eventually being pulled to the right to be used endlessly.
Olsen notes, however, that the GOP Presidential electorate is far from a two faction family event. Rather, since 1996, entrance and exit polls have shown the GOP electorate to be remarkably stable among four factions: moderate/liberal voters, somewhat conservative voters, very conservative evangelicals and very conservative, secular voters. These voters have helped explain why a party that is conservative rarely nominates the most conservative candidate. For Republicans and conservatives who wonder why they have lost it is not nearly as simple as saying, “We did not nominate a conservative enough candidate.”
Historically, somewhat conservative voters, the largest bloc in the process, have backed the eventual GOP nominee. These voters helped shepard McCain in 08 and Romney in 2012 past the finish line. According to Olsen they also tend to not be consolidated in any one particular state but are fairly evenly scattered across the country (bedrock of the party). Evangelicals tend to be consolidated in places such as Iowa and South Carolina (and obviously the South), giving them an out-sized voice in the process. But while they hold significant sway in Iowa, in South Carolina they compete with somewhat conservative and moderate/liberal business owners and in Nevada they battle with secular voters.
Olsen does go on to say what kind of candidate each voting group likes. Evangelicals tend to split their votes between religiously strong candidates such as Huckabee and Romney in 08 and Santorum and Bachmann in 2012. Moderates/liberals, yes they are still in the party, tend to side with somewhat conservative voters in favoring somebody with governing experience and a penchant for tamping down the party’s more extreme elements. Lastly, very conservative, secular voters tend to favor candidates with a penchant for focusing on fiscal policy. Hence, they flirted with Rick Perry in 2012 before turning to Romney as somewhat conservative and moderate/liberal voters did to avoid a Santorum candidacy.
These four factions help explain why the Tea Party could never unite around a single candidate to challenge Romney in 2012. Indeed, the Tea Party’s composition incorporates all four groups to some degree. Exit polls tended to show Republicans with a less favorable view to the Tea Party backed Romney while those that more enthusiastically did backed other candidates. While this may be true it is also true that geography and the primary electorate of these states played a larger role.
Consider that evangelicals never truly warmed to Romney until the general. As a result, evangelicals strength in Southern and Border states helped upstarts like Santorum survive so long in the primary. This resembled the Obama/Hillary primary of 08 where it was clear Obama would come out a winner but Hilary kept winning geographic areas and state with enough down-scale whites to keep her campaign chugging along. In much the same way, evangelicals did the same for anti-Romney candidates.
The impact these four groups have on 2016 is up in the air. Inevitably, potential GOP contenders are already doing the rounds trying to appeal to different segments of the electorate. It is important to note that somewhat conservative voters make up abut 40% of the electorate, evangelicals another 20%, secular voters 5-10% and moderates/liberals the rest. Those percentages are important because it weighs on potential candidates minds in terms of which group/s they want to court. Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman did well in New Hampshire and faded quickly after because they went after moderates/liberals and very conservative, secular voters who are not strong in Iowa, South Carolina or Florida.
A Rand Paul candidacy might appeal to moderate/liberals and secular voters. But to survive beyond the early states Paul would need to appeal to somewhat conservative voters for South Carolina and Florida. Possible Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal candidacies would probably see some very conservative, evangelicals and somewhat conservative voters support their efforts. Governor John Kasich in Ohio might get some moderates/liberals. The big question mark may be whether former has-runs try a second time such as Santorum or Huckabee. They would probably draw the evangelical vote. If so, it would make the other candidates scramble to assemble a winning coalition.
For prospective 2016 candidates it is important to note the winning formulas of former candidates. George Bush in 2000 assembled a coalition of evangelicals (letting him win Iowa) and somewhat conservative voters (winning South Carolina). By winning two out of the first three states, Bush gobbled up support and cash and pushed out John McCain with the support of somewhat conservative voters on Super Tuesday. In 2008, John McCain’s eventual win was preceded by the unusual coalition of somewhat conservative and moderate/liberal voter support he received in New Hampshire. Romney won the very conservative, secular vote based in the Boston exurbs of the state. Romney in 2012 was the favorite of somewhat conservatives in Iowa but moderate/liberal and secular support for Huntsman and Paul bled enough votes away from him to cost him the state. However, he assembled McCain’s coalition in New Hampshire and after a blow in South Carolina used his coalition to win Nevada and Florida. However, his weakness among evangelicals continued to allow upstart challengers to fight him to the end.
If the Tea Party (as it is assembled) is to coalesce around a future candidate it will likely have to be based on some sort of populism that draws support from all four groups. The candidate must also not seem extreme, have some religious affiliation and be able to speak to secular voters economic concerns. None of these are qualities current Tea Party favorites such as Ted Cruz possess. Cruz might survive Iowa but after that he would be fighting a losing battle in New Hampshire and South Carolina unless he broadens his appeal.
It is my supposition the winning candidate in 2016 will need to have at least three factors. The first is to assemble a coalition not based on any one particular group’s majority support. Second, the winner must use the primary calender to his/her advantage. Iowa votes first, followed by New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Different groups will determine each state’s leaning (Iowa-evangelicals, New Hampshire-moderates/somewhat conservatives, South Carolina-evangelicals/somewhat conservatives and Nevada-evangelicals/somewhat conservative/very conservative seculars). The states following the first four have not been determined but expect them to be dominated by moderates and evangelicals which makes navigating those states a tricky prospect. Third, and lastly, the winner must be able to raise cash even after a loss. In 2000 and 2012 Bush and Romney kept raising cash even after losses. McCain’s campaign only started getting dough after other candidates stumbled badly in 08.
It has been said that politics requires strategy and cunning. Whoever emerges from the brutal Presidential Primary process will have done so utilizing both and demonstrating an understanding of the four factions that determine the GOP Presidential Primary.