Published on February 25, 2014
The common wisdom holds that the GOP 2016 presidential race will boil down to a joust between the “establishment” and the “insurgents.” The former will allegedly be more moderate and the latter more conservative. Since most polls for two decades have shown that around two-thirds to 70 percent of self-described Republicans call themselves conservative, this elite narrative will focus on just how much the establishment candidate will need to be pulled to the right in order to fend off his insurgent challenger. And since the Tea Party has clearly become a vocal and powerful insurgent element in the GOP, the narrative will focus on two other questions: Who will gain Tea Party favor and emerge as the insurgent candidate? And can the establishment candidate escape becoming Tea Partyized during the primary season and therefore remain a viable general-election candidate?
The common wisdom has the advantage of being a neat, coherent and exciting story. It also allows political journalists to do what they like to do most, which is to focus on the personalities of the candidates and the tactics they employ. It has only one small problem. It is wrong.
Exit and entrance polls of Republican primaries and caucuses going back to 1996 show that the Republican presidential electorate is remarkably stable. It does not divide neatly along establishment-versus-conservative lines. Rather, the GOP contains four discrete factions that are based primarily on ideology, with elements of class and religious background tempering that focus. Open nomination contests during this period are resolved first by how candidates become favorites of each of these factions, and then by how they are positioned to absorb the voting blocs of the other factions as their favorites drop out.
This analysis allows us to explain what we consistently observe. It explains why a conservative party rarely nominates the most conservative candidate. It explains why the party often seems to nominate the “next in line.” And, perhaps most importantly, it explains why certain candidates emerge as the “surprise” candidate in each race.
Analysts and advisers who understand this elemental map of the Republican electorate will be better positioned to navigate the shoals of the Republican nominating river and bring one’s favored candidate safely home to port.
REPUBLICAN VOTERS fall into four rough camps. They are: moderate or liberal voters; somewhat conservative voters; very conservative, evangelical voters; and very conservative, secular voters. Each of these groups supports extremely different types of candidates. Each of these groups has also demonstrated stable preferences over the past twenty years.
The most important of these groups is the one most journalists don’t understand and ignore: the somewhat conservative voters. This group is the most numerous nationally and in most states, comprising 35–40 percent of the national GOP electorate. While the numbers of moderates, very conservative and evangelical voters vary significantly by state, somewhat conservative voters are found in similar proportions in every state. They are not very vocal, but they form the bedrock base of the Republican Party.
They also have a significant distinction: they always back the winner. The candidate who garners their favor has won each of the last four open races. This tendency runs down to the state level as well. Look at the exit polls from virtually any state caucus or primary since 1996 and you will find that the winner received a plurality of or ran roughly even among the somewhat conservative voters.
These voters’ preferred candidate profile can be inferred from the characteristics of their favored candidates: Bob Dole in 1996, George W. Bush in 2000, John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. They like even-keeled men with substantial governing experience. They like people who express conservative values on the economy or social issues, but who do not espouse radical change. They like people who are optimistic about America; the somewhat conservative voter rejects the “culture warrior” motif that characterized Pat Buchanan’s campaigns. They are conservative in both senses of the word; they prefer the ideals of American conservatism while displaying the cautious disposition of the Burkean.
The moderate or liberal bloc is surprisingly strong in presidential years, comprising the second-largest voting bloc with approximately 25–30 percent of all GOP voters nationwide. They are especially strong in early voting states such as New Hampshire (where they have comprised between 45 and 49 percent of the GOP electorate between 1996 and 2012), Florida and Michigan. They are, however, surprisingly numerous even in the Deep South, the most conservative portion of the country. Moderates or liberals have comprised between 31 and 39 percent of the South Carolina electorate since 1996, outnumbering or roughly equaling very conservative voters in each of those years.
Moderate and liberal voters prefer someone who is both more secular and less fiscally conservative than their somewhat conservative cousins. In 1996, for example, they preferred Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander over Bob Dole. In 2000, they were the original McCainiacs, supporting a candidate who backed campaign-finance regulation, opposed tax cuts for the top bracket and criticized the influence of Pat Robertson. In 2008, they stuck with McCain, giving him their crucial backing in New Hampshire and providing his margin of victory in virtually every state. In 2012, they began firmly in Ron Paul’s or Jon Huntsman’s camp. Paul and Huntsman combined got 43 percent of their vote in Iowa and 50 percent in New Hampshire. Once it became clear that their candidates could not win, however, the moderate or liberal faction swung firmly toward Romney in his fights with Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum.
This latter movement is perhaps most indicative of their true preferences. The moderate or liberal voter seems motivated by a candidate’s secularism above all else. They will always vote for the Republican candidate who seems least overtly religious and are motivated to oppose the candidate who is most overtly religious. This makes them a secure bank of votes for a somewhat conservative candidate who emerges from the early stages of the primary season in a battle with a religious conservative, as occurred in 1996, 2008 and 2012.
The third-largest group is the moderates’ bête noire: the very conservative evangelicals. This group is small compared to the others, comprising around one-fifth of all GOP voters. They gain significant strength, however, from three unique factors. First, they are geographically concentrated in Southern and border states, where they can comprise a quarter or more of a state’s electorate. Moreover, somewhat conservative voters in Southern and border states are also likelier to be evangelical, and they tend to vote for more socially conservative candidates than do their non-Southern, nonevangelical ideological cousins. Finally, they are very motivated to turn out in caucus states, such as Iowa and Kansas, and form the single largest bloc of voters in those races.
These factors have given very conservative, evangelical-backed candidates unusual strength in Republican presidential contests. The evangelical favorite, for example, surprised pundits by winning Iowa in 2008 and 2012, and supplied the backing for second-place Iowa finishers Pat Robertson in 1988 and Pat Buchanan in 1996. Their strength in the Deep South and the border states also allowed Mike Huckabee rather than Mitt Romney to emerge as John McCain’s final challenger in 2008, and that strength combined with their domination of the February 7 caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado allowed Rick Santorum to emerge as Romney’s challenger in 2012.
This group prefers candidates who are very open about their religious beliefs, place a high priority on social issues such as gay marriage and abortion, and see the United States in decline because of its movement away from the faith and moral codes of its past. Their favored candidates tend to be economically more open to government intervention. Santorum, for example, wanted to favor manufacturing over services, and Buchanan opposed NAFTA. This social conservatism and economic moderation tends to place these candidates out of line with the center of the Republican Party, the somewhat conservative voter outside the Deep South. Each evangelical-backed candidate has lost this group decisively in primaries in the Midwest, Northeast, Pacific Coast and mountain states. Indeed, they even lose them in Southern-tinged states like Virginia and Texas, where McCain’s ability to win the somewhat conservative voters, coupled with huge margins among moderates and liberals, allowed him to hold off Huckabee in one-on-one face-offs.
The final and smallest GOP tribe is the one that DC elites are most familiar with: the very conservative, secular voters. This group comprises a tiny 5–10 percent nationwide and thus never sees its choice emerge from the initial races to contend in later stages. Jack Kemp and Pete DuPont in 1988; Steve Forbes or Phil Gramm in 1996 and 2000; Fred Thompson or Mitt Romney in 2008; Herman Cain, Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich in 2012: each of these candidates showed promise in early polling but foundered in early races once voters became more familiar with each of the candidates. Secular moderates and somewhat conservative voters preferred candidates with less materialistic, sweeping economic radicalism while very conservative evangelicals went with someone singing from their hymnal. Thus, these voters quickly had to choose which of the remaining candidates to support in subsequent races.
This small but influential bloc likes urbane, fiscally oriented men. Thus, they preferred Kemp or DuPont in 1988, Forbes or Gramm in 1996, Forbes in 2000 and Romney in 2008. In 2012, this group was tempted by Rick Perry until his lack of sophistication became painfully obvious in the early debates. It then flirted with Newt Gingrich until his temperamental issues resurfaced in Florida. After that, faced with the choice of Rick Santorum or Mitt Romney, it swung behind Romney en masse.
The latter example is in fact this group’s modus operandi. They invariably see their preferred candidate knocked out early, and they then invariably back whoever is backed by the somewhat conservative bloc. Forbes’s early exit from the 2000 race, for example, was crucial to George W. Bush’s ability to win South Carolina against the McCain onslaught. In New Hampshire, Bush won only 33 percent of the very conservative vote; Forbes received 20 percent. With Forbes out of the race, however, Bush was able to capture 74 percent of the very conservative vote in South Carolina.
The fact that these factions have remained very similar in preferences and in strength over the past twenty years provides a clear guide to anyone who wants to understand how the 2016 Republican nomination contest will unfold.
THE FIRST thing a prospective analyst needs to understand is the crucial role that the year preceding the actual contests plays. In this “preseason,” candidates compete to become favored by one of the four factions. Sometimes no one is competing with a candidate for that favor, which frequently happens on the moderate or liberal side. Other times, though, there is intense competition and the preseason maneuvering determines if someone survives until the actual early contests. We can see this in the maneuvering between Steve Forbes and Phil Gramm in 1996, George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole in 2000, a number of people in 2008, and between Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty in 2012.
The Gramm-Forbes battle centered on who would lead the secular, very conservative forces. Gramm focused on shrinking government, Forbes on tax cuts. Despite Gramm’s strong national presence and Forbes’s complete lack of one, it became clear by December 1995 that the issue of cutting taxes stirred this group’s voters much more than shrinking government. Forbes, not Gramm, therefore became the secular, very conservative hope and presented a serious challenge to other candidates before becoming the focus of attacks in January.
The 2000 Bush-Dole battle (with sideline competition from Lamar Alexander and Dan Quayle) was for who would be favored by somewhat conservative voters. Bush could not compete with Forbes on taxes, although his own tax-cut plan crucially cut into Forbes’s advantage. Nor could he dominate evangelical conservatives in the early races, being challenged by the more overtly religious and fiery Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer. So his chance to win rested on his ability to win enough votes among both groups of very conservative voters to supplement a strong advantage among somewhat conservatives. Dole was his only serious competition here, and to that end Bush poured resources into the Ames straw poll in an effort to drive her from the race by showing donors she could not win. He succeeded, defeating her by a large margin. She dropped out shortly thereafter with her bank account nearly dry, giving Bush the leadership role for the largest GOP faction.
2008 saw three separate subprimaries: Kansas senator Sam Brownback versus Mike Huckabee for the very conservative, evangelical vote, McCain versus Rudy Giuliani for the moderate or liberal vote, and Romney versus Thompson for the very conservative, secular vote. In each case the off-year preseason gave one man a clear early advantage. Thompson’s lackadaisical effort caused him to lose ground to the less ideological but more focused Romney; Brownback dropped out in the summer, being unable to excite the evangelical grassroots like Huckabee; and Giuliani failed to capitalize on an early lead, giving McCain time to reestablish his support. The early races simply confirmed what polls in December 2007 were already showing among each faction.
The 2012 Pawlenty-Romney primary was short, with Pawlenty trying to show somewhat conservative voters and donors that he was more electable than Romney. His effort fizzled, with large donors unconvinced and his poor debate performances showing voters Pawlenty lacked the instinct to win. His poor Ames showing also doomed his effort, causing a nearly broke candidate to drop out within a week. With every other candidate competing for the two very conservative groups, and with Paul and Huntsman competing for moderates, Romney sailed into the early contests.
The 2016 field is still developing, but it’s already possible to discern which candidates are focusing on which factions. Ohio governor John Kasich is staking out ground in the moderate-to-liberal wing with his focus on expanding Medicaid and rhetorically supporting active government. New Jersey governor Chris Christie is trying to make himself the mainstream, somewhat conservative favorite by eschewing fiery rhetoric, emphasizing commonsense governing and attacking Washington. If they run, this will also be Representative Paul Ryan’s and former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s faction. If neither of those two run and Christie falters, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker stands to benefit, as Walker is displaying a similar approach to his competitors. Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee could face off for the very conservative, evangelical nod. Santorum’s 2012 support in primaries and caucuses came in the same areas and from the same people who backed Huckabee in 2008. There would not be room for both candidates in 2016, so the preseason jockeying between these two could be intense.
Virtually everyone else in the race is competing for the favor of the smallest, least influential group: the secular conservatives. All focus on some sort of fiscal issue as their primary focus, and most also try to adopt an anti-Washington tone. Some have secondary messages designed to appeal to other factions, much as George W. Bush did in 2000. Senator Rand Paul’s focus on civil liberties and limiting overseas military actions would hold some appeal for GOP moderates and liberals, as would Senator Marco Rubio’s occasional forays into antipoverty efforts. Rubio’s backing of immigration reform is of interest to somewhat conservative donors, and his authoring of federal antiabortion legislation creates some support among the socially conservative wing. But Paul’s, Rubio’s and Texas senator Ted Cruz’s hope must be that the secular, very conservative wing is in fact much larger in 2016 than it has been in the past.
Tea Party–backed victories in senatorial and congressional primaries give them some reason for hope. In race after race in 2010 and 2012, a populist conservative focusing on fiscal issues upset a more establishment candidate from the somewhat conservative or moderate-to-liberal wings. Many observers say this has pushed the national party to the right, something that also should help a Tea Party fiscal conservative. A careful analysis of the data and of these races, however, shows that these hopes are likely unfounded.
THE NATIONAL data suggest that any Republican move to the right after the election of Barack Obama was muted. We have exit polls from Republican primaries or caucuses in eighteen states from both 2008 and 2012. The share of GOP voters identifying themselves as very conservative did rise between those years, but only by about three and a half percentage points. It shrunk or rose less than two points in Virginia, Alabama, South Carolina, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Moreover, some of that gain seems to have come from those who were previously somewhat conservative becoming slightly more intense about their conservatism. The overall share of the electorate calling themselves any brand of conservative rose only two and a half percentage points. The total number of conservatives shrunk or stayed even in Iowa, South Carolina, Alabama, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Virginia, Nevada and Tennessee. 2012 candidates who banked on a change of the GOP electoral map were thus cruelly disappointed.
Nor do the Tea Party Senate primary victories appear to presage a sea change in GOP attitudes. They generally have two characteristics unlikely to pertain in the 2016 presidential race. First, they occurred primarily in smaller states in the South and West. While these states hold the balance in the Senate, they do not elect most of the delegates needed to win a presidential nomination. Larger states, especially California and those in the Midwest and Northeast, still have substantial power to influence the nomination contest. As importantly, these victories tended to occur in one-on-one races or races with only two serious candidates. Tea Party candidates fared much worse in multicandidate races. In presidential contests, multicandidate races are the norm until well into March, suggesting a Tea Party candidate will find it difficult to win in the early stages.
Most observers accept that Florida (Rubio), Utah (Mike Lee), Nevada (Sharron Angle), Colorado (Ken Buck), Alaska (Joe Miller), Delaware (Christine O’Donnell), Texas (Cruz), Kentucky (Paul) and Indiana (Richard Mourdock) represent clear cases of a Tea Party candidate defeating a more conventional, “establishment” Republican. Of these, only the Texas and Florida victories occurred in states that will matter except in a protracted 2016 fight, and it’s worth noting that Rubio prevailed without a contested primary vote as his opponent, then governor Charlie Crist, dropped out before the primary. O’Donnell’s win came against the most liberal Republican in Congress, someone far to the left of anyone who is expected to run in 2016. Buck’s and Miller’s wins were in one-on-one races and very narrow; Lee’s was in a convention, not a primary; and Mourdock’s came against a thirty-six-year senatorial veteran with residency issues. None came in circumstances likely to resemble those in a seriously contested presidential contest with the sort of field that is so far assembling.
Ted Cruz’s victory appears impressive, but it too is less so upon further examination. Cruz won only because Texas requires a candidate to receive 50 percent in a multicandidate primary to avoid a runoff. Cruz finished second in that first race with a mere 34.2 percent. He won handily (by a 13 percent margin) in a one-on-one runoff in which nearly three hundred thousand fewer votes were cast than in the first race, a setup that nearly all observers said benefited the most conservative candidate.
Note that successful Tea Party challenges have yet to occur in statewide races in large states that do not reliably vote Republican. The purple and blue states touching the Great Lakes will select a combined 398 delegates to the 2016 Republican convention, all by primaries. California will select another 172 delegates through its primary, and the New England states of Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut will select another 104. States whose Republican electorates, then, are heretofore indisposed to elect Tea Partiers will retain a substantial voice in the Republican race.
Careful observers will note that I excluded Representative Todd Akin’s win in the 2012 Missouri Senate primary from the above list. That’s because it was a race with three serious candidates, and as such is more indicative of the circumstances any fiscally focused Tea Partier will face in 2016. Akin drew his support from social conservatives; Lieutenant Governor John Brunner was the conventional, “establishment” candidate; and Sarah Steelman, the state treasurer, ran as a populist fiscal conservative. Akin came out on top with 36 percent to Brunner’s 30 percent and Steelman’s 29 percent. This is quite similar to the state’s 2008 Republican presidential primary, which was also a three-way race between social conservative Mike Huckabee, conventional Republican Mitt Romney and John McCain. Comparing these two races yields a cautionary tale for any Tea Party candidate.
A county-by-county analysis shows that Akin’s vote tracked Huckabee’s quite closely in most areas of the state. Where Huckabee did well so too did Akin, and vice versa. Steelman’s support also tracked Huckabee’s, although not as well: the rural evangelical vote was split between the two outsiders. Akin’s margin, though, came from suburban St. Louis, where he won handily while Huckabee lost big. This is easily explained by the fact that Akin represented a suburban St. Louis district for many years. In 2008, these counties provided John McCain’s victory margin, supporting the most moderate of the three serious contenders. While Akin’s constituents knew him and supported him, a nonlocal, populist conservative is unlikely to do well enough here to avoid relying, as Akin did, on evangelical votes elsewhere in the state.
Missouri shows that an identifiable social conservative will eat into the support for a more fiscally oriented Tea Party populist. Ted Cruz did not face a serious candidate to his social right in his Texas multicandidate race; the only other serious candidate, Dallas mayor Ted Leppert, campaigned as a more moderate, establishment candidate. If Tea Party populism overlaps substantially with social conservatism for its voter support, and if social conservatives will prefer one of their own when given that choice, then Tea Party presidential hopefuls’ chances rest upon the social conservative getting knocked out of the early races. Unfortunately for them, the early races tend to favor the candidates coming from the moderate-to-liberal or the evangelical factions of the party.
IOWA IS the first state to vote, and its preference for evangelical candidates is clear. Not only did Huckabee and Santorum win their races but, going as far back as Pat Robertson’s surprise second-place finish in 1988, culturally conservative candidates have always done very well. The state has traditionally “winnowed” the field to at most three candidates and usually two, a social conservative and a somewhat conservative. Iowa, therefore, is a crucial first test for a fiscally conservative Tea Partier.
New Hampshire, the next state to vote, is not an easier challenge. New Hampshire’s primary is open to registered independents and is one of the most moderate or liberal GOP electorates in the country. It also has one of the lowest shares of evangelicals of any Republican electorate. A socially conservative Iowa winner will not do well there unless he is Catholic (New Hampshire’s GOP electorate is plurality Catholic) and the non-social-conservative field is split between at least three serious candidates (which allowed Catholic social conservative Pat Buchanan to eke out a narrow win in 1996). The challenge for the somewhat conservative favorite will likely be to forestall a challenge from his left, as Romney did successfully in 2012 but which he and Bush failed to do against McCain in 2000 and 2008.
South Carolina and Nevada then round out the first four states to vote. Newt Gingrich’s breakthrough victory in South Carolina in 2012 gives hope to a Tea Party conservative, but it is worth noting that the Palmetto State is an evangelical state that also has large numbers of moderates and somewhat conservatives. Nevada’s caucuses are perhaps the most fertile ground for a Tea Party fiscal conservative to win early. In both 2008 and 2012, the electorate was wealthy (28 percent or more make $100,000 or more), secular (only about a quarter are evangelical) and very conservative (between 40 and 49 percent). The one caveat is the strong Mormon presence (25 percent), but it is not clear that Mormons will turn out in such large numbers without a coreligionist among the top flight of candidates.
The next states to vote have not yet been determined, but it’s worth noting two patterns that have held for three cycles. First, Arizona, Michigan and Florida tend to vote early. Arizona is another secular, conservative state with a strong Mormon minority: Steve Forbes won here in 1996. Michigan has a strong social-conservative element among Catholics and Dutch Calvinists in the western part of the state, but it is also one of the more moderate states in the GOP electorate. Florida also tends to the moderate side (39 percent in 2008 and 31 percent in 2012) and is the home to the only significant Hispanic Republican community in the early states, Miami’s Cubans. These voters broke sharply for John McCain in 2008, giving him his margin of victory over Mitt Romney. It is also unfavorable to evangelical candidates, who tend to do well only in the rural counties in the northern part of the state. Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush would clearly be viewed as home-state favorites should either run.
Second, Southern states dominated by socially conservative evangelical voters also tend to cast their ballots shortly after the first four states and Florida. In 2008, six Southern states voted on February 5. Mike Huckabee won or came in a close second in all of them, establishing him rather than Mitt Romney as John McCain’s final challenger. In 2012, when fewer states overall voted early, four Southern states voted on March 6, followed quickly by the Kansas caucuses, which were dominated by religious conservatives, and by two more Southern primaries on March 13. Rick Santorum won six of these seven states, dropping only Virginia, where he was not on the ballot. If this pattern continues in 2016, the Tea Party favorite is again likely to stumble if faced by a strong religious conservative.
In sum, a Tea Party candidate either needs to clearly deny any breathing space to a more evangelical candidate or he must emulate George W. Bush in 2000 in having enough appeal to other factions to gain enough strength to survive the early states. The likelier outcome will be a repeat of the traditional GOP three-way war between its somewhat conservative center and the two large ideological wings: the moderate secularists and conservative evangelicals.
PAST NEED not be prologue, however. In the movie Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence decides to go back into a hellish desert to rescue a straggler. His close aide, Sherif Ali, tells him not to bother, that the straggler’s fate is foreordained. “It is written,” Ali tells the Englishman. “Nothing is written,” Lawrence angrily yells back. He then goes into the desert and returns with his man.
Lawrence could conquer the desert and its heat through his will, but he could not will the desert away. GOP aspirants would do well to emulate Lawrence’s will and resourcefulness, but they too cannot will away their surroundings. Whichever candidate from whichever faction emerges, he or she will have done so by understanding the four species of GOP voters and using their wiles and the calendar to their advantage. For truly, as Ali said of Lawrence, for some men nothing is written until they write it.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.