Ethics & Public Policy Center

Interview with Henry Olsen: How You Win a GOP Primary

Published in Washington Post on December 9, 2015


Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and Dante J. Scala have a new book out, “The Four Faces of the Republican Party: The Fight for the 2016 Presidential Nomination.” The authors’ analysis goes like this:

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 15 years. . . .

The bloc of moderates and liberal voters is surprisingly strong in Republican presidential primaries and caucuses, comprising the second largest voting bloc with approximately 25–30 percent of all GOP voters nationwide. . . .

The most important of these groups is the one most journalists do not understand and therefore ignore: the somewhat conservative voters. This group is the most numerous nationally and in many states, comprising 35–40 percent of the national GOP electorate. While the numbers of liberal and moderate, 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.

That leaves the remaining portion of the GOP divided between very conservative secular voters (5 to 10 percent) and very conservative evangelical voters (20 percent). Presidential races are generally won by the candidate who can win over the first two, bigger groupings. But Olsen and Scala also emphasize that having an effective message is central to the task of winning the nomination.

Olsen and [Jennifer Rubin] discussed his book and its implications for the race via email. Their discussion is below.

If you cannot win the nomination without moderate/liberal and somewhat conservative Republicans why do so many candidates go out of their way to insult them and position themselves on the far right?

You can win the nomination without moderates — George W. Bush did that in 2000, when [Sen. John] McCain won moderates by a large margin but Bush won both very conservative factions overwhelmingly and won somewhat conservatives handily. No candidate, however, can become the nominee without winning the somewhat conservative faction.

Candidates from the “movement” right criticize the “establishment” because they tend not to understand how somewhat conservatives are different from themselves. They look at polls that say conservatives are 67-72% of the party and think they are all movement conservatives like them. In fact, more than half of self-described conservatives are “somewhat” conservatives and they support a very different type of conservative than the “movement” conservative. The “movement” conservatives then rationalize their defeats by arguing the “establishment” outspent them rather than by noting that the conservative voters themselves wanted a different type of conservative.

[Donald] Trump seems to be counting on brand-new voters showing up and shaking up the 4-quadrant structure you describe. How likely is that? If so where would these people fall ideologically?

Trump’s support in the polls cuts across all four factions. He is drawing support on a class-based appeal rather than the traditional ideological one. This is drawing in some non-traditional GOP primary voters, but he is mainly appealing to people who do not usually vote. Trump voters are highly likely to have not finished college, and his most vociferous opponents tend to have received post-graduate degrees.

Polls that try to measure what happens if the race were to shake out into a two-person contest, however, tend to show the four factions reasserting themselves. Trump tends to do better in one-on-ones among the “movement” conservatives and lose heavily among moderates.

So Trump defies ideology and is attracting people simply based on class and education, who have no distinct ideological profile?

That’s exactly what is happening right now. The strongest predictor of whether you are a Trump supporter is not ideology, religiosity, or gender, although each has some correlation. It is instead education: The more formal education you have, the less likely you are to back Trump.

You’ve posited that [Sen. Ted] Cruz won’t necessarily get Trump voters if the latter fails. Why is that?

Cruz is running a highly ideological campaign. His recent rise in the polls is fueled almost entirely by rising support among the two factions of very conservatives. He is losing the somewhat conservative vote handily to Rubio and Trump, and moderates cannot stand him. Since Trump’s support cuts across ideological lines, many of his supporters are very put off by Ted Cruz. If Trump drops out, the class-based divide his candidacy creates gets replaced by the traditional ideological divide, and Cruz loses many Trump voters when they look at him through an ideological lens. Polls show that were Trump to drop out the moderates and somewhat conservatives who currently back Trump would be much less likely to back Cruz in a runoff than the very conservatives who back Trump.

What about libertarians who are very conservative on some issues but align with liberals on some issues? Which quadrant are they in?

Libertarians are a much smaller group among GOP voters than is commonly thought. Many of these voters seem to tell pollsters they are moderates. Both Ron Paul and Rand Paul did and do better among moderates than among somewhat conservatives. It appears that some moderates are really soft libertarians who like smaller government, are anti-Christian conservative, and outside the GOP consensus on defense.

You point out that winning candidates still need a compelling message. Which candidate(s) do you think have put forth the most effective one to win over the party?

[Sen. Marco] Rubio, [Ben] Carson and [Carly] Fiorina have so far communicated a message that can excite some factions of the party and be acceptable to all of the others. Everyone else is strongly disliked by at least one of the four factions as of today, or elicit strong dislike on class grounds (Trump). Things can change, however. Three months ago Chris Christie was very unpopular, but his favorable numbers are rising. So I might answer this question differently in two months than I do today.

Which candidate(s) have the broadest support among the 4 quadrants? Are those people the favorites, then?

Among candidates polling consistently at or above 5 percent in either the national polls or the polls in New Hampshire and Iowa, only Rubio, Carson and Trump have a balanced support structure. Carson tilts a bit to the very conservative evangelical, Rubio is bell-shaped with a big peak among the somewhat conservatives, and Trump’s support tilts toward the moderate and away from the very conservative evangelical. But all three receive at least ten percent support from each faction. [Jeb] Bush, [John] Kasich and Christie are heavily tilted toward the moderates and get almost no support from very conservative secular/tea party voters, and Cruz is heavily tilted in the opposite direction, getting almost no support among moderates. Unless Trump prevails and remakes the party along class lines Rubio or Carson must be considered the current favorites to win. And if Carson cannot stop his current slide, that makes Rubio the odds-on favorite.

Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Washington Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.

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