The Four Faces of the Republican Party

The Four Faces of the Republican Party

Mini Teaser: A deep look at the key GOP factions and how successful primary candidates navigate them.

by Author(s): Henry Olsen

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.

Image: Pullquote: The most important of these groups is the one most journalists don’t understand and ignore...and they always back the winner.Essay Types: Essay