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.
Image: Flickr/Senza Senso. CC BY 2.0.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