2016: The GOP’s Four Faces

Politics & Policy

Face Painting: A Picture of the GOP’s Four Factions

Republican nominations are not won by those who spend the most money.  If that was the case, Rudy Giuliani would have swept to victory in 2008.

Republican nominations are not won by those who generate the most momentum and media attention.  If that was the case, McCain, Huckabee, and Santorum would have won instead of Bush, McCain, and Romney.

Republican nominations are not won by those who profess undying devotion to the ideals of small, limited government.  If that were the case, Steve Forbes or Ron Paul would have won at least one of the four times either contested the nomination.

Republican nominations are won by candidates who are appealing, savvy, and have messages that resonate with (or are at least acceptable to) the vast majority of Republican primary and caucus voters.

They are won by the candidate who understands that the Republican party is a party of factions, and that one cannot be nominated unless two or more of the factions ultimately prefer you to your opponent.

They are won by the candidate who understands that he or she must first become a favorite of one faction to make it through the early stages, but that to be the favorite of only one faction means ultimate failure.

They are won by the candidate who understands that the typical Republican primary voter is not the movement activist, as important as he or she is, or the establishment, moderate donor.  They are won by the candidate who understands that the typical Republican voter is the sort of person who is conservative in both ideas and disposition, someone who prefers stability at least as much ideology.

The path to the nomination ultimately runs through the “somewhat conservative” voter, the type of man or woman who thinks John Boehner is their type of guy.

I say this based on my review of the exit-poll data for the last four cycles.  In each cycle, ideology and religiosity are the two factors that best predict a voter’s preferences.  In each cycle, this always boils down to four main groups whose size, issue and personality preferences, and geographic distribution are remarkably constant. 

In each race, the “somewhat conservative faction” was the largest of the four groups.  In each race, the “somewhat conservative” favorite was ultimately the winner.  That person could team up with factions on his left (Dole, McCain in 2008, Romney) or his right (Bush) to win the final, one-on-one showdown.  But the candidate who held the center early always prevailed later on.

“Somewhat conservative” voters comprise roughly 35 to 40 percent of the national GOP primary electorate.  They are distributed in roughly similar numbers in every state, unlike moderates or evangelicals.  They vote a bit more to the left in the Midwest and Northeast and a bit more to the right in the South, but generally they favor the most reassuring, the most stable man in the race who expresses core conservative values.

Moderates and liberals are, surprisingly, the next largest faction nationally.  They comprise about 25 to 30 percent nationwide, but are strongly skewed to the coasts and the urban centers in the Midwest.  They dominate the electorates in New England (including, crucially, New Hampshire), New York and New Jersey, and they are strongly influential in California, Washington, Oregon, and Illinois.  While the blue states send very few Republicans to Congress, they will send many delegates to Cleveland.  So long as the candidate who emerges from the early races appeals to the somewhat conservative, he or she can count on sweeping majorities among moderates in a one-on-one race with a movement conservative.

Very conservative religious voters are the next largest group.  Historically they have been about 20 percent nationwide, but they are strongly skewed to Southern and Midwestern caucus states (think Iowa).  They have typically backed men who talk about culture, religion, and social issues as their primary values.  However, the early poll data thus far suggests that many strongly religious voters will back candidates this time around with a broader set of priorities (Ted Cruz, Ben Carson) who are also good on their issues.  This means the chance for an early unification of the conservative movement is higher than at any time in the last twenty years.

The fourth faction is the very conservative secular voter.  This group tends to be the softly libertarian branch of the party, favoring men like Steve Forbes or Fred Thompson.  Historically they have been the smallest faction, no more than 10 to 15 percent nationwide.  Today, with the advent of the populist Tea Party, this group is perhaps slightly larger and willing to back candidates with less urbane backgrounds. 

When their favorite drops out early, as is usually the case, they are likelier to back the somewhat conservative than the religious very conservative in a one-on-one race.  Indeed, the failure of Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum to get large majorities of these voters in the final stages of the race is the primary reason their one-on-one races ended so abruptly.

This time, however, it appears that some voters who in the past would have been in the religious or somewhat conservative groups have become radicalized.  These voters seem to prefer strong outsiders who nevertheless express conservative values.  This is the group that has switched between Walker, Trump, Carson, and Fiorina.  Whether this group ultimately constitutes a new, fifth faction or whether they revert to voting their factional type when the chips are down is perhaps the major unanswered question of the race.

Everything I write on this site will reference and be refracted through this prism.  These four faces — somewhat conservatives, moderates, religious-movement conservatives, and secular-movement conservatives — vie for influence through the nomination process to paint the party’s face for the general election.  This blog is dedicated to helping you understand how that process is working in real time.

Henry Olsen — Mr. Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, an editor at UnHerd.com, and the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism.

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