2016: The GOP’s Four Faces

SEC Primary Hurts Movement Conservative Candidates

Many movement conservatives have circled March 1, 2016 on their calendar. That’s the day that seven conservative, Southern states have banded together to hold “the SEC Primary”. The thought is that if the most conservative states vote early, that will give a movement conservative candidate the momentum needed to take on and defeat a more moderate opponent. Sen. Ted Cruz in particular has staked his hopes on that notion, telling audiences that March 1-voting Southern states are his “firewall”.

This strategy is more likely to result in a political Pickett’s Charge, a courageous gesture that will become known more for its futility than its wisdom.

That’s because RNC rules require states that vote between March 1 and March 15 to apportion their delegates proportionally rather than by a winner-take-all method. I discussed the potential ramifications of this last September, and sadly it looks like my worst fears have come true.

All of the seven conservative states have provisions allocating their delegates proportionally.In one, Virginia, all delegates are allocating according to the statewide vote with no minimum threshold.If a candidate who has dropped out still gets 2 percent of the vote, he or she gets two percent of the delegates. In the others, most delegates are awarded according to the winner in each Congressional District: the leader gets two delegates, the second place finisher gets one. Oklahoma’s approach is even more proportional:  if three candidates get at least 15 percent of the vote in a CD and none gets over 50 percent, the top three finishers get one delegate apiece.

These states do have provisions that award all delegates to a candidate who gets 50 percent of the statewide or the Congressional District vote, but that rarely happens in a race held this early. Even Newt Gingrich, for example, did not get a majority of Georgia’s vote in 2012.

This problem is compounded by the fact that nearly all of the other most conservative states will also vote during the RNC’s ”proportionality window”. Kansas’ caucuses, for example, gave both Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum large delegate leads under its old system. In 2016, Kansas holds its caucus on March 5, inside the window. It has chosen to award its delegates proportionally to all candidates getting at least ten percent of the vote. Kentucky holds its caucuses the same day: it will allocate its delegates proportionally to all candidates getting at least five percent. Louisiana and Mississippi will also hold their contests inside the window with low proportionality levels.  

Even conservative states that are holding their contests outside of the window have inexplicably chosen to award their delegates proportionally rather than by winner-take-all. North Carolina is using Virginia’s approach, so its delegates will be hopelessly fractured among the also-rans and the drop-outs even if the race has narrowed to two or three viable candidates.

Contrast this with the more moderate states. New Jersey votes in June and awards its 51 delegates to the statewide winner. The 2008 exit poll showed that only 19 percent of New Jersey Republican voters called themselves “very conservative” compared to 44 percent in Louisiana. The simple decision to vote late and by winner-take-all guarantees the establishment choice a 51 delegate lead on his more conservative opponent, more than he is likely to get by winning Oklahoma, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama combined.

California also votes on June 7, and it awards 159 of its 172 delegates winner-take-all by Congressional District. Only 25 percent of California GOP voters said they were very conservative in the 2008 exit poll, which is why John McCain won 154 delegates to Mitt Romney’s 15.

The conservative choice won’t have to wait until June 7 to see this effect in action, however. Florida and Ohio vote on March 15, and each awards all of its delegates to the statewide winner. Even if favorite sons Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich are out of the race, the establishment conservative or moderate choice is still likely to win both states because of the relatively small number of movement conservatives. In 2012, only 33 percent of Florida GOP voters were very conservative; in Ohio, only 32 percent were.  

Other states voting on March 15 have similar rules that will empower moderates or establishment types. Missouri, which was only 31 percent very conservative in 2008, gives five delegates to the plurality winner of each Congressional District. This means the very few, more moderate Republicans voting in the heavily Democratic St. Louis CD will give their choice as many delegates as the winner in the heavily Republican, Springfield-based CD in the conservative Ozarks. Illinois, which was only 29 percent very conservative in 2012, will award twelve delegates to the statewide winner. The other 54 delegates will be elected directly on a Congressional district basis, and each person will have the candidate to whom he or she is pledged listed next to their name on the ballot. In practice, this means Illinois will award its delegates on a winner-take-all basis at the CD level, and Illinois’ political geography means the conservative choice will only get a few delegates from conservative CDs outside the Chicago metro area.

Careful readers will note that I cite the percentage of GOP voters who say they are “very conservative” rather than those who simply say they are conservative. There’s method in my madness: as I show in my forthcoming book, Republicans who say they are “somewhat conservatives” historically prefer different types of candidates than those who are very conservative. “Somewhat conservatives”  backed Romney over any of his challengers, including Newt, in 2012; they backed McCain over either Romney or Huckabee in 2008; and they backed Dole over his challengers in 1996. Without carrying these voters along with the very conservative base, a candidate like Cruz or Carson has no chance of winning states like Ohio, Wisconsin, and California – and they have no chance at the nomination if they don’t.

This simple fact – not money, not momentum, not an elite establishment cabal – is why the only candidate backed by movement conservatives to win since 1988 is George W. Bush. The backers of the SEC Primary not only disregarded that fact, their actions have made it even harder for a movement backed candidate to win.


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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