The GOP primary electorate has a Force that “surrounds us” and “binds the [GOP] together”. That Force is the somewhat conservative voter, the person who shares the ideals of a movement conservative but has the temperament of a moderate. As my forthcoming book, co-authored with UNH professor Dante Scala, shows, these voters are the party’s ballast, its largest faction, and the group that ultimately determines the nominee.
They have been split between many candidates, but they are beginning to coalesce. And in doing so they are giving rise to another Force, the man whom prediction markets say will be the next nominee: Marco Rubio.
Rubio has methodically risen since the first debate on August 6, and in each case his increased support has been largest among the somewhat conservative voter.
Rubio averaged about 5 percent in the RealClearPolitics poll average in the run-up to the first debate on August 6. Those polls which broke down the electorate ideologically showed Rubio’s strength was slightly titled to the right. Quinnipiac, for example, had him getting 4 percent among moderates, 7 percent among somewhat conservatives, and 8 percent among very conservatives.
Rubio’s national poll average after the debate but before the second debate on September 16 ticked up to 6 percent, but his ideological distribution had begun to shift. Quinnipiac had him with 9 percent among moderates, 6 among somewhat conservatives, and 5 percent among very conservatives. Public Policy Polling (PPP) showed the start of what was to become Rubio’s trend, a bell-shaped support curve that peaked among somewhat conservatives. This poll showed him with 7 percent among moderates, 8 percent among somewhat conservatives, and 5 percent among very conservatives.
Rubio then jumped a bit to a national average of 9.5 percent between that debate and October 1. Quinnipiac also now showed Rubio had a bell-shaped support curve: 7 percent among moderates, 14 percent among somewhat conservatives, and 8 percent among very conservatives.
Rubio ticked up a bit during the remainder of the month, averaging about 10 percent in national poll. PPP’s national poll showed a steeper bell curve than before, with Rubio now at 9, 17, and 14 percent among the same groups.
The October 28 CNBC debate gave Rubio his breakthrough moment, as his deft handling of criticism and attacks on the mainstream media attracted favorable attention. He averaged 12 percent in the period between this debate and the November 10 Fox Business showdown. Quinnipiac showed him with the highest bell-shaped support curve yet: 12 percent among moderates, 20 percent among somewhat conservatives and 10 percent among very conservatives.
The four national polls taken since that debate show Rubio at 12.5 percent, good enough for third on the RCP average. PPP again shows him with a bell-shaped support curve: 13 percent among moderates, 16 percent among somewhat conservatives, and 11 percent among very conservatives.
These trends augur well for the GOP’s political Padawan. Candidates who are stronger among moderates and the somewhat conservatives than the right have won three of the last four nominations. The only man to buck that trend was George W. Bush, who won his contest with McCain by winning among somewhat conservatives and very conservatives. Somewhat conservatives are the only GOP faction to have always backed the winner in recent times.
Some say that the Party has shifted to the right, but if it has the data don’t show it has shifted far enough to upset this basic fact. Polls show that the share of GOP voters who support the Tea Party remain a minority, and voters who say they are very conservative still comprise only about a third of GOP voters nationwide, about the same percentage as in each of the last four open contests.
PPP asks a question that shows movement conservative sentiment might be stronger than that, but even that question shows that a majority of Republicans prefer someone likely to beat the Democrat over someone who is most conservative on the issues. As you might expect, Rubio does much better among the majority who want to win than among the minority who prefer the more conservative man. In the last national poll, for example, Rubio gets 16 percent among those who want to win and only 6 percent among those who want the most conservative.
Rubio’s path to the nomination far from assured, of course. He must maintain his momentum and begin to peel away supporters from other candidates who poll well in his target groups. Ben Carson is the man in his sights now, as Carson to date has bested Rubio among somewhat conservatives. Rubio cannot rise as long as Carson maintains strength among these voters, so expect to see him begin to chip away at these voters’ sense that Carson can be President in these troubled times. But he doesn’t need to attack Carson now – it’s too far out from the first vote to risk going overtly negative. Rather, expect Rubio to hit on themes of responsible, informed international leadership to set up an implicit contrast with the neurosurgeon whom even his ardent supporters complain doesn’t take the time to be briefed on foreign policy details.
Somewhat conservatives are like investors: when panic happens, they flock to the stability of the 30-year bond. Rubio is clearly aiming to position himself to be the GOP’s T-bill, a stable, conservative choice for voters who like that balance between return (ideology) and minimal risk (maturity, experience).
Rubio won’t go after moderates directly, but he will position himself to be the beneficiary of their second choice support once their first choices drop out. Thirty percent of moderates in the most recent PPP national poll support either Bush, Christie, Fiorina, or Kaisch. It’s hard to see any of these candidates reviving their campaigns, and it is even harder to see the bulk of their supporters moving to Cruz or Trump if the race winnows down to a three-man race by March 1. If this happens, it will fuel a quick rise in Rubio support, support that could allow him to jump past Trump and become Cruz’s main challenger on and after SEC Super Tuesday.
There’s a lot of time left, and Rubio’s competitors are smart and able men. Perhaps they will push Rubio to make an error; perhaps they will adapt their efforts to become more appealing to the somewhat conservative. This, after all, is why they play the games. But right now, the trend lines favor Rubio.