The battle to be the ‘conservative’ in the Republican presidential field is on. Here’s who’s winning.

June 24, 2014

This post has been updated.

When Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) announced last week that he intended to withdraw the state of Louisiana from the federal government's "Common Core" educational standards, it was easy to read the move as being less about reading and writing than about arithmetic. Namely: How to add up enough conservative votes to win the 2016 Republican nomination. To belabor the metaphor, it probably won't add up for Jindal.


Ted Cruz, surrounded by the media. (EPA/JIM LO SCALZO)

Over the past few months, Jindal has become more and more vocal in arguing for conservative issues and policies. He weighed in heavily on behalf of Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson after Robertson used vulgar language to describe homosexuals. Jindal has been overt in his outreach to the religious right.

And yet, according to our admittedly subjective calculation, Jindal is still on the outside looking in when it comes to emerging as the tea party/populist conservative in the 2016 GOP field.  Using a combination of our own familiarity with the subject and a perusal of various Tea Party organizations' websites, we identified seven key conservative positions and evaluated 10 Republican candidates against them.  Here are the issues, and how we scored the candidates on them:

  • Common Core. Opposition to the federal education standard has emerged as a key rallying point for conservative groups.
  • Repeal of Obamacare. This needs no real description, we assume.
  • Balanced budget amendment. A component of the Republican "cut, cap, and balance" approach to the federal budget in 2011, a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced budget continues to be popular. Predictably, the conservative position is "pro."
  • Raising the debt ceiling. Another fight that largely originated in 2011, conservative groups oppose repeated increases to the debt ceiling.
  • Gay marriage. Gay marriage's position at the intersection of states rights, the judiciary, and religious belief has made it a critical issue in conservative politics. Conservatives oppose gay marriage. There are degrees of response to gay marriage, however. Some Republicans (and Hillary Clinton) support deciding the legality of gay marriage on a state-by-state basis.
  • Abolishing the IRS. Opposition to taxation is a key component of Tea Party activism, with some even advocating that the IRS itself should be abolished.
  • Immigration reform. Conservative activists oppose the Senate's compromise legislation on immigration reform, largely because of concern that it creates a system of "amnesty" -- a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

The debate over immigration is the perfect point at which to explain the subjectivity and haziness of the table that follows. First of all, possible presidential candidates are rarely asked at this process in the process directly how they feel about particular policy issues. And, second, if they are asked about them, they are usually asked for a response to something that's happening in politics at a particular moment. And, third, those answers can age rapidly.

How, then, do we score Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on immigration, for example? He helped create the Senate package, but later argued against passing it in the House. But he still supports immigration reform overall. So our answer? His views are mixed.

So here we go. We linked to the articles that provided our rationale for categorizations, for what it's worth. For any candidate / position combination we couldn't figure out, we left the cell blank.


A couple of things we'll point out, in addition to the subjectivity on immigration reform. First, the debt ceiling responses largely focus on the fight last October, which was something of a litmus test for conservatives. Second, it's very possible that candidates have spoken out on these issues and we just couldn't find it. If you have a disagreement with our analysis, let us know.

Update: Kristy Campbell of Gov. Bush's office let us know. The governor, she argued, has called for the repeal of Obamacare. We'd labelled him as "Anti" to reflect that, unlike others, he supported a repeal only with a viable alternative. But we've changed his rating to "Mixed."

Just to maximize opportunities for people to argue with us, we then assigned a point value to each issue based on its relative importance to conservatives / Tea Party supporters. The more important the issue to conservatives and the Tea Party, the higher the point value. Support for Common Core is worth three points, as is Obamacare repeal. The debt ceiling, less important at this point, is worth only one. Opposition to the issue earned a candidate negative points for that category. (This is all outlined in the Common Core math specifications.) (That's a joke.)

Here's how they all did.

Candidate Common Core Obamacare repeal Balanced budget Debt ceiling Gay marriage IRS Immigration Total
Point value 3 3 2 1 2 2 3  
Bush -3 0 0 -1 -1 0 -3 -8
Christie -3 0 0 0 0 0 -3 -6
Cruz 3 3 -2 1 2 2 3 12
Huckabee -3 0 0 0 2 2 -3 -2
Jindal 3 3 -2 0 2 0 0 6
Paul 3 3 -2 1 -1 2 -3 3
Perry 3 3 -2 0 2 0 3 9
Rubio 3 3 -2 1 2 0 0 4
Ryan 0 3 0 0 2 0 -3 2
Walker 3 3 0 0 0 0 -3 3

Candidates who supported the rights of states to determine the legality of gay marriage got a -1, per the discussion above.

If you prefer, here is that vote tally as a ranking:

  1. Ted Cruz, 13 points
  2. Rick Perry, 9
  3. Marco Rubio, 7
  4. Bobby Jindal, 6
  5. Rand Paul, 3
  6. Scott Walker, 3
  7. Paul Ryan, 2
  8. Mike Huckabee, -2
  9. Chris Christie, -6
  10. Jeb Bush, -8

If you are surprised that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) is in first place, perhaps you haven't been paying close attention to American politics lately. Or, perhaps you haven't read Jeffrey Toobin's New Yorker profile of Cruz, the latest in what is an ever-increasing series of assessments of America's foremost outsider-insider. How dominant is Cruz in the conservative narrative? His push to repeal Obamacare last fall and his recurring insistence that the IRS be abolished usually earn him a mention in new stories about other candidates' similar efforts.

Looping back to Jindal, notice that he's still in fourth place, behind Rubio and, in what may come as something of a surprise to the casual observer, Gov. Rick Perry (R-Tex.). Perry has an advantage in this fight: he has a demonstrated willingness to speak his mind on issues, which doesn't always serve him well. But really, the margin of error here is certainly big enough to put Jindal in a blurry second-place with Perry and Rubio. Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) and former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-Fla.) are almost certainly the least conservative on these policies, no blurriness involved. Each hopes that status helps him win votes from the other end of the Republican spectrum.

Which brings up one last question: Which of those two groups, the establishment or Tea Partiers, is more likely to turn out to vote in the 2016 primaries? In 2012, exit polling showed that strong support for the Tea Party varied widely between voters in Republican primary states.

Which suggests that the utility of a strong pro-Tea Party identification will vary depending on where the primary is taking place.

And also -- that was in 2012. In October of last year, Pew Research found that support for the Tea Party as a concept had fallen -- although that is a different question than asking people about their support for strongly conservative policies. But what likely makes Christie and Bush nervous is research by Pew that came out last August. In it, 62 percent those who identified as supporters of the Tea Party indicated that they always vote in party primaries. Compare that to non-Tea Party Republicans, 45 percent of whom made the same claim.

A poll from the New York Times and CBS News released on Tuesday reinforces that argument. "The Tea Party isn't about popularity; it's about leverage," Harvard government and sociolgy professor Theda Skocpol told the Times. "And while they're not popular, they've still got a lot of leverage because they participate."

One final note. The October Pew study noted that one particular politician's popularity had "soared" among self-identified tea partiers. No doubt to Bobby Jindal's dismay, that politician was Ted Cruz.


Sourcing for the chart above

Common Core Obamacare repeal Balanced budget Raising debt ceiling Gay marriage Abolish IRS Immigration reform
Bush [source] [source] [source] [source] [source]
Christie [source] [source] [source]
Cruz [source] [source] [source] [source] [source] [source] [source]
Huckabee [source] [source] [source] [source]
Jindal [source] [source] [source] [source] [source] [source]
Paul [source] [source] [source] [source] [source] [source] [source]
Perry [source] [source] [source] [source] [source]
Rubio [source] [source] [source] [source] [source] [source]
Ryan [source] [source] [source]
Walker [source] [source] [source] [source]

The post originally said Rubio opposed the Senate immigration package. He opposed it being passed by the House, but voted for the bill.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.
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Philip Bump · June 24, 2014