Rethinking the 2016 GOP nomination contest


New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is one of few who could potentially become the candidate of the “somewhat conservative” bloc. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
Dan Balz
Chief correspondent March 8

This year’s Conservative Political Action Conference cast a spotlight on the Republican Party’s prospective 2016 presidential candidates, and there is already an accepted storyline about how the 2016 Republican presidential nomination contest will unfold.

As this narrative goes, it will be a fight between the establishment and insurgent wings, with the tea party playing a critical role in putting forward a strong candidate while threatening to pull the party and its eventual nominee ever farther to the right.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent. View Archive

Well, forget all that, or at least think again. Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, says that construction of the Republican Party is incorrect and has been for some time. In an article in the March-April issue of the National Interest, Olsen sketches out a more nuanced and insightful analysis of how past nomination battles have unfolded and how that might affect the 2016 race.

One important conclusion: Being the tea party candidate is no guarantee of even reaching the finals of the nomination campaign.

Olsen argues that there are four factions that play a role in the nomination process. And Olsen says, as have other analysts, that the most important is the one often overlooked. The most conservative wing generally gets the most attention, but the voters who count most in the GOP nomination process are those who say they are “somewhat conservative.”

This is the largest group nationally and is consistently a big presence in all the states, unlike some of the other factions. “They are not very vocal but they form the bedrock base of the Republican Party,” Olsen writes. “They also have a significant distinction: they always back the winner.”

They backed then-senator Robert Dole in 1996, then-Texas governor George W. Bush in 2000, Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008 and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in 2012. Olsen says these voters like candidates with governing experience, who have conservative values but do not push radical policies and are optimistic about the country. They reject culture warriors.

There are three other groups who make up the rest of the party. Surprisingly, the biggest after the “somewhat conservative” group are moderates and liberals. Thought to be a dying breed, they account for about a quarter of the party.

These Republicans prefer secular candidates who are not as fiscally conservative as those favored by what Olsen calls “their somewhat conservative cousins.” Olsen says they favored now-Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander over Dole in 1996 and were “the original McCainiacs” in 2000.

They are motivated to oppose the most overtly religious candidates and are drawn to the ones who are the least overtly religious. When their favored candidates falter, which often is the case, they are likely to support the candidate who has the backing of the “somewhat conservative” voters in a contest against a religious conservative.

That leaves the voters who are very conservative. But this is not a homogenous bloc, according to Olsen. Instead, it divides into two groups, one composed of very conservative evangelical Republicans, and the other composed of very conservative secular voters.

Evangelical conservatives are the bigger of the two. They backed the runners-up in the last two Republican nomination contests: former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in 2008 against McCain and former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania against Mitt Romney in 2012.

These voters play an outsize role in the Iowa caucuses, favor candidates who display their religious beliefs openly, fear the decline in traditional values and generally put the highest priority on the social-issue positions of the candidates.

Very conservative secular voters form the smallest bloc and have a poor track record of seeing their favored candidates move from the early competition into the finals for the nomination. Olsen says these voters initially were attracted to Texas Gov. Rick Perry in 2012 until he proved he wasn’t ready for the big time, flirted with former House speaker Newt Gingrich and then shifted to Romney over Santorum.

The year 2015 will be the year of competition to become the favorite of each of the four Republican groups, Olsen writes. He sees New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker all potentially looking to become the candidate of the “somewhat conservative” bloc. He describes Ohio Gov. John Kasich as someone who might appeal more to the moderate-liberal wing, based on Kasich’s efforts to expand Medicaid over his legislature’s opposition and his rhetoric about using government to help those in need.

Santorum and Huckabee, both possible candidates, could face off to be the candidate of the very conservative, evangelical bloc.

“Virtually everyone else in the race is competing for the favor of the smallest, least influential group, the secular conservatives,” he writes. “All focus on some sort of fiscal issue as their primary focus and most also try to adopt an anti-Washington tone.”

He sees Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz as potentially filling this space but also notes that, given some of the things each has said and done, they might look to appeal to other blocs.

For those who see a rising tea party ready to flex its muscles in the Republican nomination campaign, Olsen offers a dissent. First, he argues that the party as a whole has not moved as far to the right as some other analysts have said.

More significantly, he points to the fact that those tea party challengers who have won Senate primaries generally have done so in smaller states in the South and West. “While these states hold the balance in the Senate,” he writes, “they do not elect most of the delegates needed to win a presidential nomination.”

There are two notable exceptions: Rubio’s victory in the Florida Senate primary in 2010 and Cruz’s victory in the Texas Senate primary in 2012. But Rubio won after his establishment opponent, then-governor Charlie Crist, dropped out of the race (and eventually out of the party).

He points to another reality that often is overlooked. “Successful tea party challenges have yet to occur in statewide races in large states that do not reliably vote Republican,” he writes. Great Lakes states, New England states and California still control a sizable number of delegates. “States whose Republican electorates, then, are heretofore indisposed to elect tea partiers will retain a substantial voice in the Republican race.”

Among the early states on the nomination calendar — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — only Nevada is fertile ground for a tea party candidate. Based on the sequences of recent nomination battles, the candidate favored by conservative evangelicals has an advantage over the one backed by secular conservatives.

“If this pattern continues in 2016,” Olsen argues, “the tea party favorite is again likely to stumble if faced by a strong, religious conservative.”

Past patterns are only that. They are not inviolate. It’s possible the tea party will be a bigger and stronger force in 2016 than it has been, that religious conservatives will splinter behind lesser candidates if neither Santorum nor Huckabee decides to run, or that the favored candidate of the tea party will have crossover appeal. For now, Olsen’s analysis is worth clipping and filing for future reference.

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