Meet the Four Kinds of GOP Voters

WSJBy Hugh Hewitt

From “true believers” to “Buckley voters,” not all Republicans are created equal. That’s bad news for Jeb.

static2.politico.comThe early departures of Scott Walker and Rick Perry from the 2016 presidential race demonstrate that the nation’s pundits should recheck their assumptions about what matters to the GOP in this election cycle. To learn where this topsy-turvy race might be going, it makes sense not to look at a list of “ups” and “downs” or cite any poll or set of polls—Donald Trump leads them all, of course, but at less than 40 percent, he’s far far from a lock on the proceedings, as he would be the first to admit—but instead to look at the electorate instead. The author of The Art of a Deal knows it isn’t a deal until it is closed, and voters don’t even begin to close round one until February. While it seems like they’ve been moving around a lot this summer, some have begun to settle as the fall begins—and we can learn a lot from the decisions they’re making.

Looking at the presidential race right now, I see clearly four different types of GOP primary voters and caucus-goers. Not all of them, of course, are conservatives or even Republicans, since independents and even Democrats can vote in some of the early GOP primaries. Figuring out who these voters are and what they’re looking for is critical to each of the remaining candidates—because they’re not all equally up for grabs.

First, there are the GOP’s “True Believers,” to use Eric Hoffer’s term. Among the four categories of voters, the True Believers in 2016 have already picked a candidate and are sticking to him come hell or high water—at least unless and until he drops out or wins. It’s clear that the True Believers are lining up primarily behind Dr. Ben Carson, Sen. Ted Cruz, Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Rick Santorum or Donald Trump. These voters aren’t for turning or wooing, at least not easily.

Frank Luntz, my guest on last Tuesday’s radio show, says he believes that the Trump voters are as solid as voters can be and that those committed to Cruz are just a touch less devoted. Luntz says he believes that it takes 90 days for most “leaners” to convert to True Believers, and thus the support for Carson in recent polls may be a good bit softer than it may first appear. If so, the doctor’s rocky stretch—which began with his debate answer on autism and then got rockier on last week’s Meet the Press—will shed some of these newer “Carsonites,” but there’s still a very dedicated core for him. If Ben Carson supporters at this point do detach, they will go in search of another explicitly Evangelical candidate. Conversely, Carson’s fortunes could rise by drawing Huckabee and Santorum voters toward him. But let’s be clear: Ben Carson is no flash-in-the-pan. After all, 12,000 people showed up for the doctor in Phoenix weeks before the second debate. Those folks aren’t going to be pulled away from the pediatric brain surgeon easily.

I don’t see many of the True Believers shifting to another campaign, and while some of these voters have a natural home in another “True Believer” camp if their man does drop out, most will scatter to the candidates in other categories if the political worst happens. (I don’t sense a lot of overlap between Carson and Trump voters, for example, as their styles and base values seem so very different.) The percentages these five candidates hold after the polls settle in another week or so are likely going to stay solid for a while.

At the same time, I don’t foresee that any of these candidates—Carson, Cruz, Huckabee, Santorum or Trump—are likely to significantly increase the size of their slice of the pie before Iowa (save perhaps Cruz). The voters in play now—the Walker voters, the voters who bounce around because of television coverage or talk radio or paid advertising connects with them on a given day—have already resisted the very specific pitches made by these highly visible and known quantities. The voters up for grabs didn’t buy from this group early and they aren’t likely to buy late unless they are forced there by the disappearance of palatable alternatives. The GOP’s eventual nominee will get their support—they will not find an alternative in Hillary or the Veep if he runs—but they won’t rush to jump on any bandwagon.

The second category of GOP voters are the “Buckley Voters,” so-called because they tend to follow the “Buckley Rule” and support the most conservative candidate they see as plausibly winning the presidency in the fall of next year. That distinction between supporting a plausible winner, as opposed to a favorite long-shot, is an important consideration, not to be lost amid the fervor of a primary campaign. Buckley Voters are real deal small government, big defense, pro-life and pro-religious freedom conservatives, but they insist on being able to reach 270 electoral votes. They want, more than anything, another Reagan.

Walker and Perry supporters hailed primarily from these “Buckley Voters.” I now expect their supporters to gravitate to either Carly Fiorina or Sen. Marco Rubio, with perhaps a few hanging on to the hopes of a Gov. Bobby Jindal rebound. You can already see some signs in the polls in recent days gravitating towards Rubio; as he looks more like someone who could actually win, he’ll attract more of them. A few faithful who follow the Buckley Rule think Cruz can work the magic and run the electoral board so they are already moving alongside their True Believer friends in his camp. The center of the conservative movement is in this group, and they are more likely to move about than any other group—they are the most fickle because they are looking for a winner wherever they think they can find one. That’s a moving target, to be sure, but they’ll bring a lot of money and support wherever they settle.

Some of these Buckley Voters may also think Governors Bush, Christie and Kasich are “the most conservative candidate who can win,” but for various reasons, I think of this trio of governors as mostly pulling voters from the next, third category, and voters in this second category as less likely to support any of them than they are Fiorina, Jindal and Rubio, simply because each of the governors are tagged—rightly or wrongly—as more “moderate” than Fiorina, Jindal or Rubio. If the three “more conservative” choices fade in the weeks ahead, most of these “Buckley Voters” are much more likely to gravitate towards Bush, Christie and Kasich than they are to support one of the five “True Believer” candidates.

That third category of voters are what I call “center-right governing conservatives.” No, they’re not the dreaded “D.C. establishment,” but are instead Republican primary voters who live in blue states or those who serve in state or local party or government organizations. They think themselves more realistic about what can and cannot be done by government; they want desperately to end the immigration wars; or maybe they just want to get legislation passed by assembling coalitions in D.C. that include some Democrats. The rhetoric among these candidates and their voters is also more inclusive than those in the other categories, and less combative most of the time.

The three governors who primarily pull support from this category—Bush, Kasich and Christie—are aiming primarily at New Hampshire primary voters where independents can vote in the GOP primary. If any of the three governors drop out, their supporters will trend towards one of the other two. If all three spin out, they will maneuver for an “open” convention or channel their energy into House or Senate races. They will support any nominee, but the passion won’t be there. Though most of them aren’t old enough to recall it, they fear most a 1964 “over the cliff” conservative charge that could take other, down-ticket races with the nominee, losing perhaps even the House and resurrecting the legislative madness of 2009 and 2010.

The fourth group of voters are what I call “Uniques.” They are in this election to support a candidate for a unique reason or because of that candidate’s specific platform. Senator Paul draws heavily on the Uniques, as does Lindsey Graham, though they appeal to completely separate groups. Rand Paul’s supporters are from the libertarian slice of the GOP, and Sen. Graham’s backers are from the “defense first” part of the party (combined with a small handful of folks who want him to upset the apple cart in his home state of South Carolina in order to send the race towards an open convention). Both Graham and Paul could be without a ticket to a debate stage soon, and these “Uniques” will be up for grabs. They’re willing to transfer their allegiance if their issues are understood to have another torch bearer—an effect that appears to be playing out now as “national security first” voters seem to be leaving Lindsey Graham for Marco Rubio. Privacy-driven Paul supporters have to look at his numbers and think about Ted Cruz as a standard bearer with a shot at the nomination. These are the hardest group to attract because they are in effect “single issue” voters and if no candidate takes up their cause, they could simply stay home.

As a whole, the GOP electorate has experience with four sorts of campaigns: ’64, ’68, ’80 and ’12 —lose big, win narrowly, win big or lose narrowly. Everyone wants ’80 but will settle for ’68. The True Believers really do believe their guys have ’80 style potential, but the other non-True Believers are worried they hear echoes of “Goldwater ’64” in their pitches. They will take ’68, and risk ’12 if they have to in order to get there.

I don’t have a favorite in this race; I still don’t dislike anyone still on the stage and still believe the process is working very, very well. I expect to keep interviewing them in waves on the radio and perhaps be back on a debate stage or two. At the first debate, all of them seemed plausible nominees save Gov. George Pataki who, though a very good man, just seemed out of place with the others. All of them are charismatic, all of them have supporters. But as Governor Walker’s sudden exit showed, the realities of the calendar and the cash are combining to compress the field. That’s forcing new choices on voters who had previously already settled on a chosen candidate.

As I said to Sean Hannity last week, eventually the GOP will get down to one nominee—even if it takes an open convention that lasts a couple of weeks, rather than the scheduled four days in Cleveland. At that point, I believe all four categories of primary voters and caucus-goers will be able to agree upon one thing: The Republican nominee will not have any of the obvious deep flaws of Hillary Clinton. None of them, for instance, will have imperiled the national security of the United States by maintaining a non-secure private server full of intelligence of great value to our enemies.

Come next November, only a handful of these different types of GOP voters will stay home, although contributions and the energy committed to a candidate is certainly going to vary based on who he or she is. Folks like me who fear most a third term for President Obama’s policies especially abroad hope every kind of voter rallies around the nominee, but we have seen the movie too many times to count on that happy ending.

Hewitt also hosts a nationally syndicated radio talk show from 6 to 9 p.m. EST and is professor of law at Chapman University’s Fowler School of Law. Hewitt has authored 15 books, including the 2007 New York Times bestseller, A Mormon In The White House.

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