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