Republicans Should Listen to Their Voters, Not Donors

Don't buy the hype over Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, and Chris Christie. Voters will decide the nomination.

For a party looking to broaden its appeal to a new generation of voters, it's awfully ironic that leading Republican donors are looking to the past for solutions.

This week's New York Times report that leading Republican fundraisers want to settle the Republican nomination fight early, and are hoping to clear the field for Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, or Chris Christie, is a case study in how often wealthy, influential donors misread politics. Betting on a two-time losing presidential candidate, another Bush who hasn't run a campaign in 12 years, and an intemperate governor with declining popularity in his home state as the strongest nominees for the party would be comical if it weren't true.

But this episode underscores one of the bigger challenges facing the Republican Party for 2016—the fact that top GOP donors are often at odds with many of their own voters. They often conflate brand-name identification with general-election strength, which helps explain the recent Mitt Romney boomlet. They'll mistakenly assume that a candidate's fundraising prowess automatically translates into political viability, which is why a Wall Street-connected Christie is on their short list. And their interest in issues like immigration, trade, and tax reform aligns with Bush, even though they're of secondary importance for the working-class voters that make up the majority of the party's base.

Those three candidates have limited appeal to the segment of the Republican Party that the Pew Research Center labels "socially conservative populists." Making up about half of GOP voters, they're deeply skeptical of government's ability to help, even to implement reforms that are ostensibly market-driven. (Just look at the recent uproar over the Common Core education standards for a telling example of the pro-business-populist divide.) As highlighted by the rise of the tea party, this faction of the GOP is also skeptical of career politicians, generally preferring fresh faces to established figures. A Bush-Clinton general election would be the least appealing matchup possible for this constituency.

"There are a lot of donors out there who have not met the person who is going to be the presidential nominee on our side. It's not surprising to me they're mentioning names of the people who they have met," said Republican strategist Brad Todd, whose firm OnMessage is working with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, an expected 2016 candidate. "But the voters have a say, too. And today, there are a whole lot of people who can be maxed-out contributors, and a small number of donors in a smoke-filled room can't affect that."

Indeed, while the GOP's deep-pocketed donors are often stereotyped as scheming, malevolent plutocrats, in reality they're more like meddling team owners who crave the big-time free agents over building a football franchise through the draft. Think Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, not Montgomery Burns.

But in an election where the prospective GOP field is brimming with up-and-coming talent, the desire to crown an early champion could handicap the party's prospects in 2016. Despite the donors' enthusiasm for the familiar, the entrance of a Bush or Romney into the presidential race would make it more difficult for a stronger up-and-coming prospect to emerge. Sen. Marco Rubio, who worked closely with Bush as Florida House speaker, might pass on the race if his mentor jumped in—even though he could be one of the most compelling candidates in the field. The list of lesser-known governors eager to showcase their records—Wisconsin's Scott Walker, Indiana's Mike Pence, Ohio's John Kasich, and Louisiana's Bobby Jindal—would be overshadowed by Bush, Romney, and Christie.

What's compounding the GOP challenge is that donors' interest in anointing an early front-runner is aligned with the party leaders working to accomplish the same goal. The recent Republican National Committee reforms to the nominating process—compressing the primary calendar, reducing the number of debates—were designed to boost the establishment candidates and avoid a messy, drawn-out nomination fight. It was in response to the 2012 primaries, when Romney was forced to kowtow to the Right in struggling to lock down the nomination against underwhelming opposition. But in 2016, more exposure for the party's prospects would be a good thing, not something to be avoided.

It's common for party leaders assume the next election will be fought along the same lines as the last. But given the volatility within the Republican Party, the smart money suggests that the GOP's next nominee won't be one of the front-runners leading in early polls. Betting on that underdog early would be a political wager that could pay huge dividends down the road for a savvy donor.