How the GOP's Pile-Up on the Right Could Clear a Lane for the Center

The primary field on the right is developing in a way that favors candidates closer to the center.

Conservatives have many reasons to be pleased about their position within the GOP, even after a quixotic challenge to Speaker John Boehner from the far right failed this week. On almost all issues, the current in the party now flows powerfully toward them. Every newly elected Republican senator ran on a deeply conservative platform.

But conservatives also have reason to worry about how the 2016 Republican presidential race is coalescing. The field on the right is developing in a way that could advantage candidates positioned closer to the party's center.

To understand why, it's important to remember that the Republican primary electorate now divides almost evenly between what I've called managers and populists. The manager wing includes voters who are generally affluent, college-educated, and more secular. The populist wing draws on the overlapping circles of blue-collar Republicans, tea-party sympathizers, and evangelical Christians.

Most voters across this divide lean right on most issues. But they differ in priorities, strategy, and style. Managers are more moderate on all those fronts. The populists favor candidates who stress social issues and often promise more to raze than to reform Washington. The mangers usually prefer economically focused candidates who pledge to manage the government, not upend it.

In most years, the Republican presidential contest eventually produces competing finalists from the managerial and populist brackets. (Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George W. Bush in 2000, are probably the only modern contenders who dominated both groups.) Once that happens, the candidate of the managers, who is also invariably the favorite of the party fundraising establishment, has almost always defeated the more conservative populist candidate. That was the pattern in 2008 when John McCain beat Mike Huckabee, and again in 2012 when Mitt Romney beat Rick Santorum.

It's obviously early, but some initial maneuvers are strengthening the managerial wing's position for 2016. The most important of these is the movement toward the race by two big-name candidates whom many did not expect to run: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and 2008 runner-up.

Bush governed Florida as a consistent conservative. But relatively, he leans more toward the party's center: He has supported a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and the Common Core education reform, and he refused to rule out tax increases in a budget compromise. If Bush runs, he would guarantee managerial Republicans a strong horse to ride.

Huckabee's renewed interest also helps the managerial wing because he would expose the populist side to two risks if he runs. One is that it will splinter its vote, particularly in the early contests. The list of right-leaning candidates competing for the populists' support could include Huckabee, Santorum, fiery physician Ben Carson, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz; also contending could be Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, each of whom in different ways can hope to bridge the populist and managerial wings. Veteran Republican operatives say the number of well-funded, plausible right-of-center candidates in 2016 may be unprecedented.

The right's larger problem is that Huckabee would increase the chances that the populist bracket will produce a candidate who can't reach effectively beyond it. John Weaver, McCain's chief strategist in 2008, notes that one reason the managerial candidates have usually prevailed is that they have displayed broader appeal across the party. "Jeb could have cross appeal from center-right to far-right; it's really hard to go the other way, from far-right to center-right," Weaver says.

That dynamic was critical in the past two GOP presidential races. While McCain in 2008 carried one-third of evangelical voters, Huckabee, a Baptist minister, won only one-tenth of non-evangelicals, according to a cumulative analysis of exit polls by ABC's Gary Langer. Likewise, in 2012, Langer's analysis showed that Romney won almost one-third of evangelicals while Santorum carried less than one-fifth of non-evangelicals.

For managerial candidates like Bush, nothing would be better than evangelicals flocking to Huckabee, who has struggled to attract other voters. No conservative challenge can coalesce without major support from evangelicals (who comprise about half of all GOP primary voters). But if Huckabee siphons away those voters, they would be unavailable for other conservatives with potentially broader appeal, such as Walker or Paul.

While the managers' favorite has typically won, the GOP's dominance among blue-collar whites is swelling the populists' ranks and increasing their leverage. Even without winning, the populist wing has consistently tugged Republican nominees toward the right—sometimes in ways ("self-deportation" for Romney) that damage their general-election chances.

With the two wings so closely balanced, the key to 2016 may be which side consolidates its vote behind a single champion more quickly: the populists or the managers, who might be choosing from a group that includes Bush, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and possibly other governors. Most often, the populists' favorite has emerged in Iowa (with its big evangelical vote) and the managers' choice from more secular and libertarian New Hampshire. With Huckabee and Bush circling the starting line, the jostling to fill those gates is suddenly intensifying.