The candidates filling the “ideologically right” lane, like Mike Huckabee in 2008 and Rick Santorum in 2012, usually have drawn heavily from evangelical Christians. Evangelical Christians represented about half the total Republican primary voters in both 2008 and 2012, and cast a clear majority of votes in Southern states such as Alabama, Georgia, and Texas, as well as in Iowa, whose kickoff caucus usually anoints the evangelical favorite. Ben Carson established an early lead with these voters, but his recent struggles have created an opening for Ted Cruz.
In a Quinnipiac University Iowa survey this week, Cruz narrowly passed Carson among evangelicals there. Most GOP strategists expect that trajectory to continue and Cruz to emerge as the evangelical favorite in Iowa, the South, and beyond.
The outsider, or nontraditional, lane relies heavily (though not exclusively) on the party’s growing bloc of working-class white voters. Particularly as Carson stumbles, Donald Trump is dominating this competition. In this week’s national ABC News/Washington Post poll, the blustery billionaire drew a stunning 41 percent of all Republicans who do not hold at least a four-year college degree.
Trump is competitive with evangelical Christians, but as a thrice-married, formerly pro-choice big-city business mogul, his core strength may be those noncollege Republicans who are not evangelicals. Quinnipiac found him clearly leading among those voters in Iowa, with Cruz second. That strength positions Trump to compete well in Rust Belt battlegrounds like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois—high in blue-collar whites but low in evangelical Christians.
Like many GOP analysts, Karl Rove, formerly George W. Bush’s chief political strategist, predicts that "no one will dislodge" Trump from his blue-collar base. “The question,” Rove said in an interview, “is … how many of them will turn out." The other risk Trump faces is that the increasingly overt xenophobic and racially-infused messaging he is using to consolidate his blue-collar support already appears to be alienating many in the third big group of GOP voters: the party’s mostly college-educated, less religiously-devout, center-right bloc. In the national ABC/Post poll, Trump drew only 23 percent of college-educated Republicans. And while both college-educated and noncollege Republicans in Quinnipiac’s Iowa poll rated him as a strong leader, far fewer of those with degrees said he shared their values or viewed him favorably overall.
The managerial wing’s favorite has usually prevailed in GOP nomination fights—think John McCain in 2008 or Romney in 2012. "The candidate who consolidates the somewhat conservative voters has traditionally won the nomination and will stand a better chance in the general election," Rove says.
But Trump in particular has benefited because managerial voters remain divided. More secular and affluent than Iowa, New Hampshire usually christens the managerial champion; but center-right voters there are closely divided among Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Carly Fiorina, and Marco Rubio (the candidate most now expect to ultimately emerge from that group). Evangelical favorites like Cruz and Carson usually struggle in New Hampshire, but that centrist splintering could allow Trump to win there by dividing the voters most resistant to him. “The middle must consolidate for there to be a center-right candidate” emerging from New Hampshire, says Rath, who’s backing Kasich.