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March 05, 2014 5:07 PM The Shifting and Blurring of Factional Lines in the GOP

By Ed Kilgore

I mean to write earlier about a mammoth piece by Henry Olsen in the March-April issue of the National Interest that seeks to make some predictions about the 2016 GOP presidential nominating contest by way of a new typology of the GOP rank-and-file. This is perilous because both predictions and typologies can be slippery matters.

I won’t go through the whole thing (perhaps I’ll give it another look later), but do want to draw attention to one assumption Olsen makes which I consider questionable, amid a lot of useful brain food and polling data about the composition of the GOP in various nominating contest states. His typology of Republicans is broken down into “moderates and liberals,” “somewhat conservative” voters, “very conservative evangelicals,” and “very conservative secular voters.” This last category he more or less identifies with the Tea Party. It’s unclear where highly traditionalist Catholic voters go, but I guess they get to choose.

While Olsen is entirely right that the winnowing process in a crowded presidential field can involve a series of sub-primaries where various factions pick their candidates, it’s less clear to me that they are quite so hermetically sealed. In 2016, he envisions the 2008 and 2012 Iowa winners, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, slugging it out for the “very conservative evangelicals” nod while Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and perhaps others fight it out over Tea Party voters. Particularly in Iowa, these categories significantly overlap. It’s highly debatable to place Ted Cruz into the basket of candidates mainly pursuing “secular” voters, as anyone who has caught his act—much less his father’s act—on the hustings can tell you. And how, exactly, do you pigeon-hole Scott Walker, whose social-issues views are just as conservative as Huckabee’s, and whose donor base greatly overlaps with Tea Party organizations? Is he really a “moderate” or just “somewhat conservative?” Hard to say.

I think Olsen’s typology, while useful for sorting polling data and analyzing past Republican contests, misses the emergence of “constitutional conservatism,” which spans both religious and secular hard-line voters, and also understates the hardening of conservative ideology across all the factions, which vary mostly by degree. The hero of “moderates” and “somewhat conservative voters” in 2012, Mitt Romney, was a lot more conservative than his predecessor John McCain (who beat Romney when the shifty tactician was running as the “movement consservative” candidate). So the lines are shifting and perhaps blurring more than any typology or notion of sub-primaries can entirely comprehend.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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