The Republican presidential primaries have become more about voters’ frustration with current GOP leadership and the ideological direction the party should take rather than actually nominating a respectable candidate for president. It’s a conversation party members (not just donors) need to have, and the presidential primary is not necessarily the worst time to have it. The large number of candidates (seventeen at last count) and the hundreds of millions of dollars already flowing into campaigns shows that voters, leaders, and donors see 2016 as a critical moment for the Republican Party.
Republicans, from libertarian-leaners to old-fashioned social conservatives, have made clear that they are frustrated with GOP Congressional leadership – and party leadership as a whole. The presidential race reflects this fact: according to the Real Clear Politics poll aggregate, political outsiders Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina are polling at a combined 38%. Compare that to the three sitting U.S. Senators – Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio who are all first-term conservatives making headlines for being reliable conservatives – whose combined support is just under 20%. Three sitting governors in blue or swing states, Chris Christie, John Kasich, and Scott Walker, have slightly more than 15% combined.
Undoubtedly, the number of candidates complicates the situation. Many voters would be happy with a number of candidates, since several candidates share very similar viewpoints and even experience. And Donald Trump, the current frontrunner, is unlikely to gain strong support from voters current considering the aforementioned candidates once the field starts to dwindle. On the contrary, voters content with an electable conservative will most likely coalesce around a Rubio or Kasich as the field narrows.
These considerations aside, what do we take away from the political outsiders’ successes and the overall campaign itself?
First and foremost, the ideological diversity of the field suggests voters are very divided on policy objectives and priorities, even if they expect serious action from a Republican president and Congress. I have written before about the ideological diversity of Republicans and even conservatives. Republicans have varied views on foreign policy, immigration, civil liberties, and even economic regulation. Some Republicans prioritize controlling spending, others are more concerned with social issues, such as abortion.
For instance, Donald Trump’s outsider status and willingness to speak his mind (see below) have helped tremendously, but his immigration stance has also attracted staunch Republicans. While most Republican candidates have expressed support for tougher border security, Trump has repeatedly called for a mass deportation of illegal immigrants. This has fired up his base but, considering only 31% of Republicans support mass deportation, Trump may turn off a large chunk of the primary electorate.
Some voters have prioritized abortion – especially after the Planned Parenthood videos – and candidates like Carson, Mike Huckabee, and Rick Santorum have been particularly outspoken about curbing abortions. But more New Hampshire primary voters are pro-choice than pro-life, so candidates more focused on economic issues or who are silent on abortion may perform better.
On the economy, voters are certainly divided on issues like free trade and business regulation. Furthermore, most candidates have not released detailed economic plans meaning voters have to separate candidates based on campaign talking points or their political histories. Candidates must start getting specific on budgetary and economic issues. This means developing actual plans to help grow the economy, raise the standard of living, and address specific issues such as college debt.
The other reason for this chaotic campaign is simple: Republicans are very angry with the party establishment, particularly Congressional leaders and the so-called “business wing” of the GOP. The aforementioned outsiders (especially Trump) have succeeded in the early polls because they have no political background and have been vocal critics of the party establishment. They have also received the lion’s share of media coverage, thanks to Trump’s ridiculousness, Fiorina’s early debate victory, and Carson’s focus on the Planned Parenthood videos.
These candidates should be thanking Speaker of the House John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and the GOP establishment in Congress. Boehner’s “favorable” rating among Republicans is a paltry 37% and 42% of Republicans have an unfavorable view of the Speaker. McConnell, less well-known, commands a “favorable” rating from just 34% of Republicans. Congressional leadership has faced serious conservative criticism for its priorities, unwillingness to challenge President Obama, and general dysfunction. (Just ask Mark Levin what he thinks of McConnell’s leadership.)
As a result, well-qualified, but “establishment” candidates have not energized the Republican base. Even the brilliant, consistent conservative Ted Cruz has polled at less than 8% in early polling. On the other hand, Donald Trump, who has only recently converted to conservatism, has belittled women, minorities, and prisoners-of-war and made enough stupid comments for an entire election, commands one-fifth of those polled thanks in part to his willingness to challenge the establishment.
With months left until the Iowa caucuses, candidates have plenty of time to get specific on the issues and convince voters that they will stick to their principles. If candidates want survive past Iowa and New Hampshire, then they need provide voters with their plans and priorities. They need to reassure voters that they will be active in the presidency and committed to key principles. Most importantly, candidates need to communicate that it will not be business as usual in Washington. Of course, voters need to keep the pressure on the candidates – ask tough questions, keep expectations high, and communicate their important values to the Republican field.